DRIFTLESS - Driving over to Sauk City for Fermentation Fest: Grassland Edition, while enjoying a week-long vacation seemed like the perfect thing to do on a beautiful late September day. All the better, when I discovered that not only was it a go-to event for all things fermentation, but featured the products of several local producers near and dear to the hearts of many.
Those businesses were Fizzeology Foods of Viroqua, beloved for their stellar line of fermented sauerkraut-style products, and local producer Wandy Peralta, who runs the Berries and Branches farm-business in Wauzeka.
Peralta’s black currants, which he grows in a silvopasture format, where berries and grassfed beef are intensively intermixed, were featured in a Grasslands 2.0 sponsored tasting event, featuring Wisconsin beef, butter and cheese along with hard cider varieties. Peralta sells his berries to the Brix Cider company in Mt. Horeb, as do some of the Gays Mills apple orchards.
This year’s event, although debuting in a truncated format due to concern for the COVID-19 pandemic, was dedicated to the work on a group of university professionals across the Midwest, working to promote regenerative agriculture techniques – Grassland 2.0. This group has ben active in the Driftless Region, first with the Tainter Creek Watershed Council and most recently with the newly-formed Coon Creek Community Watershed Council.
Publicity for this year’s event reads:“Fermentation Fest: Grassland Edition is a live culture convergence and jam-packed with events organized by Wormfarm Institute and Grasslands 2.0 that showcase the possibilities of regenerative, grassland-based agriculture to support healthy communities.”
In a premier in the Driftless Region in October of 2020, Professor Randy Jackson explained Grasslands 2.0 to participants in a ‘Driftless Dialogues’ event, sponsored by the Kickapoo Valley Reserve:
“The vision of our project is really to help to transform modern agricultural production to increase farm profitability, while replicating all of the ecosystem benefits that the area’s original perennial grasslands provided,” Jackson explained. “Through the process our goal is to implement a ‘JEDI’ system – justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.”According to their website, Grassland 2.0 is a collaborative group of more than 30 scientists, educators, farmers, agencies, policymakers, processors, retailers, and consumers working to develop pathways for increased farmer profitability, yield stability and nutrient and water efficiency, while improving water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and climate resilience through grassland-based agriculture.
In the Grasslands 2.0 Kickapoo learning hub, the group is collaborating with community partners (Valley Stewardship Network, Tainter Creek Watershed Council, and Coon Creek Community Watershed Council, and many others) in a process they call ‘Collaborative Landscape Design (CLD).’ This process is meant to deliver a blueprint for transformative landscape change by the year 2050 that will result in: clean water, reduced flooding, profitable agriculture, and thriving communities.
According to Grasslands 2.0 leader, Professor Randy Jackson of the UW-Madison Agronomy Department, ‘Collaborative Landscape Design’ is a five-step process that begins with connecting people.“This is where we're at currently...engaged in an effort to map out the converging and diverging goals and desires of the many types of community partners,” Jackson explained. “This includes commodity farmers, graziers, vegetable producers, dairies big and small, absentee land owners, recreationalists, denizens, etc.”
Valley Stewardship Network’s Dr. Monique Hassman, according to Jackson, is working closely with graduate student Gabriela Martinez Motta to develop a survey that helps us paint a rich picture that depicts:
• the Story of how WE got here
• the Story of who WE are, and
• the Story of who WE want to be (our legacy).“From this, we will begin the second stage of CLD, which is envisioning landscapes, where we use modeling tools of our own (and others) to explore how the landscape can be configured to actually meet the goals articulated by folks,” Jackson explained. “Then, we move to developing supply chains (market opportunities) to enable these landscape, and planning enterprises.”
Jackson said that Jim Munsch and the Wallace Center Pasture Project crew working with VSN are already doing this in Tainter Creek Watershed, and then finally, incentivizing change where they work with policymakers and agency folks to grease the skids.
What drew this reporter to Fermentation Fest: Grassland Edition on Sunday, September 26, was the advertised ‘Grassfed Butter, Cheese and Cider Tasting’ event, where participants were encouraged to join Grasslands 2.0 to taste-test butters and cheeses paired with local ciders.
At the tasting, Grassland 2.0 coordinator Laura Paine introduced grassfed beef producer, Darren Yanke of Wisconsin Meadows, Uplands Cheese Company cheesemaker Trevor Murray, Cedar Grove Cheese head cheesemaker Bob Wills, and owner of Brix Cider, Marie Raboin.The first part of the tasting consisted of a side-by-side tasting of conventional and grassfed beef, and conventional and grassfed butters, served on sourdough bread.
Darren Janke is a Sauk City grassfed beef farmer who produces on a 1,300-acre farm, with 300 acres in pasture. Janke markets his grassfed beef through the brand ‘Wisconsin Meadows,’ brought to market by the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Cooperative.
“We raise Aberdeen, a heritage breed of black angus with a smaller frame, more suitable to grass-based production,” Janke explained. “On our farm, we practice farming with nature, where we move the animals frequently, and allow our pastures to recover and wildlife to flourish.”
Janke said that ‘farming with nature’ is a big circle. On their farm they plant 12-species cover crops, and produce their beef in 24 months with no grain and winter bale grazing. Janke, in response to a question, stated why he chooses not to finish his beef on grain:“When cattle eat gras, there is a fermentation process in their rumen,” Janke explained. “When the cattle eat grass and stored forage, it produces healthy fats, and when they’re fed corn, it produces unhealthier fats.”
Next, Paine introduced Trevor Murray, cheesemaker at the Uplands Cheese Company. Uplands Cheese is a grassfed dairy outside of Dodgeville that milks their cows seasonally, and does on-farm production of their two award-winning cheeses – Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Rush Creek Reserve. The cheeses they produce are ‘Alpine-Style’ cheeses, based on the model from the Swiss Alps where dairy cattle climb up into the high meadows in the Alps to feast on Alpine forages, while they are in season.“It’s very special to be able to work so close to the land,” Murray said. “The taste of our cheeses literally changes with the season and the different kinds of forage available to our cows. What we basically do is to take sunshine and convert it into cheese.”
Laura Paine then introduced Bob Wills, head cheesemaker with Cedar Grove Cheese.
“Bob has literally served as the mentor for dozens of cheesemakers throughout the State of Wisconsin,” Paine explained.
Wills told tasting participants that when he started working with making cheeses from grassfed cows in the 1990s, there were only three groups in the state that were doing it.
“You could literally taste the regional differences in milk in the cheeses that were made from it,” Wills said. “Some marketers over the years have focused on the idea that it is a healthier product, some focus on heritage, and others like Uplands Cheese emphasize the taste difference in their marketing efforts.”
Wills said that Upland Cheese Company has won multiple national championship awards in the grassfed cheese competitions in recent years.
“The typical grassfed cheese is a little more yellow, and a little bit softer than other cheeses,” Wills explained. “I work with producers who have me make seasonal cheeses from their milk, and my personal favorite is the October cheeses – the season gives it a freshness, and by fall, the cows have been feasting on pasture all summer, and have gotten fussier about what they’ll eat.”
Last up was the dynamic Marie Raboin, owner of the Brix Cider company in Mt. Horeb. When she’s not working at the cideria, Raboin serves as the grazing coordinator for Dane County Land+Water.
“Basically, all my ciders are dry,” Raboin explained. “I do occasionally make a sweet cider, but I’m not that into it.”Raboin explains that all of the ingredients for her ciders are sourced “hyper-locally,” and she typically looks in a 30-40 mile radius from Mt. Horeb. She explained that the black currants in her cider come from Wandy Peralta, and she does source some of her apples from Gays Mills.