2010 Badger Bioneers
These are Sustain Dane's 2010 Badger Bioneers. From the farm to city government, they each have a different approach to inspiring change but have all proven themselves to be leaders in sustainability in the Madison region.
“I don’t spend a lot of time looking at other cities,” Jay Allen admits. He laces his fingers together behind his head and leans back in his office chair. “I do spend a lot of time talking with people living around here,” he adds. The first-term mayor speaks purposefully.
His office is no-frills: A plain and uncluttered desk, wall-to-wall gray carpeting. The lights are turned off, with only dim natural light spilling into the room. Only two pictures line the walls—an aerial photo of Fitchburg and a Dane County road map. Besides a few dissembled Legos left from his children and scattered on a table, there is little evidence that much is happening here. But those demure surroundings are profoundly misleading.
After a decade-plus stint on city council, Allen was elected to mayor in 2009. In suburban communities like Fitchburg, values tended more towards big houses, commuting and easy consumerism, and Mayor Allen admits that he isn’t naturally disposed to environmental sustainability and it wasn’t something that he first campaigned for.
“It’s not something that I feel like I was born with,” he says calmly. “My thinking has changed.”
“I don’t know that I’m really out here on the cutting edge of doing new and different things. But I am here at a time and place where some things that I think are important are easier to do because people are thinking that way.”
Whether or not Mayor Allen is leading the town of 20,000 or simply following the residents’ changing attitudes, he has been at the helm for a period of time when Fitchburg has made major advances toward sustainable practices—major, game-changers like overhualing transportation systems and land use plans (including enacting the highest standard in Dane County to reduce phosphorous runoff and quadrupling building code setbacks from wetlands).
Currently, Mayor Allen is championing an idea that may become his legacy. He hopes to install massive solar panels on the city’s new library and install geothermal heating systems, an act that will put Fitchburg on the sustainability map as the only net-zero energy civic library in the country.
On the edge of the Capitol Square, is the new Madison Children’s Museum: A Depression-era building that has been dramatically transformed into a cathedral to sustainability, a fun and ecologically responsible venue built with recycle materials. And, at the center of this vision and project is Brenda Baker, Exhibits Director for the past 16 years at the Children’s Museum. An artist herself, Baker has been moving forward ideas for sustainability throughout her tenure.
For Baker, the recognition that museums could be designed differently began with an acknowledgment about children’s health. When the museum was installing carpeting at its old location, she was informed that the glues and fumes might necessitate staff leaving the building.
She recalls thinking: “What a minute. This is really silly. Let’s try to make this space using only healthy materials.” And so they did, becoming the first children’s museum in the country to install soft wood flooring instead. “We had the opportunity to do things differently,” she concludes.
That small adjustment and allocation for children’s well-being has led to a massive change in protocol and mindset—and, yes, in part, has led to milk-based paint on the walls around the new four-story space as well as an entirely different approach to building and managing children museums.
“The sustainability effort for museums started with recognizing that early childhood immune systems are not yet fully developed,” explains Brenda Baker modestly.
The entire project, a four-year undertaking, was done with sustainability and healthiness as its driving force. In a fashion, the building itself is recycled; the old Montgomery Ward department store. But that is only scratching the (milk-based painted) surface: Fire hoses from the old building were transformed into benches and glass turned into display cases. And the building pulled donations from around the city: There is a jungle gym built with broom handles from a local janitorial company and a greenhouse on the rooftop was brought in from a residential house in Shorewood. In fact, nearly all of the materials come from within 100 miles from the museum’s site, like, as Baker points out, the flooring on the second story is built entirely from a Milwaukee high school basketball court that otherwise would have ended up in a dumpster.
A decade ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a bookie who would have taken the bet that Bartlett Durand would land in rural Wisconsin, managing the last-standing independent meat cutter in Dane County—for god sake, he grew up in air-conditioned, suburban Memphis, about as far-flung from a slaughterhouse as a Yankee is from Dixie, and, well, after all, he was a sworn vegetarian for 15 years.
But this is where he is: The president for Black Earth Meats, supplying locally-grown steak to top-shelf restaurants in Madison, a source for perhaps the best hamburger meat in a 250 mile radius and, more broadly, trying to organize investment strategies to support infrastructure for southern Wisconsin’s small farms.
Food has always been an important shaping force in Durand’s life. “Memphis,” he asserts, talking about his childhood home, “is really is all about Elvis and barbecue.” But that type of prideful regionalism waned throughout his childhood in the 70s and 80s, especially as fast food chains like McDonalds multiplied in popularity. “If you are a chain,” explains Durand, “you don’t want one menu in the eastern region and a different on the west coast. And, once you commercialize it,” he adds, “that sense of culture starts to disintegrate. How is it I can go into a place, order a fresh salad and expect it to taste the same?”
