Reclaiming farmland for nature

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Vance Baker  and Jack Pike

Vance Baker (right) and his partner Jack Pike on Baker’s prairie.

A self-described “eco-nut,” Vance Baker says he always wanted to have a positive impact on the environment. But after majoring in zoology at UW-Madison, he went on to medical school and a career in psychiatry.

“I’m not the type who could join the Sierra Club and go to board meetings,” Baker says. “So I just didn’t know what I could do (for the planet).”

Then, in the mid-1980s, Baker befriended a man who’d moved from Chicago to southwest Wisconsin to become a dairy farmer, only to discover that he was infected with HIV. As the farmer grew ill and unable to milk his cows, he asked Baker to purchase 88 acres of his land so that he could pay his mortgage and remain there until he died.

The farm was located near Gays Mills in what is known as Wisconsin’s “driftless” region, because it was spared the advance and retreat of glaciers. Once the floor of an ancient sea, the area is dotted with bluffs, coulees and small winding streams. Drawn by the unique beauty of the land and compassion for the farmer, Baker said yes.

“I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do with this hunk of land in western Wisconsin?’” Baker remembers.

Eventually the idea of a prairie restoration – or, more accurately, he says, “a prairie replanting” – came to him. “I just thought to myself, ‘I’m going to restore this little piece of earth and put my energy, money and time and channel it here in this one little place,’” he says.

Reclaiming prairie is an expensive and laborious undertaking. Baker spent the first two summers taking out weeds with a machete, preparing the soil and determining which native grasses and flowers could be successfully reintroduced. Then the land had to be repeatedly seeded, a few acres at a time. Invasive plants had to be continually removed, year after year, to prevent them from taking over.

“It’s an ungodly amount of work,” Baker acknowledges. “I’ve spent hundreds of hours just hand-pulling weeds.”

But Baker says all the effort has proven “incredibly rewarding.” In the summer, when the prairie is in full bloom, he sits in a portable deer stand – “I call it my throne,” he says – and marvels at the splendor in his grass.

“I look over this gorgeous valley, and I just take in the life around me,” he says. “And to know that this land now is healthy and the wildlife is living and thriving … I am proud that I had a hand in it.”

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