By Mary Howell
Herb Bartel, Hillsboro, Kansas Farmers Union treasurer and long-time member, was recently selected to serve on the new Climate Change Policy Advisory Panel for National Farmers Union. The panel, consisting of 16 family farmers and ranchers from across the nation, will advise the organization’s climate-related legislative work, educational programming, outreach and communications. These individuals reflect the diversity of American agricultural operations ranging in size, type, production method, organic, conventional row crops, specialty crops and livestock. Some produce renewable fuels and energy while others are involved with local cooperatives. The panel will review and provide feedback on agriculture-related climate legislation and assist NFU with its climate communications, advocacy and outreach.
Herb works every day that weather permits doing restoration and conservation work in the gullies along a ½ to ¾ mile drainage area that travels through the farm. He is returning this area to pre-European settlement conditions, planting native plants and managing trees and invasive species. His farm shares a common boundary with public land.
His transition to renewable energy started with the installation of a wind turbine and later twelve solar panels. He and Pat liked the solar panels so well they installed twelve more. Now they just use the solar, although the wind turbine is still on the farm.
On climate change, Herb is adamant that, “In order to avoid the tipping point” (when the impacts of climate become irreversible) “we have to be serious about cutting emissions immediately in all sectors of the economy for any hope of keeping the warming to 1.5° C. The extreme events we are experiencing now are the result of only 1° C of warming. The reduction of ice in the Arctic is already affecting our jet stream. The jet stream is our weather-maker. Air circulation from that region is a factor in moderating summer heat waves. When the weather starts changing because of changes in the Arctic it is serious business. Cold water resulting from ice melt is already reducing the flow of the gulf stream and that will drastically change the climate for Ireland and the west coast of Scotland.”
Following is the fascinating story on Herb’s career contributed by Herb and Pat, highlighting his contributions and dedication to ecology, geography, land use planning and climate change. They spent many years in Alaska working with the native Eskimos. Herb’s love for his family farm, passion for land restoration and organic farming continue to this day.
We hope you enjoy Herb’s biography…
Herb grew up on his family’s farm five miles northeast of Hillsboro, KS. There were no money trees in the yard and he had farm chores to do starting about age five but he has good memories of his early years. In 1949 his father bought Marion Machinery (a dealership for Minneapolis-Moline) so the family (which included Herb’s three older sisters) moved to Marion. They were flooded out in 1951 so, his sisters having left home by then, he and his parents moved back to the farm but Herb chose to finish high school in Marion. He and his fun-loving dad enjoyed the 20-minute daily drives back and forth together.
After graduating in 1953, Herb drove to Denver in the immaculate 1940 Chevrolet he had purchased from his maternal great-grandfather and worked at a hospital. He and a doctor friend often skied together; this included camping in a tent for a week in Aspen. This was quite a topic of conversation for the locals who plied them with cups of hot coffee each morning and beer after skiing!
Herb’s farm background proved to be quite an asset: as a student at Colorado University-Boulder, he fueled aircraft for United Airlines at night. Early on, his boss asked him to back up an articulated fueling cart; with the calm confidence of experience, Herb did this and he said his boss was “dumbfounded”! Then, at CU, because there was no Land-Use Planning degree, he majored in Physical Geography-Ecology. He particularly enjoyed the ornithology class (which was a “gravy” class for him) and, when he correctly identified a juvenile robin (included as a trick question in the final exam) his instructor was actually disconcerted – and forbade him to tell any of the other students.
Herb worked as a land use planner in Denver then, in 1968, moved with his wife and two young children to Aspen where he worked as the City-County Planner for five years. He became an excellent recreational skier.
Herb’s greatest professional pleasures were in working for the public good and restoring natural systems. He was very aware of the interconnectedness of the natural world, and he believed strongly that the land should be left as unimpaired as possible for it to remain most productive. It should not be exploited by the selfish.
Herb moved to Durango in 1973 from where, as a land use consultant to the state of Colorado, he drove to small towns as an advisor to their local planning commissions. He married Patricia Cochran in 1975 and they learned about a planning job being offered by the North Slope Borough of Alaska. “But,” they were told, “only missionaries, mercenaries and misfits go there”. They were to find that there were certainly plenty of all those but Herb and Pat were going for the adventure.
The NSB is an Eskimo home-rule (county) government which was created when oil and natural gas were discovered up there. It lies north of the Arctic Circle: its southern border (elevation 700 feet) is the foot of the Brooks Range and it slopes north to the Arctic Ocean.
