a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Michael: Hi Dick. This is Michael McDermott. We met when I first was interested in obtaining grass-fed beef from your operation, but I’ve learned since then that there’s much more to the story than just that. And what I’d like to do today is to take a pretty broad view of certain things and then narrow it down. I live in the Driftless area along with you, and there’s very special arrangements. Can you describe what the Driftless area is and how that affects watersheds? And then we’ll get into talking about Lowery Creek. But gimme just a brief overview.
Dick: Oh yes, absolutely Michael, and thank you very much for the opportunity to speak with you. I respect your work and your voice, and I appreciate you wanting and asking to hear from me. I’ve been in this area since 1967 when my family purchased this farm. I traveled away from here for education and to work overseas, but returned back in 1986 to build the business that my wife and I have been at ever since, and now it’s being run by our son and his wife, Eric and Kiley Cates. The Driftless area has tremendous meaning to me. 85% of the driftless area is in Wisconsin, a little bit is in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. But, all of the Pleistocene glaciers for the past 2 million years missed this area. It was a little higher to the east. There was the Lake Michigan basin and similarly sloping to the west. And this area was missed by glacial ice. And therefore this is Driftless. Drift is the stone and rock that glaciers push. And so we have a very old landscape, millions of years of sedimentary rock, which has been formed by water moving from high places to low places. So it’s a very hilly, a very picturesque, a very unique part of the world, which we farm in, and we feel very blessed to be part of this place
Michael: How does the Driftless area affect watershed?
Dick: In the Driftless area there are no lakes, no standing water except in the wetlands, which there’s plenty of. But all of the water emerges as groundwater at some point as springs, and then that water moves in creeks and streams and rivers southward downslope, eventually connecting with the Wisconsin River, and then eventually to the Mississippi River. But this groundwater is the source of the 13,000 miles of freshwater cold-water streams in the Driftless area of Wisconsin.
Michael: Wow. Well, that’s exactly what I was interested in. Wow. I didn’t know that number. Brigit Rest is the home of the Black Earth Institute; we’re about 10 miles into the Driftless area and I got interested in parts of this. We have a discussion group about rivers and I was given the opportunity to present on watersheds and I talked about my little creeks, East Blue Mounds Creek and Vermont Creek. But I think you’re a little deeper into it. I’ve been to the Cates Family Farm several times with interns, and we talked about brook trout. Why are they important? What’s the story with brook trout?
Dick: Brook trout have been here as long as the cold-water streams have been in place. We have about three and a half miles of the 15-mile Lowery Creek—a main channel and a part of one of the two tributaries—that runs through our farm. It is the brook trout that is native to these cold waters.
These waters are cold enough that other species of fish that may be introduced often don’t survive. There isn’t a sufficient variety of food in these cold waters for most introduced fish. So it’s the native brook trout that were here for millennia that are back again! And what makes this very special is that during the agricultural boom years, beginning about 1855 when our valley was settled by European immigrants, farming practices were very poor and soil ran off the hillsides from plowing up and down the hills or from overgrazing on the steep slopes. It made the water muddy brown and warm—and the brook trout couldn’t survive. The rainfall runoff overwhelmed the groundwater, and so the streams warmed up and the brook trout went away.
And throughout my entire life, up until 2015, this stream was stocked with brown trout, which is an introduced species. But once we started improving the land management through managed grazing on our grasslands, it kept the rainwater in place, let it all soak through the soil and come out as cold, clear groundwater.
As luck would have it, a few brook trout, it turns out, had managed to survive in little pools in the headwaters, and they started to reemerge into the stream channels. And the fascinating story is that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, through tissue sampling, has determined that the genetics of the brook trout in our stream are indeed the heritage genetics. In other words, they don’t match anything that they’ve been raising in their fish hatcheries in Madison and around the state since the late 1800s. So it’s a very cool story.
Michael: Wow. So you’re telling me that when European settlers came, their farming practices and the runoff thereby made the streams into dark brown, warm water, and that was unfavorable. I’m very interested. Tell me more about the present practices that you’ve done to make the creek run clear and cold.
Dick: Sure, you bet. When we took this farm over from the Stapleton family, we continued the practices that they had been following. And those were the practices that all European immigrants utilized. Grazing was done in an unmanaged fashion. The cattle mostly went where they wanted to. Or we’d hold ’em in a particular place too long because we didn’t have adequate fencing, or we had other chores to do. And in 1988, we learned about a practice termed in those days “Intensive Rotational Grazing.” But what it is, in essence, is a biomimicry, or a biomimic of the way that large predator herds move across grasslands, all across planet earth.
The best example in North America are the bison. The bison moved in response to fire, in response to rainfall, and, significantly in response to predation. Wolves kept them bunched and moving, and the plains, the grasslands across the world have depended on grazers and that disturbance for their long-term health.
