Marie Raboin on what Wisconsin farmers need to protect water
If you’ve ever dreamt of quitting your job and moving to the country to make apple cider and raise goats, Marie Raboin’s life may look pretty ideal.
Marie owns Brix Cider with her husband, Matt, makes hard cider, serves local food through their restaurant, and she advocates for sustainable agriculture through her day job as a conservation specialist for the Dane County Land and Water Division.
She will be the first to admit her limitations. With a degree in soils and agroecology, she can’t grow a garden. In spite of cider sales, she isn’t an expert in orchard cultivation. Though she feels the sadness of losing a pregnant ewe or the difficult decision to harvest a mean goat, it all evens out when she experiences the peace and joy of her farm.
“Being around animals is the ultimate in calming,” Marie said. “It’s restorative to stand in my barn and have my cows come up for a nuzzle or to have goats nibble on my gloves. I can stand in my barn after an awful day and feel better.”
Marie attributes a lot of her success to her strong network of fellow farmers and small business owners who nimbly navigate growing and selling in the upper Midwest.
“I’m lucky to get to live out my personal mission daily at home and at work with the Dane County Land and Water Division. That’s where I get to help farmers do the best they can do with the resources they have. At the end of the day, I get to own this business that promotes good work and pays people for their good work when I buy products from farmers and food manufacturers that share my same personal mission for Wisconsin agriculture. We can support our neighbors.”
In the many years she has dedicated to understanding agricultural systems, Marie is acutely aware of what small businesses owners and farmers have in common. They have to take risks. They depend on the people who buy their products. And they have to work within constraints to make decisions for the survival of their families and their businesses.
“I’ve never met a farmer who wants to do harm or is intentionally degrading resources. It’s just a matter of being under different constraints that make us make different decisions. We all face health, time, and financial constraints. We all make decisions to survive. I would never look down on anyone for making a decision. Now if I can help in those decisions, and help them have better choices, I’m all for that. We’re all working within constraints.”
Her understanding of these constraints and of the farmers who choose a path towards conservation practices in agriculture is why Mike Tiboris, River Alliance of Wisconsin’s Agriculture and Policy Director, asked her to be a part of discussions to form our Wisconsin Agricultural Agenda last year. When she’s invited to share what she has learned from farmers, Marie tends to take a role she describes as “farmer defender.”
“I know we aren’t moving the needle on soil and water conservation fast enough, but I tend to, at least in those meetings, defend what I think farmers are doing that is good, where I think they are going, and how we can continue to support the innovators.”
She has seen firsthand how change in agriculture is slow, but when given the opportunity to be creative, farmers can be incredibly innovative. She calls producer-led watershed groups supported by Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection a shining beacon of agricultural innovation in soil and water conservation in large part due to the social connections they forge.
“I am a firm believer that conservation is more of a social issue than anything. We are a social science working in a hard science field. The relationships farmers have with each other go farther than research papers on cover crops or agronomics. It’s about people making social decisions for their business, family and community.
“Unfortunately, farmers have been given a recipe from agribusiness to grow corn, soy, and milk without a lot of room for creativity. Yet they thrive and have fun when given the space to be more creative in the way they manage their crops and animals. Producer-led groups bring that out in fellow farmers. It’s a space where they can do things that are different and not feel self conscious about being different.”
All of the conversations Marie has about conservation in farming tend to come to the same conclusions: the playing field is not equal.
She says that the way our agricultural system is structured – through subsidy programs, extreme debt loads, and how farmers are paid – farms that are using practices like managed grazing that benefit our water resources aren’t being compensated for their costs, time, and continuing education despite going above and beyond for our environment.
The producer-led groups are a salve for the stress of working for innovative water and soil protection practices within a broken system.
“The more we relieve stress from farmers, the more time and space they have to make better decisions. No one wants soil to move from their field. They know soil is money. Research and understanding of economics are important but at the end of the day, if we don’t have a good social structure or if they can’t share with each other, science alone can’t get nitrates out of groundwater. Farmers need support in making conservation management decisions on their farms.”
– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
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