As part of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act the North Slope Eskimos were required to settle in seven villages. They could choose the locations – usually favorite caribou hunting or fishing camps for inland sites, and coastal villages that were well-positioned to hunt whales and other marine mammals during their spring and fall migrations. Herb’s job would be to study suitable land for the total infrastructure for each village – an airstrip, a generator, a health clinic, a school, etc. (Some years earlier a whole high school class had been killed in a plane crash when the students were being flown to a boarding school in southern Alaska and the mayor said, “Never again”.)
So, in July 1975, when the median temperature in Barrow, now Utqiagvik, is 36ºF, Herb flew north from Durango. The sea ice was shore-fast that summer so the North Star, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ship that delivered everyone’s supplies once a year, hadn’t been able to dock. The cargo was unloaded with coastguard helicopters but the delay meant there were no housing materials, so, no house for Herb and Pat to move into. Initially, Herb camped on the waterlogged tundra (permafrost doesn’t absorb melting snow), or slept on the floors of people’s small homes. Few buildings had running water and he told Pat that a “good day” meant that he’d had access to a shower and had done his laundry. Nothing daunted, Pat joined him in October when a bedroom in the local Presbyterian manse came available.
Living among about 2,000 Eskimos was an excellent experience for them both. “They’re very generous, hospitable people,” Herb explained. “They invited us to their homes and to all kinds of other activities, like, on spring whaling trips when one drives out across the jagged sea ice to the open channel in the Arctic Ocean; the fall (August) whaling season takes place closer to shore because there’s no sea ice to negotiate.
“We learned a lot about what’s most important in life. Community. In the old days, people couldn’t exist on their own. In fact, if a man – usually it was a man – committed a crime he was ostracized. No one would talk to him so he’d finally hitch up his dog team and take off.” After a short pause, he added, “There’s always a pot of stew – usually caribou stew with rice – cooking on the stove so it’s always available for people to come in and eat. Families are quite big so there’s usually someone out hunting. Things aren’t very structured up there – people come and go.” (In 1975, the Bartels had had no idea what their food source would be so Herb purchased a Winchester 30-30 rifle at Montgomery Ward in Durango thinking he might have to go caribou hunting. It turned out that a grocery store had been built in Barrow quite recently – and he came to realize that caribou are a very important food source for the Eskimos so he didn’t want to encroach on their territory. All that meant that the gun had never been fired. In 2018 he took it to a gun auction: what had cost him just over $100 brought $4,000. The proceeds were given to Mennonite Central Committee for their mission work in sustainable ag in Puerto Rico. He felt good about that.)
Herb continued reminiscing. “We went up there for two years and ended up staying six. The mayor who hired me had a brain tumor; he died so we decided to stay through the transition for the next mayor, then he depended on me because of my experiences working for state and local governments in Colorado so we stayed on. And then Pat’s parents got cancer so she flew to England to help them, and that seemed to be a good time to leave. We didn’t know where to go – it isn’t easy to interview for jobs from up there! – so we came down to the farm. It was a place to hang our hats at least. That was 1981 and we’re still here!”
In 1985, Herb was contacted by the NSB’s Public Works office, asking him to help the financially-strapped Eskimos decide which of their capital improvements projects should be completed, reduced or abandoned so he spent several months a year for the next few years going back and forth. With nothing much to do but work, Herb often went back to the office on Saturdays; he recalled being alone one Saturday, not realizing a storm was raging outside. When it was time to return to the hotel, the storm was so bad that he had to crawl backwards on his hands and knees, feeling for the side of the road as he went. The roads up there are gravel and there are no sidewalks. Luckily the hotel was only about an eighth of a mile away but it was a very long one-eighth mile.
Herb returned to Kansas full-time in 1989 and, from 1992-1999, he worked as the Marion County Sanitarian when he prepared the county’s first zoning maps. He is constantly improving the farm, particularly the quality of the soil, and re-seeding some acreage to tall grass prairie. More recently, beginning farmer Mark Janzen has been working the cropland; this frees Herb up to focus on land restoration.
“I’ve been an active member of the Kansas Farmers Union for several years now,” he said. “I had some good membership drives in Wisconsin and South Dakota and have attended several conventions with excellent speakers. I enjoy the camaraderie and being among so many like-minded people.”
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