Even his decision to move back to Wisconsin, where he attended for his undergraduate degree, was predicated on considerations about food. He quips that the chapter just before moving to Wisconsin ended four years ago and 7000 miles from here, when he was living in Hawaii, working as a civil rights litigator (“good guy stuff,” he assures) and realizing exactly what island life meant: Every time that gas prices surged, he and his wife would watch as stores sold out of toilet paper, with residents fearful that tankers wouldn’t deliver supplies—or, that higher gas prices would push the prices out of reach.
“The same thing happened with food,” he adds. “It was insanity.” Once they had their son, the couple began shopping around for some place new to live. They looked around the country, and southern Wisconsin kept coming up first—for recreational opportunities, for schools, and especially for the richness of food varieties—almost the complete opposite of Hawaii’s isolation. Not to mention, he points out, his father-in-law owns Otter Creek Organic Farm and offered his wife a great opportunity to drive forward their marketing.
Kate Heiber-Cobb describes sheet mulching and lasagna gardening like foodies talk dinner options--with great enthusiasm and a spot-on understanding of how the ingredients of each nourish. The energy in her voice as she describes her work as founder of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild is rooted in her passion for creating resilient communities. And like the permaculture concept that connects things together like water, food and waste systems to create sustainability, Kate affects environmental change by connecting disciplines as a teacher, a designer, a consultant and a self-described eclectic eco-feminist witch (as a student of non-convention, Kate learned about permaculture through Starhawk, a California-based leader in modern earth-based spirituality). She received her Permaculture Design Certificate and Advanced Certificate through Midwest Permaculture and has since been teaching others to link their resources to solve their own water and land issues, like building swales and berms to collect rain which in turn nurtures a sustainable water garden.
But Kate’s curriculum vitae doesn’t stop with her hands in the dirt. Her activism is linked to numerous campaigns to mobilize environmental, social and economic change in the area. She leads a movement to establish permaculture principles in urban landscapes and spearheaded the first Wisconsin-based Transition Town Training in 2010. She also serves as co-leader of the Town & Country Resource, Conservation and Development Water Issues Team, is on the Advisory Board of the Edgewood College Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Course, is a core member of Madison Fruits & Nuts and Transition Madison Area. Plus she is in the process of bringing Food Forests here in collaboration with the Madison Area Community Land Trust, is involved in the Fungus Underground and the Clean Vilas Beach Coalition.
And if that isn’t enough, Kate brought the first Permaculture Design Certificate Course to Madison in 2009, is a member of The Natural Step Monona and, we are proud to say, served on a planning committee with Sustain Dane to bring the first Satellite Bioneers Conference to Madison in 2009.
Kate’s vision has helped solve ground and water issues around the Madison area at places like Community Ground Works (Troy Community Gardens) and Fitchburg Fields, and will soon be felt at The Madison Waldorf School. What motivates her? “My belief in the solutions and in permaculture principles, its ethics and methodology, and my love of people and community...it sure isn’t the money.”
Theresa Marquez became an activist by default. Reared by a socially conscientious mother who sewed money into seams of used clothes she sent to cousins in Poland, Theresa learned big heartedness. Her mother, the daughter of a dairy farmer, also taught Theresa to garden and cook and can because that’s what the middle child of eight did. When she became a “hippie disinheriter” as a teen, she didn’t stray too far from her mother’s pedagogy, like when she worked in a natural food co-op where she learned about sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate. But it was reading Robert Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming Gardening and Francis Moore Lappe’sDiet for Small Planet that set her course forever as a food activist.
As Chief Marketing Executive for the largest organic farm cooperative in the United States, Theresa still isn’t far from her mother’s influence. At Organic Valley, Theresa promotes the labor of over 1600 family farmers across America, all of whom own a piece of the rock. She does it so affectively, she’s helped grow the company from $5 million to $520 million.
Theresa has served on the Board of Directors of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and The Organic Center for Promotion & Education, a non profit organization dedicated to proving the benefits of organic. She has also served on the Oregon Tilth Certification Advisory Board. She’s been a guest speaker at numerous events and conferences including the Natural Products Expos, National Nutritional Foods Association, American Marketing Association, Organic Trade Association, Food Marketing Institute, and WKKF Foundation. In addition she pioneered the Food Alliance eco-label and is currently working hard to start a new national tradition – The Earth Dinner. Most recently, Theresa was awarded the Organic Trade Association’s notable 2010 Leadership Award for 2010 for her tireless work to advance the organic industry in her lifetime.
