Q & A with Ed Janus
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: Why did you decide to write "Creating Dairyland?"
Ed Janus: For quite a number of reasons of course. But mainly I think I wanted to proclaim the "gospel" of dairying to those folks who have never had the pleasure of standing among cows in a barn or had the deeply existential experience of plowing a field in the spring. As I say in my introduction, dairying is as close as modern people can get to an ancient reality – a deeply satisfying one. I just wanted to open that door to invite others into this ancient, and at the same time, modern scene.
WHS Press: What were some of the most surprising or interesting things you learned when writing this book?
EJ: I realized that in a deep way dairying in Wisconsin was the creation of the 18th Century Enlightenment. That is, it was the perfect realization of the progressive project to improve human kind. I knew before I started that the progressive spirit in Wisconsin – the Wisconsin Idea – played a large role in the dairy industry. But I came to see that at its deepest level dairying was, and still is, about how humans can free themselves if they use their minds. Dairying is as much about reason as it is about lifting, shoveling, or bending. It is one of the best illustrations of the triumph of human reason.
WHS Press: You interviewed farmers and cheesemakers from across the state. Was there one story in particular that stood out to you?
EJ: Actually it’s a story that never made it into the book. I was talking with a Norwegian bachelor farmer who lives in a place that has escaped time. He told me that his greatest shame was when he sold off one of his favorite heifers. He told me that he didn’t have to do it, but he did. This farmer is retired now and doesn’t keep dairy cows anymore. But as we walked around his barnyard, I saw a solitary dairy cow among his beef cows. He told me he had kept the cow for no reason. But I realized that there was a reason – his redemption. This man’s story illustrates one of the great dairy stories: that dairying has taught us how to care.
WHS Press: What is your fondest memory from when you worked on a dairy farm?
EJ: Our cows spent summer nights up in our woods. Each morning in the summer I’d have to – I mean I got to – walk up the old path to bring them back to the barn for milking. And there they were, often shrouded in early morning fog, in their quiet rumination societies. I felt that I was a witness to a time before humans were created. This was a very good thing for my soul.
WHS Press: What do you hope readers take away from "Creating Dairyland?"
EJ: That the story of dairying in Wisconsin is a truly remarkable one. That it is a story that tells not only how farmers learned to be prosperous, but also how a truly great idea changed us for the better. I hope my book helps others "read" this great story as they drive through our beautiful countryside on their way to somewhere else.