On a fall day in southwest Wisconsin, 32 people gathered at Branches Winery to explore the current and future state of agriculture in the region. The group was there for more than just the free lunch and fine wine. Farmers, entrepreneurs, public health professionals, county and city staff, leaders of non-profit organizations, educators, agriculture professionals, and government officials came together as a part of Grassland 2.0’s Ridge and Valley Learning Hub.
“With Grassland 2.0, there is a diversity of people—business owners (farmers included), community leaders, students, teachers, residents—coming together for a unified purpose,” says Christina Dollhausen, Economic Development and Tourism Coordinator of Vernon County. “We all have different beliefs and political mantras, but this unified purpose of taking care of our land, water, and soil is something we all can believe in.”
Dollhausen and others of the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub gathered to interrogate results from interviews in the region and envision what they want from this rural landscape, the ridges and valleys of the Vernon, Crawford, and Monroe County region.
“Something that came up in every interview is how this is a unique place in the state,” says Grassland 2.0’s Gabriela Martinez Motta, “because of topography and community.”
Martinez Motta along with local watershed planner Monique Hassman had already done the legwork of collecting many of the voices of the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub on paper. They conducted 27 interviews this spring at kitchen tables, coffee shops, and picnic tables, in barns, pastures, and offices, on couches and on the phone. Each interview lasted 1 to 3 hours. Martinez Motta and Hassman invited each interviewee to the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub event at Branches so that they could hear the assembly of voices, their own included, reflected back to them.
“Personally and professionally the interview process was more enlightening than I could have imagined,” said Hassman in her introduction to the group. “I said to you in each one of those interviews that there would be a community convening where we would share back what we learned. It’s a one-way street if we just conduct an interview and extract information. When we present back to you some feedback, it can be mutually beneficial; it can inform the work that you do in the communities in which you serve.”
Four themes resounded throughout the interviews: Water, Farming, Health, and Community. Hassman described the themes as “threads of continuity between conversations.” The themes were illustrated by Grassland 2.0 designers and displayed at the event on three panels: The Story of Now, The Story of the Future, and Pathways to Change.
At round tables, small groups discussed what they saw on each panel. Participants supported and revised key points within and across each theme, conversed in small groups, then reported to the larger group what they would change or keep the same.
Many attendees noted the interconnectedness of the region’s central topics. “We all want clean water, and farming practices have a lot to do with keeping it clean,” said Lorn Goede, Chairperson of the Vernon County Board of Supervisors and organic farmer.
With so many factors involved, how can the people of the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub move toward what they want to see from agriculture? How can transformational change happen on a landscape level? This Ridge and Valley Learning Hub event was one element of a process called Collaborative Landscape Design, Grassland 2.0’s approach to framing conversations about how communities can make transformational change for both individual and public good. Collaborative Landscape Design is an iterative process with five primary elements: connecting people, envisioning novel landscapes, designing supply chains, planning enterprises, and incentivizing change.
“To have a wide set of perspectives come together in one room and work together to develop a vision of where they want to take things in the Ridge and Valley is an important step,” says John Strauser, Grassland and Perennial Agriculture Outreach Specialist and Learning Hub Coordinator with Grassland 2.0. “Connecting people and perspectives is a fundamental aspect of our place-based Collaborative Landscape Design. From these conversations that transcend social divides it becomes clear that people in the Ridge and Valley see that they have a unique place with an opportunity for a diversity of agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation.”
This event encompassed two elements of Collaborative Landscape Design: connecting people and envisioning novel landscapes. Before Thanksgiving, the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub will meet again and together they will distill further the requests of this community. Next step: an action plan. In the meantime, the process will continue cultivating input, hearing from as many voices as possible, about their wants and needs from agriculture, the land, and communities in the Ridge and Valley region.
“There has been incredible creativity, ingenuity, imagination, and deep knowledge that informs this moment today of this Collaborative Landscape Design,” said Hassman at the event.
Grassland 2.0’s Learning Hubs facilitate open, place-based dialogue. If you’d like to join the conversation with the Ridge and Valley Learning Hub or any of the four other Learning Hubs, contact John Strauser at email@example.com.