Once we realized that there was a way to do this, to raise livestock in a way that enhanced the ecosystem, we became excited, and we put it into full force. And so in 1988 we started. You can see we’ve been at it for 35 years. And what that has done, it has opened the soil up in terms of allowing it to be more porous for water to infiltrate. We leave the grass long, we never take it short. That reduces the impact of rainfall, so it can land softly onto the soil, and then have time to permeate. It also keeps the livestock out of the water course, out of the streams because they have a nice lush place to lay and ruminate. So there’s a whole suite of practices that go into what we now just call “managed grazing.”
And, the way we say it, is that rather than paying more money for steel and chemicals, we pay more attention to how we handle the livestock, and it’s made all the difference.
Michael: So what I’m hearing is that changes in the soil, changes in the grass, changes where the cattle go, all contribute to a more clear runoff when it reaches the streams. And Lowery Creek then has changed tremendously, I think in the time that you’ve changed the grazing practices, is that the case?
Dick: Yes, yes. And in fact, we get very little runoff, because the tall grasses, the open soil, the lack of muddy stream banks allows for most of the rainwater, unless it’s a terrible deluge, to soak in and never leave the soil surface, never run off. It runs through, and so when it comes out in the ground as groundwater eventually through the cracks in the sedimentary bedrock, it comes out cold and clear.
And, that makes all the difference. But I do want to be completely truthful. It’s not just our farm that has changed and improved our land use. We have the most wonderful neighbors, and each one of our neighbors has put into practice land use activities that work for them.
That may be planting prairie, that may be using cover crops between corn and soybeans or vegetables, using no tillage, and keeping farming activities further away from the stream bank. We have formed a group called the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative where we learn from each other how to live in this very sensitive and very special landscape by protecting our waters.
Michael: I’m very impressed by what you say. I live in an area near you where the farms are threatened. We only have a few full farms left in the Town of Vermont, and in the back of my mind, I kind of wonder how difficult it is to get people to do these things. I hear phrases like “no-till” or “cover crops,” but I don’t know how the struggling farmers thus pressured are responsive. How is that going that you got people to do this, or they did it on their own?
Dick: Yes. Well, thank you. That’s a very involved question of course, and a set of responses. But, in essence, we are a township like you are Michael. We don’t have a lot of farmers left, and those that are, I think they recognize that they need to do something significant to protect the landscape, because other folks look, other folks observe, and so there’s something of a community pressure. It’s a good thing, where you learn from each other. But, we have some tremendously successful farmers here who utilize no-till, cover crops, and crop rotation. And by that, I mean more than crop rotation between corn and soybeans. I mean, significant diversity and–
Michael: (laughs) I didn’t know there was anything between corn and soybean.
Dick: Yeah. Right, right. And managed grazing is used for livestock production. It’s a learning curve, most farmers who adopt these methods find that they’re enjoyable, and that they are more productive in the long term. For a lot of folks it’s a matter of making the leap of faith to begin with.
Michael: Well, I was initially intrigued by this, by the story about the brook trout and the fact that as the Lowery Creek has become more clear, more cold, how well they’ve done. But, I can see now that the issue really is much broader, in the sense that farming practices, cultivation practices that were difficult from the time of European settlement have changed, at least in the immediate area, and the result of that is a tremendous change in the creeks. And we’ll see what happens to the water. I think what I wanted to explore then is sort of the length of Lowery Creek. The Cates Family Farm is up near the origin, and certainly along some of the main parts of it high up there. What happens when the creek gets lower? And, I think there’s a little bit of controversy as it enters the Wisconsin River. You wanna tell me about that?
Dick: Sure! It turns out that as the crow flies, in the old saying, we’re about halfway on the main channel of Lowery Creek, and so we have farming activities above us and there are some below us. The water is crystal clear. Colder than all get out. Below the state-mandated level for phosphorus, almost undetectable nitrogen level, and very high oxygen content here at our farm. As you go downstream the two tributaries and the main channel converge. The water is still very, very high quality. They run together across the Taliesin preserve, the Taliesin landscape, and there has been for a long time there, since the early 1900s, a pond that has collected water. And then leaving the pond by spilling over the outflow and going, oh gee, just a quarter mile or so before Wisconsin River.
Ultimately a pond becomes a source of legacy nutrients. In other words, for many, many years, silt deposits in a pond, and that silt has things like phosphorus, and that’s the principle concern. And so, the soil in the bottom of the pond is a source of nutrients. An example is northeast of Madison, the Yahara watershed, they’ve gone to tremendous expense to excavate soil that has settled in places that is a source of this legacy phosphorus. So, anytime you have a pond, eventually you get a build up, and then what comes out the other end of the pond can at times be high in phosphorus particularly.
But our story’s more complex than that. We also have a sanitary district. So we have a sewage plant that also drops into the Wisconsin River at the very end of Lowery Creek. That point source, effluent, is higher in phosphorus than what the state would like it to be. It’s significantly higher than what the Lowery Creek levels of phosphorus and nitrogen are. And so we’re engaged in activity to try and offset that effluent, and that’s a whole fascinating adventure that we’ve started. But that’s part of the story.
