Ari’s Interview with Wisconsin Dairy Farmer Ed Janus

Author of “Creating Dairyland”

Even if I wasn’t in love with Wisconsin cheese, I’d still be intrigued by Ed Janus’s history. His grandfather owned one of the most famous (and Jewish) restaurants in St. Louis a century ago, he worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. back in the 60s, he’s reported for NPR, and he has had a decades-long love affair with Wisconsin dairying. I had the chance to ask him a few questions about his very colorful past and the great future of cheese in America’s Dairyland.

So, you didn’t grow up in dairy farming?

I was born in Washington, D.C. in a Jewish family that had moved there from Chicago. My father was a federal attorney in the New Deal era and went on to become a federal judge. Food’s been in my family for a long time. One of my grandfathers started the fanciest restaurant in St. Louis. It was called Bennish’s. My mother was a wonderful cook.

I studied anthropology. After I graduated I went to work with Dr. King in Chicago. I was doing welfare organizing—trying to help women who were not getting a fair shake from the welfare administration. Skipping ahead a few years I ended up coming to Madison to be part of a spiritual movement here. The group owned a farm and that’s when I first got into dairying. It was beautiful. The idea was basically local food for this restaurant that we were running in town. It was during the Nixon impeachment hearings. We used to play them on the radio while we were milking. I’m not sure if that raised or lowered the milk yields.

What came next?
Well, I started a minor league baseball team. The Madison Muskies. And then I started one of the first microbreweries—Capital Brewery in Madison. This was long before everyone was doing it they way they are now. In the last 20 years or so, I’ve done radio shows for NPR, particularly on education. And I’m doing more and more work with Wisconsin dairy farmers.

How’s Wisconsin history different from other dairy producing states?
More than anything I think the key is to understand that Wisconsin dairying was really the triumph of an idea. Progressivism, with a capital ‘P.’ It was about figuring how to help farmers work smarter. Basically it was teaching them how to do modern industry so that they could make a living.

It really came out of the Enlightenment. Historically, the Europeans had continued to move west and, in the process, they kept ruining the land. And then they’d just move west again. They got to Wisconsin and they ruined the land here with wheat and speculation. But these guys from NY came and they wanted a way for farmers to be successful. Not overnight success. They wanted to enrich the soil. They talked about this great conservation ethic. They were almost like missionaries in preaching for their cause. But a lot of people came to believe it and make the idea real. The Progressive model has becomes part of their character. If it weren’t for Wisconsin’s dairy farmers and cheesemakers we would never have this amazing landscape. The cows have done a lot more for our state than the politicians.

What are a few of your favorite stories from the book?

Here is just one which, alas didn’t actually make it into the book but into my heart. I spent the day with two elderly bachelor Norwegian brothers (I did feel a bit like I was channeling Garrison Keillor) in a place called Coon Valley. I went because the brothers had witnessed the first federal soil conversation project but I came away with something valuable. To wit:

I was walking around with Ernest (he is the brother who speaks while his brother Joseph is the brother who speaks not.) As we walked Ernest confessed what he described as his deepest regret. He told me that when the brothers were selling their herd as they prepared to retire, their oldest cow had somehow found a way to hide from the buyers (and the butcher). But Ernest noticed and went to find her, and she was sold with the rest of them. Afterwards he was deeply ashamed; I think because he had chosen money over his human connection to a dependent being who had faithfully served him and deserved better from him.

As we walked around his place we passed the barnyard where there was a small herd of beef cows. And there in the midst was one dairy cow. One dairy cow! He pointed her out and told me she was a pet; “I just like to see her there.” I like to think this was repentance for his sin of not taking care of someone who needed him. His violation of one of dairying’s important moral injunctions. In the book I talk quite a bit about the intimate relationship between dairyman and cow and the injunction to care for “that which takes care of you.” Ernest Haugen showed me the true face of Wisconsin dairying. That’s why I dedicated my book to him.

Meet Ed Janus at Zingerman’s in December!

Wisconsin Cheese Dinner at Zingerman’s Roadhouse
Wednesday, December 7th, 2011
6:30 pm Book Signing / 7:00 pm Dinner
(the dinner is sold out, but the book signing is open to the public)

Wisconsin Cheese Tasting at Zingerman’s Events on Fourth
Thursday, December 8th, 2011
6:30 pm to 8:30 pm
$45, save $5 if you RSVP by November 27th.