A spirit in the woods
Ray and Ruth Eirschele spent over the last half century building their legacy.
It can be seen on their 540-acre farm in Tarr Valley west of Tomah as well as in their four children.
That legacy is environmental stewardship, for which the Eirschele farm, R&R Ranch, received recognition as the 2020 Monroe County Tree Farmers of the year.
R&R, of course, stands for Ray and Ruth and not as son Brian points out, rest and relaxation. He and his siblings, Greg, Steven and Kathe, were involved since their childhoods in populating the property with saplings that over time have grown into mighty oaks, black walnuts, spruces and balsam firs.
In the past 50 years, the Eirscheles planted over 100,000 trees on the land. Ruth credits her late husband, who passed away in 2019, for creating the wooded landscape.
“It’s because of Ray all these trees got planted,” she said.
Ruth grew up in South Dakota, a state more known for its wide-open spaces than its trees, and moved to Tomah to take a nursing position at the VA. She then ended up at Tomah Memorial Hospital, where she retired in 1995.
She met Ray, a Tomah native and veteran of the Marine Corps who was working as a lineman for Wisconsin Power & Light, where he spent a 39-year career. They married and in 1962, they bought the farm.
Ruth said Ray’s original intent for purchasing the property was to plant trees since the land wasn’t ideal for farming -- although they did farm, too. She attributes her late husband’s affinity for arboreal landscapes to his early childhood.
Ray lost his father when he was seven years old and planted a tree in his dad’s honor at the cemetery where they both are laid to rest.
“His love of trees has to go back to a very early age,” said Ruth.
“He just always loved trees,” said Greg. “He was always a very strong environmental advocate.”
Brian ascribes some his father’s sense of environmental activism to the 1962 book by Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”, in which Carson exposed the damage chemical pesticides were doing to the planet and called on humans to be stewards of the earth. Brian said the book had a big impact on his father.
Both Brian and Greg, who still live in the area, are quick to point out that their mother also deserves credit.
“Everything he (Ray) did he could not have done without Mom,” said Greg, with Ruth adding she dug the holes, while Ray planted the trees.
Clint Gilman, a forester for the Department of Natural Resources who nominated the Eirscheles for the award, indicated that in 1990 they enrolled the farm in the Tree Farm Program, which is a national program. The farm also has been in the Managed Forest Law Program since 1992.
While the Tree Farm Program is national, each county chooses a Tree Farmer of the Year and Gilman said he nominated the Eirscheles because of their sound forest management practices, their enrollment in multiple programs and for the number of trees they planted over the years.
He also pointed to the diversity on the property, which includes two restored prairies, totaling over 25 acres, which also serve as habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly, and 30 acres of organic-certified land, which is currently in hay.
The Monroe County Natural Resource and Extension Committee each year recognizes the Land Stewardship Award winners, which includes Conservationist of the Year, Conservation Farmer of the Year and Tree Farmer of the Year.
Winners are usually honored at a banquet in January but due to COVID, the event was cancelled and 2020 winners will be recognized along with the 2021 winners next January.
The winners are outstanding individuals, nominated and selected by their peers, who have a history of land stewardship and commitment to conservation.
The Eirscheles are the 2020 Tree Farmers of the Year. The 2020 Conservation Farmer of the Year is the David P. & Diane Brueggen Family, while Maurice Amundson is the 2020 Conservationist of the Year.