Story and photos were provided by Paul Van Auken, assistant sociology and environmental studies professor.
A group of 22 students, faculty and other members of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh community recently took a day-long field trip to various sites in northeastern and north-central Wisconsin. Led by sociology and environmental studies professor Paul Van Auken, the trip presented an opportunity to better understand what sustainability means.
The first stop was the College of the Menominee Nation (CMN, www.menominee.edu), located in Keshena, about 70 miles north of Oshkosh on the Menominee reservation. With an enrollment of roughly 550 students, 80 percent of which are American Indians from various tribes, CMN has existed since the early 1990s, and sustainability has been a key tenet from the very beginning.
While UW Oshkosh has become a national leader in the campus sustainability movement, field trip participants seemed to be in consensus that it can learn a great deal from CMN’s comprehensive approach to sustainability, which includes the existence of a Sustainable Development Institute and full-time sustainability coordinator, a requirement for all students to take a course about sustainability and the inclusion of a voluntarily sustainability pledge, which roughly half of the students sign.
“It was founded in a basement. That fact blew my mind,” said Natasha Jones, a UWO student taking the Rural Sociology course who participated in the trip. “They really fought to achieve this school.
“One of the directors of sustainability explained different projects the school does. There was one activity that they were going to go through all the garbage and try to find out what else they can do to keep up with the sustainment of the college community,” she said. “It was interesting that it was not only the employees of the school doing it, but also the students are involved.”
Menominee Tribal Enterprises
From CMN, the group proceeded another 12 miles north to Neopit, the village that is home to Menominee Tribal Enterprises (MTE, http://mtewood.com). World-famous for practicing sustainable forestry for more than 150 years, the Menominee — who have lived in Wisconsin for nearly 10,000 years — have operated a sawmill in Neopit since 1906. Approximately 95 percent of the reservation’s 235,000 acres are forested, and more board feet of timber are now standing than in 1854.
After a presentation at MTE’s headquarters, which included some words of welcome from the firm’s president, discussion of MTE’s operations and overall philosophy — which includes a focus not only on sound economics and environmental conservation, but also on the social well-being of tribal members — continued in the forest, with visits to two forestry sites led by MTE’s forest manager.
“I found that the Native Menominee’s sacrifice for their land was significant,” said UWO student Ted Robbins. “The fact that the people are willing to give up considerable monetary comfort for the preservation of the forest and land is immense. The commitment to an ideal of sustainability in a sense defeats the drive for money. So even though their geographical area can be considered persistent poverty, they may in fact have a greater quality of life and secure a healthier future.”
Van Der Geest Dairy
The UWO contingent then left Menominee Nation and headed about 50 miles northwest to the Wausau area and Van Der Geest Dairy. Milking 3,000 cows three times daily, Van Der Geest is one of the largest dairy operations in the state. With the 4,000-cow Rosendale Dairy being built near Oshkosh, this was an excellent opportunity to evaluate the impact a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) of this magnitude might have on the Oshkosh area and what the continued development of such agribusinesses may mean for Wisconsin. A guided tour of this high tech factory operation by two employees took more than one hour and proved to be very eye-opening and thought-provoking.
“Knowing that the cattle were not allowed ever outside broke my heart,” UWO student Megan Eck said. “I know personally that at smaller farms, cattle are let to graze and feel the dirt beneath their hooves rather than concrete. Also, the number of times the cows are milked per day is not healthy for the cattle.”
Added student Erica Soufal, “The CAFO, although my least favorite stop, was a massive eye opener. It is one thing to hear about how your food is produced; it is quite another to witness it. The living conditions, quality of life and lack of land ethic illustrates that CAFOs are detrimental to society and community.”
The final stop on the sustainability tour was Stoney Acres, a small-scale operation located near Athens, Wis., and about 30 miles from Van Der Geest Dairy. Operated by Tony Schultz and Kat Becker, a husband and wife team in their 20s, Stoney Acres is a third-generation family farm that offers more than 170 different organically grown products — including vegetables, herbs, fruit, maple syrup and grass-fed beef and chicken — through a community-supported agriculture. CSA members “subscribe” to the farm, purchasing shares in exchange for weekly boxes of farm products.
Field trip participants received a guided tour of the farm from the proprietors and were able to sample some of the farm products before getting on the bus for the trip back to Oshkosh.
“I personally want to live or work on a CSA in my lifetime,” said Ross Zimmerman, a student enrolled in the social ecology class that participated in the trip. “It just seems so rewarding. I think it would be awesome to be done with work every day and know that you did something great for your community.”
Covering nearly 300 miles through a variety of beautiful Wisconsin landscapes, the sustainability field trip proved to be a great experience for participants, and there was much to discuss on the two-hour drive back to Oshkosh.
“The important thing is that there are people within our community of Wisconsin that are engaging in sustainability on all levels,” said Robbins. “We witnessed the continuing management of land and dedication of all forms of sustainability by Native Americans on the Menominee reservation. We saw the industrialization of agriculture in a confined agricultural factory operation, and our trip ended with visiting a fully functioning community supported agricultural site.
“Clearly, returning to nature requires a lot of elbow grease and that sustainability requires dedication greater than simply recycling now and then,” he said.
Photo: Menominee Tribal Enterprises Forest Manager Marshall Pecore describes sustainable yield forestry to field trip participants from within a white pine stand in the Menominee forest.