Greening Greater Racine, a group focused on solving a number of environmental issues facing our community, and Visioning a Greater Racine, a group dedicated to helping the community transform itself, remind me of many of the same themes the farming community went through in the 1980s and early 1990s.
I find the debate over climate change a futile one and it seems to be an intentional diversion to undermine the green movement by some in our community to maintain the status quo. But I also see these conversations starting to change. So if we all agree that there are people in our community that are hungry and need access to healthy food, and property owners could benefit from reducing their energy usage — those are powerful statements that allow us to devise solutions to these problems.
So the movement here in Racine towards becoming a sustainable and green community is important work as our city recovers from losing so many manufacturing jobs. That work defined Racine in so many ways and psychologically we have not recovered from that loss. And while manufacturing is still important here, the percentage of people working in manufacturing has declined and will likely continue to decline as pressure from globalization and mechanization reduce the need for labor.
That’s why we need to keep inventing new versions of our community to stay viable… and that’s where I see familiar territory in my past life.
My first writing gig in college 25 years ago was writing about farming for a newspaper called the Fireland’s Farmer and I also freelanced for the Daily Record in Wooster, Ohio. We didn’t have a big farm, but we raised about 300 hogs a year. My dad worked full-time for the telephone company so we never fully relied on the farm as our sole source of income. But after watching many of my neighbors auction off their family farms during the 1980s, I found myself writing a lot about how farmers could survive as agribusiness made family farming irrelevant.
This is much like Racine’s relationship with manufacturing, but the sustainable farming movement allowed farmers to recreate themselves and their community.
Embracing sustainable farming practices meant that farmers needed to acknowledging that they were no longer dairy farmers or beef producers that supplied traditional markets, but they needed to understand and accept that they were still assets in the food production industry. One speaker compared it to buggy whip manufacturing. He said the reason you don’t have buggy whip manufacturers isn’t because they weren’t good at making them, but that those buggy whip manufacturers failed to adapt and accept that they were in the transportation industry.
All of this talk about becoming more efficient and/or growing food to meet a niche market to reflect market needs and wants… now that was pretty blasphemous talk in a conservative town that was one of the highest dairy producing counties in the state of Ohio. And a number of farmers just sold off their farms and moved to the city. But some did not and I remember writing about Harold Hartzler, a dairy farmer who — even back in the 1950s — knew organic farming was the way to go. However, his vision included a store, an instant marketplace for his goods and that’s how Hartzler Ice Cream shop began in the early 1990s.
When I wrote the story this is the quote that really solidified his decision. He was committed to farming, but he wanted to control his own destiny and organic farming helped him accomplish that.
“It was the Lord’s leading, but I brought everyone together and basically said we are farmers raising a good product without using anything harmful. In fact, we have a superior product in our milk that no one else is offering around here. We should be selling it ourselves to the community,” he remembers.
So as the greater Racine area starts to dream again, I remember Harold and how he made a conscious decision to control his own destiny by creating his own marketplace. And I think about the risk he took as he watched so many of his neighbors fail at operating a sustainable business. He decided to commit himself to “making a good product,” but he also committed to a way of life. And I believe Racine can and should do the same.
Don’t get me wrong, what my neighbors went through was a painful process. Their identity had be ripped away from them and they were left with the question: What good am I, if I can’t….?
And that yielded to the question: What if I…?
Racine needs to ask the same of itself.