Wisconsin has 72 Counties, 190 Cities, 1,246 Towns, and 414 Villages. It takes A LOT of people—more than 70,000 Wisconsinites—to do the nitty-gritty work that keeps our communities ticking. Dennis Fermenich is one of them.
Dennis Fermenich | Greenfield, WI
At nineteen years old, rock is a lot more fun than schoolwork. So, I went out on the road and started touring as a musician. Then biology kind of caught up. I got married fairly young at twenty-one, and my wife and I knew we wanted to have a family.
I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to be on the road. That’s no way to raise a kid. If I’m going to have kids, I want to be an influence in their development.”
I literally put on a piece of paper what kind of work I would do. I didn’t really want to work in an office full time. And I sure didn’t want to work in a warehouse. I wanted to work outside, but I didn’t want to mow grass for a living. So, I went to Milwaukee Area Technical College essentially for horticulture. I was so lucky to do some field research that included tree injection products and techniques. I realized, “Wow, there’s so much to learn about trees; it’s not a science that has been figured out already. It’s a science that is really still emerging.”
The carrot was out there, just tantalizing me that I could kind of go in any direction in horticulture and make a living working outdoors.
Because of the tree research that I was doing with my professors, when I graduated, I was offered a job as the arborist at Milwaukee Country Club. They had a large elm population, and the research work was on Dutch elm disease. I think some of my professors’ passion rubbed off on me because I think trees make such a difference. You see these whole city blocks that were lovely tree-lined places, and now there is nothing there anymore—the whole neighborhood changed. Not just physically, but the attitude of the people changed; they felt just as depleted as their streets looked.
The Milwaukee Country Club asked me if I would run a Dutch elm disease control program on 246 acres, and that is what got me started. I ended up getting patents on a tree injection product and distributed some tree injection systems. So, while I was working full time, I had another business distributing tree supplies.
I ended up with a tree service and realized that running a business was very different than just being an arborist. That kind of entrepreneurship just wasn’t in me; it drained me. So, I sold the business and went into part-time consulting. I got the Greenfield position as a part-time job, thinking that it was just going to be a temporary thing. But Greenfield had the needs, and I had the interest.
At first, everyone in the city didn’t welcome me. But there were certainly people in the city who wanted the trees and wanted forestry to move forward. I’ve outlived several of those people that were kind of anchors on my heels, to the point where I’m now working with the city and enjoying this amazing support from the public works department, from City Hall; they recognize the contribution that forestry makes to the city.
Now, I’m enjoying a level of support that, frankly, I never dreamed would happen in Greenfield. For instance, last year, the mayor came to me and an engineering assistant and said, “Is there any way we could become a Bird City U.S.A?” He saw this as an opportunity for small communities and wanted to see Greenfield move forward in this kind of positive way.
That was all we needed to hear. Before the end of the year, the city of Greenfield became, I think, the first city in Wisconsin to have Bird City, Bee City, and Monarch City U.S.A. designations. There’s a Growth Award for Tree City U.S.A., and the city of Greenfield has more Growth Awards than any other community in the state. It has been twenty years of getting that Growth Award, and I’ve been here twenty-six.
I think there’s a tangible connection to art that we see out on the street. We always think about art having to be a sculpture, something a person created, but when we see lovely trees, those are our living sculptures.
But I don’t plant trees only for them to look pretty: I plant them for the physical health of the community. When it’s a hot day and you walk down a tree-lined, shaded street, your blood pressure goes down. On a hot summer day, when you go to a park and everyone is crowded underneath all the shade patches from a tree, it’s because they feel better there. They feel better because of the cool temperatures. I believe doctors in Japan began prescribing forest bathing—going to a green space to relax a little bit. And what happens? The blood pressure decreases, and the person feels more comfortable.
We’ve learned a lot from the loss of the ash trees to emerald ash borers. The loss has given us an opportunity to learn some things and run some scientific studies that we could never have done before. The initial study started out with some 250 communities that lost their ash trees. The research showed that in communities who lost their ash trees—across all socio-economic boundaries—the health of the citizenry decreased.
Heart disease and asthma cases rose, childhood asthma in particular. Premature births went up, along with underweight childbirths. The costs of heating and cooling rose, along with an increase in water usage. It didn’t matter if the community was rich, poor, or in between, the community was affected. This research gave the forestry industry some very tangible and quantifiable reasons to plant trees.
I’ve always said the first thing I plant for is the health of the community. I know that if children in a school can see greenery out of their windows, the graduation rate in that school will increase, and the incidence of ADD will decrease. We’ve known for a long time that if we plant street trees in a neighborhood, the values of the homes tend to increase.
I’ve been telling community groups that “to have a healthy community, you have to have a healthy community forest.” But to have a healthy forest, we need a healthy environment. That means the rest of that environment also has to work—you can’t have flowers without bees and birds. And the same goes for trees. You need all those things functioning together as a unit.
We have a municipal Arbor Day where on a Saturday we have anywhere from 150 to 200 people with the mayor and other officials planting anywhere from twenty to thirty trees. During a school day, we plant at least one tree on the school grounds, so that the kids can be involved. We do it that way because some don’t live near the school and can’t participate on Saturdays, and I want them to be a part of it.
When I do an Arbor Day planting at the schools, I ask each child to put a handful of soil near the trunk. If you get soil underneath their fingers and have them touch that tree, it creates a meaningful, emotional experience. I have them all crowd around the tree, and give their energy to that tree by telling the tree, “Grow, tree, grow,” or something along those lines—something that gets us all pointed at that tree and directing our energy toward it.
Almost every year, I have somebody who has grown up, moved away from Greenfield, and they’ve come back because they have to see their tree. It’s a tree in a park, on a school’s grounds, or on municipal grounds, but it’s their tree. That’s their personal tree because when they were a kid, they got their fingers dirty.
This story was produced by Scott Schultz and is part of our Wisconsin municipal workers’ series. Check out these resources to learn about Greenfield’s Arbor Day and how to be a pollinator-friendly community. Want to learn more about local government? Check out the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Citizen’s Guide to Wisconsin’s Cities and Villages.
This series was funded by the “Why it Matters: Civic and Electoral Participation” initiative, administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.