Jerry Apps: Farming, writing, and community

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps has had a lot of titles in his life, including writer, journalist, teacher, professor, historian, editor, storyteller, expert, and many more. But there’s one title that he credits for his success in all of those other careers: Farmer.

While stationed at Fort Eustis, VA in 1956, Jerry was intrigued by his fellow troops who had grown up in cities and seemed to have no idea what it would be like to be outdoors. At that point he decided, “I am going to spend my career helping farmers succeed, but also helping the general public to understand how farming contributed to the beliefs and values of our society.” Now Jerry, a past SAIL Member and workshop speaker, is the author of more than 35 books and has enjoyed a long career as a Professor of Agriculture and Continuing Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Winner of multiple awards for his work, Jerry is continuing to write and teach creative writing workshops. “Everyone has a story,” he says. “[Writing] is a way for you to connect with the generations that come after you.”

Humble beginnings

105416080_10216855842697321_6209633534334631387_nJerry Apps grew up on a dairy farm near Wild Rose, Wisconsin, where he did numerous farm chores and proudly milked cows by hand. The house he lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and he attended school in a one-room schoolhouse. “It was the best education I could have dreamed of,” he says, pointing to the teacher who worked with students in grades 1-8, for many of whom English was a second language. Jerry says being with these students every day helped him to learn to appreciate people who were from different backgrounds.

At age 12, while in eighth grade, Jerry contracted polio. Unable to play sports, he joined a typing class at the suggestion of a teacher. At first reluctant, he found that he was an excellent typist because of the strength in his fingers from milking cows! The typing class was also the school newspaper staff. By his senior year, Jerry was the editor of that paper.

“Because of my lack of ability to do sports, I read a lot and studied a lot,” he says. This lead to Jerry becoming his class valedictorian and earning a scholarship to attend UW-Madison. He was the first person in his family to go to college.

City life

During his time at UW-Madison, a friend teased Jerry about walking like he was pushing a plow. “Well, that’s what I had been doing!” Jerry says. Watching students on University Avenue, Jerry decided he’d learn to walk like a city person, and eventually picked it up. “I was feeling very cosmopolitan,” he says.

After returning home from the army, Jerry began a series of jobs at UW-Madison, and got busy writing his own stories and the stories of Wisconsin history.  “I was always fascinated by history, ” he says. “I wanted to look behind things. How did it come to be like that? That’s what keeps me going. Endless curiosity.”

Telling his story0001150_once-a-professor-a-memoir-of-teaching-in-turbulent-times_600

As the old adage goes, “Write what you know.” Jerry believes in this, but also tells his writing students to do the opposite as well. “I tell them, ‘take on a project that is different from your own experience.’ ”

In the extensive list of books he has written, Jerry has followed his own advice. In Once A Professor, he writes about his almost forty years at UW-Madison, where he was teargassed in 1969 during a Vietnam War protest. In Limping Through Life, he remembers his childhood having polio and how his life was forever changed by that experience. Barns of Wisconsin started as a book on things he knew about but led him to learn about the elephant barns and farming culture of the Ringling Brothers in Baraboo. The archivist for the Ringling Brothers then encouraged Jerry to write a full history of the circus troupe, which resulted in Ringlingville USA. Jerry has written about cheese, one-room schoolhouses, gardening, water, and even beer! His works include numerous texts about leadership, teaching, and writing. Jerry has also written seven novels, published by the University of Wisconsin Press and each dealing with an issue facing rural America. He’s even created a series for children to learn about farming and Wisconsin history.  His next book, due out in summer or fall of 2021, is on the history of Wisconsin fairs.


It all comes back to farming

Jerry still maintains a tree farm near Wild Rose, where he grew up. His commitment to learning and educating seems to know no bounds. But how did a farm kid come to be such an expert in all of these areas?

For Jerry, it all comes back to how farming has always shaped societal values. “Valuing work, being on time, doing the best job you can, and showing respect,” Jerry says. “Also the value of community. Farmers are deeply reliant on each other.” He says that when the party telephone line rang in his home as a child, his dad stopped everything and went to help his neighboring farmer. If Jerry ever said a disparaging thing about someone in the community, his father would say, “Don’t do that. That’s your neighbor.”

Jerry reflects that it’s difficult for people living in urban settings to cultivate that connection. “Community comes out of these rural experiences.” He adds that often we have so much trouble appreciating people who are different from us. Farming always helped to bridge that gap because of that sense of being there for someone when they needed it and working together. Jerry’s writing, teaching, and speaking have always reflected the values of farm life, and his endless curiosity was fueled by knowing how much he could learn from others’ experiences.

Community and support of neighbors are also the foundation of SAIL. It’s interesting to think that our mission can trace its roots to the farmers who have been so crucial to keeping Wisconsin’s economy going.  Thank you, Jerry, for your incredible contributions and for helping us to understand these important principles. We can’t wait to see what you do next!


View Jerry’s website here. The homepage,, includes links to the five-hour-long documentaries that Jerry did with PBS Wisconsin, each based on one or more of Jerry’s books.
Keep up with Jerry’s blog here
Peruse and purchase Jerry’s books here. Most are available through Amazon as Kindle and audiobooks. There is also an option to purchase from an independent bookstore.

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