Michael: I have to ask, was the pond developed under the leadership of Mr. Wright?
Dick: Honestly, I don’t know the history. Ponds are wonderful, you know for bird life and for beauty but the reality is that vegetation grows up, vegetation dies, silt deposits, and so you end up with an accumulation of things that can be in excess… It just becomes something one has to deal with.
Michael: I am very impressed by the discussion, by the description of things that flow into the waters and things that don’t flow into the waters, whether they seep into the ground or not. And, this question of watersheds and all the various things that flow into it, the role of farming, the role of housing is something that affects watersheds and rivers everywhere. And I think the example from Lowery Creek really helps us to see that. What are some of the– when you walk along the creek, what do you feel or see or think?
Dick: Sure. Yeah, that’s been a fascinating opportunity for learning. What I see and recognize is that this waterway has been the highway from the Wisconsin River up to the highlands about 550 feet elevation difference for millennia. We now have an artifact site that’s registered with the Smithsonian Institute up at the headwaters of Lowery Creek, where we found spearpoints that are 10,000 years old, all the way up to arrowheads, which are just 500 years old. So, when I walk this water course, I realize that I am one in a long march of history. The sentient beings that moved along here, beginning with the mammoth and the mastodon, and as the climate changed we had bison and elk and deer. The hunters that followed them have walked along this creek for those thousands of years.
I could have reach out and waved to all the people who have, I’m imagining, passed here for the past 10,000 years at least. And with a few quick steps, I could be out there with them. I mean, it’s just a fascinating imagery.
The creek has been here all that time and more. It’s our oldest neighbor. Three hundred million years ago, the oceans that had been in place for so long began receding, and rainwater started carving these hills. And so Lowery Creek has been there a very, very long time and I’m very much aware of that.
When I walk along the stream now, our grazing management keeps the stream banks well sodded, well grass covered, and that’s part of what is really the key. Whenever there’s a storm, or snow melt in the spring and water rushes, some erosion happens, it is a natural phenomenon. That’s how these water courses are shaped. But too much erosion, or erosion as a result of mistreatment of the landscape, is a negative thing. So when I walk along these streams, they’re covered in grass again, the banks are in grass, and that holds them in place.
And I know that that’s what my predecessors saw as they walked, for the many millennia prior to European farming. So, this was a grassland, this was an oak savanna. This was a perennialized landscape for all those millennia.
It’s only the last 170 years that it changed and started to be plowed up or overgrazed. I’m a soil scientist and I’ve taken a lot of time to look at what we have here. And so, believe it or not, Michael, there’s two feet of soil that has come down from the highlands, the higher part of this Lowery Creek watershed, and it has settled here in our valley. Two feet just in the last 170 years from poor European farming practices. I found wood pieces in the soil profile down about five feet deep that were almost 6,000 years old. So, soil had deposited a couple feet in 6,000 years, and then the last couple feet in just 170 years.
So, we were doing something wrong. But now, I’m very pleased that we’ve turned the landscape back to what it wants to be, to a perennialized and diversified landscape that will stay healthy and productive and a remain a lovely home for many more generations to come.
Michael: And then, what we see then are clear running streams, re-establishment of brook trout in this case, and running down and, you know, we’ll deal with the complications as it enters the Wisconsin River as another project. But the creek itself, and I’m sure other creeks in the area, have been made to run clear, clean, and free, and I think that’s a big accomplishment. We’re kind of running out of time, I think here. Do you have any things that you’d like to share with us at the end here?
Dick: Sure. Thank you. On January 1st, 2001, Lowery Creek was named a class 1 trout stream. There’s a lot of class one trout streams across the Driftless area, but what makes our stream so special is that we are just one of three streams, and again, out of 13,000 miles of cold-water streams, one of three that has the heritage brook trout genetics. And the fish numbers, population is high enough that folks from the DNR come here and harvest the spawn, fertilize it, and raise fingerlings at the Madison Nevin Fish Hatchery to stock in other streams across the Driftless Area. So Lowery has become really a very special place.
Michael: Well, I really appreciate the work that y’all have done and the insights that you’re providing to us. And, I’ll look forward to visiting again with our summer interns.
Dick: I love having you as we always do.
Michael: Okay, Dick, I’ll let you know how this goes. Thank you very much. Take care.
Dick: Thank you.
Dick Cates is a farmer, teacher, and activist with a PhD in social science from the University of Wisconsin. Since 1987 he has managed the Cates Family Farm on 300 acres, 125 acres of which is now managed grasslands that he see as his first responsibility; following such management, the Cates Family farm raises grass-fed beef. Dick and his wife Kim who ran the farm have passed such management to their son Erik and his wife Kylie. Dick is active in and awarded by many local environmental and land organizations including Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Lowery Creek Watershed Initiative. He has been awarded by the American Farm Bureau for teaching young farmers better techniques and values. He has published Voices from the Heart of the Land with the University of Wisconsin Press, which describes stories of local people and how they have lived on the land over the years.