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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment

Martin Hintz: "Readers can feel free to lift a bit of lore from here and there in the book for cocktail conversation."

A seed of an idea grows into "Wisconsin Farm Lore"


After writing about Milwaukee's brewing history and about "Forgotten Tales of Wisconsin" for The History Press, local scribe Martin Hintz pitched the idea of a book about Badger State agriculture to the South Carolina-based publisher.

"It was sort of 'plant the seed of an idea' and an editor will come," jokes Hintz.

That seed has grown into "Wisconsin Farm Lore: Kicking Cows, Giant Pumpkins and Other Tales from the Back Forty," out now in paperback.

Hintz has an agricultural bent, he says. After all, he raises chickens and does a bit of planting himself. His wife, Pam Percy, has also penned a pair of books about poultry. The two collaborated on "Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide to the Cheeses of Wisconsin" for Globe Pequot.

"We also write a great deal about restaurants and chefs, among other food-related features, for a number of publications," Hintz says. "We belong to the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG) and enjoy being involved in the Slow Food movement since I like to eat."

We asked Hintz about "Wisconsin's Farm Lore," which is a fun and interesting fact-filled compendium that's perfect for the living room end table, the basket of magazines in the WC or any other place you like to pick up a book, nibble on some facts and then move on.

OnMilwaukee.com: Have you been collecting these "tales from the back 40" for a while or did you go out in search of them when you decided to write the book?

Martin Hintz: Living in the state for many years and writing a great deal about its history, attractions and personalities was helpful in collecting the stories that I received from friends, farmers, educators, librarians, scientists and historians. Agriculture has always been a major economic engine in this state and deserving of all the coverage it can get. There is a story hiding under every potato in Wisconsin.

OMC: What were you looking for in your collecting of lore? There must be no real shortage of this knowledge and legend if you go out looking for it. What makes a gem of lore nugget?

MH: I was looking for interesting tidbits out of history, many featuring emigre farmers and their families and the hard work that went into settling the state. The University of Wisconsin has been a leader in ag research and helped provide all sorts of interesting tidbits from its archives. The state and county historical societies were also a great help. So just what makes a nugget worthy of a book like this? It's a combination of being an interesting story from the get-go, a fun read and a little-known fact ... spiced up with adjectives and strong verbs.

OMC: The book seems like something you can read in fits and starts, jumping around from section to section. Was that your intention or are you cringing at the idea of folks doing that?

MH: Readers don't need to read this in one sitting, unless they hunker into an easy chair with a bowl of Wisconsin popcorn and a state-brewed beverage to make an evening of it. "Wisconsin Farm Lore" is designed as a "bits-and-pieces" read, where perhaps wading through too many off-beat tales about cows might be a bit much taken at one time. It's unlike the Milwaukee brewing/distilling book, which was more of a narrative. Readers can feel free to lift a bit of lore from here and there in the book for cocktail conversation.

Try out these factoid to dazzle your friends: did you know that in 1997, the USDA Census of Agriculture indicated that 950 Wisconsin farms grew tobacco in that year; that the state grows the world's highest quality ginseng; and that you could purchase two oxen, between four and five years old, for $75 to $100 in 1853. OK, one more ... the state is first in the number of farms raising organic field crops such as corn, oats, barley, winter wheat, hay and silage. Go, go, go sustainable agriculture!

OMC: Were snippets arranged in a way that creates something of a narrative?

MH: The chapters were organized into themes, such as "the land," "the people," "animals," "crops" and "products." The stories in each section touch on those topics in some way or another, in a mentally easy, digestible way. We're not talking academia here, but a compendium that's relaxing, but one that is also informative. I hope that readers learn something about rural life, how their food is grown and where it comes from, and thus appreciate all the labor involved in putting products on the table.

OMC:Do you have some favorites from among the material collected in "Wisconsin Farm Lore"?

MH: Hey, they are all favorites; after all, they are in the book! But, if pressured, I like the one about "Grandpa Russell Tells His Story" (pages 45-46). Actually, that Patrick Russell was my great-grandfather, who came to Wisconsin around 1839 and settled in Washington County. There were no other homesteaders within 10 miles of him at the time. He related his own personal story in the early 1900s, which became a cherished part of our family lore.

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