What motivates her? “I’m working for a cooperative that’s owned by farmers with a high mission and I’m very thankful I have this meaningful work. The plight of family farmers in the US is very difficult and if there’s some place I can apply any talents that I have, this is a good place.”
The city of Madison consumes a lot of stuff. Monette McGuire is the person who buys it. No small job there. As Buyer for the City of Madison, Monette coordinates and implements the procurement of purchasing and contracting functions of the organization. And a big part of what she does is to strategize ways to use public funds in a fiscally responsible, ethical and sustainable fashion, like leading discussions and procedures in the direction of greening the City’s cleaning program, printing functions, electronic purchasing and waste management.
Monette advances the Madison’s commitment to creating an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable capital city, such as promoting policies that include purchasing 100% post consumer recycled paper, remanufactured toner, furniture, office supplies, maintenance and repair operation supplies. She has also led a campaign to phase out the city’s use of plastic water bottles and to promote the importance of its strong public water system.
Monette’s best business practices are far-reaching. She serves on the Board of the Sweat-Free Purchasing Consortium, a national collaboration of public purchasing officials and labor experts whose mission is to end public purchasing from sweatshops.
As President of the Wisconsin Association of Public Purchasers (WAPP), a chapter of the National Institute of Government Purchasing (NIGP), she leads the organization in its charge to build professional competency of its members and uphold the highest ethical, transparent and responsible standards of the public procurement profession.
When Monette isn’t turning “recycle, restore or reuse” into the city’s everyday consumption nomenclature, you might find her “retuning and rekindling inspiration by jamming with a really bad girls band.”
Aldo Leopold said the risk of not owning a farm is believing that breakfast comes from the grocer. Tim Metcalfe is one grocer Leopold might have invited out to The Shack. Metcalfe uses best business practices in every area of his Metcalfe’s Markets located in Madison at Hilldale Shopping Mall and in Wauwatosa. They include a shout out to the local people who grow, raise and produce his inventory, and he does it loudly--for their sake and the sake of his customers who want to know their farmer and buy local. Signs attached to each item give its vital statistics: farm or place of origin and carbon footprint in miles. And we’re talking hundreds of sources, farms like Otter Creek and Jordandal, markets like Black Earth Meats, bakers like Potters and Madison Sourdough, and Wisconsin artisan cheeses--Hooks, Carrs, Dreamfarm--so plentiful they demand a department of their own.
Move to the deli and Metcalfe has Home Grown Wisconsin and Slow Food Madison co-founder Leah Caplan in the chef’s hat which means she’s sourcing local ingredients to make scratch deli dishes so fresh it sometimes requires a trip to the Westside Farmers’ Market in the Hilldale parking lot for a box of cucumbers.
And with the sustainable seafood issue a debate starter, Metcalfe works with FishWise sustainable seafood program to give his customers a range of choices: green labels mark the highest level of sustainability, yellow mark methods somewhere in between and red raises the flag on conventionally farmed and harvested. His hope is that customers will raise the bar on sustainable fishing methods through their own purchasing decisions.
And renewable energy is no small issue. Metcalfe uses a lot of juice to keep is store lit and at temperatures that keep food fresh. To offset his carbon footprint which is the equivalent of 39.6 railcars of coal annually, Metcalfe purchases 100% renewable energy for his Madison and Wauwatosa stores through MGE’s Green Power Tomorrow and WE Energies’ Energy For Tomorrow programs. And to push the sustainability envelope, Metcalfe worked with Hilldale Shopping Mall to make it an idle-free zone, meaning simply, delivery trucks cut their engines. He suspects it’s the first ever. Anywhere.
What motivates him? “I think all of it comes down to that it’s simply the right thing to do and it’s where our customers want us to go.”
On the surface, Mark Olson may seem like a typical midwest farmer: he has been a farmer his whole life, and became one because his dad, uncle and grandfathers were farmers. He prefers working outdoors to office work, and, in his spare mental time, tinkers with inventions.
But what sets Olson apart is his curious mix of deep-seated concern for his community and locally-sourced foods, all which are counter-balanced by an eager eye towards toward business opportunities.
“Oh, I like to leap out in front of trends,” he says modestly.
Thirty years ago, basil was primarily a plant for adventurous backyard gardeners and, at best, a novelty food item served in Italian and southeast Asian restaurants. But that has changed dramatically over the past few decades—and, in Wisconsin, Olson almost single-handedly has built basil into a cottage industry.
“I was first introduced to pesto at a dinner party,” he explains, recalling that only a few people at the party actually knew what pesto was. “Within a week, I had reverse engineered the sauce,” he adds. And, from that curiosity and inspiration, Olson launched a successful line of pesto and soon was selling 250 pounds weekly at the Farmers’ Market in Madison.
