by Jennifer Moore-Kerr
When Joy Kirkpatrick talks about her job working with Wisconsin farmers she can get choked up. With tears in her eyes she says, “I am just so honored to be working with these people, that they trust me with such important issues.”
As I listened to Joy’s story, I was not a bit surprised that they trust her. She has walked in their shoes; she both knows their stories and knows that each family has its own path. And she knows farming. The farm where she grew up wasn’t in Wisconsin, but she came of age showing beef steers, dairy heifers, horses and the ill-tempered house cat at 4-H, and selling eggs from her family farm to the coal miners who worked in the two mines near the farm in Sesser, Illinois. The only chore she did not do growing up was mixing chemicals. The girls weren’t allowed to do that one.
Joy is the youngest of seven children and 19 years younger than her oldest sister. In fact, rumors circled around her Southern Illinois town that she and her next older brother (by 18 months) were actually the children of the two oldest sisters … rumors she knows were false. It seems that the Southern Baptist culture in which she lived, for all its restrictions on drinking, card playing and dancing, was not above a juicy rumor. The reality, however, was one of a hard-working farming family, with Mom devoted to her religious beliefs, and parents raising their children to be compassionate and hard working. They also encouraged their children to see the world beyond farming.
Of the seven children, they now hold 11 post-high school degrees. Joy credits her parents, who believed profoundly in the value of higher education and learning. There was never any question that the Kirkpatrick children would go to college, that they would pursue knowledge. In any family, time alone with a parent is magical. For Joy, the every-other-Saturday trips to the public library with just her mother planted and nourished a lifelong love of reading, and, lucky for Spring Green, a desire to give back to the community and her local library.
Joy loved growing up on the farm. She loved the animals. Driving with her dad to take hogs to the stockyards in East St. Louis gave her a glimpse of his character as they spent time together in the complex world of stockyards. Joy remembers a man who, with only an eighth-grade education, was adamant that his children go to college. Who, at a time, and in a culture that held often openly racist views, never expressed racist sentiments as he traveled from rural Southern Illinois to largely African-American East St. Louis. Joy is grateful for that teaching from him.
From that upbringing Joy took her love of animals and agriculture to college, where she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in animal science and animal nutrition. When she finished her degrees, she did not see herself going back to Sesser, but wasn’t sure where would be a good fit for her … maybe selling feed? She just wasn’t sure.
In stepped her oldest sister, Jeanetta, who had property in the Viroqua area and had become a school superintendent there. Jeanetta saw an opening with the UW-Madison Extension Richland County office, which seemed a good fit for her newly degreed, compassionate baby sister. And what a blessing for the farmers in Wisconsin, and the people of Spring Green, that has proven to be.
Twenty-eight years later, Joy is now the Farm Succession Outreach Specialist for the State of Wisconsin, which she says means that she is a facilitator for farmers to help them talk about tough topics. She provides a neutral, non-family-member set of ears to whom they can talk about anything. And she provides education on how to look at, and talk about, their situation. She is the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.
In 2000 she moved from Richland Center to Spring Green, where she has contributed to her community through various forms of what she calls “guerrilla volunteerism,” which she defines as DOING more than talking. She has done this through the Spring Green Community Library Board, LitFest and now River Valley Commons. She embodies the idea that everybody has to contribute, or the system doesn’t work.
The move to Spring Green gave Joy an opportunity to build her community outside of her work relationships. Living in town in Spring Green meant that there could be some distance between those farm families whose most personal family issues she knew, and her own personal life. The farmers were no longer the people she ran into in the grocery store. And after years of coming to (you guessed it) the library in Spring Green, it felt like the right community to call home.
When I asked Joy “who gives you personal support, and how do you ask for it,” she spoke of her partner, Matt, and her friends. Jeanetta is still in the area, but her support seems to mostly come from the community of close friends she has fostered nearby over the years. She is quick to label herself an introvert, and finds strength in a quiet, unscheduled weekend. However, she shared with me a “social” activity that she and a few close friends developed when she first lived here, which I love: Once a month they had “workers parties” in which one person created a list of odd jobs at their home and they all descended, shared their knowledge and skills, completed the task(s), had a potluck and truly held each other up. I am so struck by the beauty, power, kindness and grace of this idea. Even if I don’t implement it, maybe some of you will. It is the power of asking for help that came up over and over in my interview with Joy, and I am grateful for the ways in which she showed me that power.
It is that sense of community and that desire to help others that Joy feels exemplifies this area. The beauty of the farmland, the natural areas, and the Wisconsin River seem to foster building community in her eyes. As I learned more about her, and the things that she does, I was struck by how communities like this build on themselves. A place where people step in to help each other draws new people for whom helping makes them happy. It creates a dynamic of compassion and care, and that dynamic builds on itself. And being a part of it makes Joy happy.
When I asked what makes her sad, her answer was thoughtful. After some quiet, she spoke of tribalism. Not necessarily the political variety, but the ways in which people, and in her experience, farmers, can draw inward and feel that those on the “outside” can’t understand them. They quietly live in a world of such high stress, high hope and high need, and they do it without asking for help. She sees such hunger for people to feel listened to, and such fear of expressing that hunger. Her desire would be that if there could be more sharing across tribes it could help the farmers who quietly support this area to be successful. Perhaps with better communication and support those farmers could thrive.
And certainly, with Joy on their side, providing compassionate listening and a safe place to talk about the stressors of farming, I see hope for the future. Their future, and thus the future for all of us.
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email email@example.com.
In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.