For several years, Olson was so far ahead of the trend that he enjoyed an unassailable monopoly. “We were probably pushing out 30 pounds in samples alone,” he claims about the first few years. But soon other growers entered the market, and his share shrunk to one-tenth its original bulk. Olson smiles, “That’s the problem with being a leader,” he says, quickly adding, “my real goal is to inspire people.”
More recently, Olson has been expanding into an eclectic line of herb-infused olive oils and sea salts. Last autumn, he brainstormed the idea to create locally-grown frozen food dinners—scrumptious items like lemon basil pesto, stuffed sweet bell pepper and squash ravioli with gorgonzola cream sauce. The ingredients are locally-sourced, from places like his very own basil fields, cheeses from the Farmers Union in Montfort and butternut squash from Mt Horeb. “I’m always looking for what’s next,” he says. Only six weeks passed from Olson’s moment of inspiration to a debut line.
It is late August when I first met Robert Pierce. We are standing outside in a sweltering parking lot adjacent to South Park Avenue, and tents are quickly being assembled and set in place to shade boxes of produce from the sun and heat. His daughter unloads food from the trunk of her car—a bag of pears, two different types of apples—and lines them up on a card table under one of the tents. Even before I have a chance to say anything, Pierce hands me a pear.
“Taste it,” he orders, a broad smile breaking across his face. “When I was young,” he tells me without any prompting for storytelling, “I use to take pears from this tree, and now I own the property where that same tree grows.”
He laughs, partly, I assume, at the winding path that his life has taken, from his childhood in south Madison, to a term of duty in Vietnam, and now as a leading force for healthy eating in the very same neighborhood where he grew up.
At nearly sixty years old, he is sprite, with seemingly boundless energy. Over the past few years, Pierce has become a major shaping force, changing food and eating habits for dozens of families in south Madison. Like Macarthur-grant winning Will Allen in Milwaukee (and a Growing Gardens representative himself), Pierce has been bringing Farmers’ Markets to traditionally underserved neighborhoods. It is tireless work: For five days each week, at five different locations, he organizes modest-sized Farmers’ Markets in churches and parking lots.
These are important changes in the neighborhood—both for the source of fresh fruits and produces, and for the enthusiasm that Pierce conveys, but also for the larger role that they are playing in community organizing. As farmers and produce sellers filed into the parking lot that afternoon, invariably, one by one, they each walked over to Pierce, shook his hand and took a few minutes to catch up on neighborhood doings. It was a scene that seemed like a throwback to a simpler time, and simultaneously foreshadowing a new era and sensibility.
This fall, Piercewill take the role as resident farmer for Badger Rock Middle School.
Victoria Rydberg is only 30 years old, but she already has changed dozens of kids’ lives. Eight years ago, Rydberg took over an empty trailer in Portage. There were no desks, only a handful of obsolete computers and she was the sole teacher. But quickly Rydberg transformed those humble beginnings into an award-winning program, the River Crossing Environmental Charter School.
“Environmental education really is just being able to figure out how to live in this world,” she explains. Speaking softly, she continues, “If it is just having a one-time experience, it is just not as effective as using the environment as an integrated concept.” Her voice begins to gather speed as she explains her teaching philosophy. “Environmental education needs to permeate everything. It needs to connect to social sciences and math and reading, because it is a system.”
Over the past eight years, Rydberg worked with more than 100 teens and developed a unique curriculum that is part summer camp, part field trip and a good dose of simply digging in the dirt. For example, students designed and built a rain garden for the Aldo Leopold Center—and, in the process, learned real-life lessons about geometry, physics and earth sciences.
“They learn how to feel comfortable working through challenges,” Rydberg sums up, somewhat understating the massive impact that her unique approach has had, transforming failing students into eager pupils and disaffected teens into engaged citizens.
But Rydberg’s success also has pushed her career into new frontiers and this past summer, her life took a major left turn: She accepted a position with Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and moved from the outdoor schoolroom into a standard-issued cubicle. “I’m still getting comfortable wearing dress shoes instead of work boots every day,” she jokes, looking around her six foot-by-six foot space.
“This was the hardest decision of my life,” she says, adding that it was keenly difficult to tell her students that she was leaving the charter school. When Rydberg finally decided to tell the students, the group—nearly 20 students—were camping at the Apostle Islands. “They were lots of tears,” she says, laughing softly. “Mostly mine.”
“But the moment that I was okay with it,” she explains, “was when one of the students said, ‘if you’re going to help more kids have what we have, then we’re okay with you going.’”
It was especially a rewarding send-off, Rydberg concludes, because that selflessness—“thinking beyond one’s self,” in her words—is the crux of environmental thinking.