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The USDA defines a farm "as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.”

Not everyone will agree to that definition but whatever the size of the operation, from a 1-acre strawberry patch to a 10,000-acre grain farm, the success depends on the farmers and the tools they have to work with. And the tools mean everything — from the rules and regulations to continuing education to the $10 hoe to the $300,000 spray rig.

Behind (or maybe ahead) of every farmer are the suppliers of the raw materials — manufacturer, distributor, applicator or educator — often called the agribusiness industry. Farmers know them but perhaps not much about them. Consumers seldom think about them, and if they do, it is but for a brief moment.

A voice

That’s where the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association comes in:  “To represent, provide programs and services, educate, train, manage regulatory and legislative affairs, and to be a strong unifying voice for that segment of agriculture.”

One of the learning opportunities offered to farmers by WABA, along with UW Extension and UW-CALS, is the annual Wisconsin Agribusiness Classic (formerly the WI Crop Management Conference and before that the Wisconsin Fertilizer, Aglime & Pest Management Conference), which is 55 years old and was held last week in Madison.

To learn

Although some 1,600 people attended and viewed 120 commercial and educational exhibits and attended 38 seminars, it was not a gathering for farmers but rather for the private and cooperative suppliers to farmers. It's where the agronomists, consultants and dealers come to learn about the new products and technology crop farmers will consider buying.

Touring the exhibits

My tour of exhibits turned up a number of exhibits that caught my eye and interest: Some were new, others old, but each a part of today’s ever-changing agriculture.

Legacy Seeds is a family-owned seed company in Scandinavia, Wisconsin, that had its start in 2000 when three veterans of the seed industry, Steve Jensen, Bruce Ceransky and Tyler Lee,  joined together to use their experience and knowledge to develop and enhance farm seed products.

Alfalfa seed research and sales were their first product (the company has an alfalfa research farm in Evansville), followed in 2004 with corn and soybeans. They have packaging facilities in Nampa, Idaho and Waupaca, Wisconsin.

Legacy Seeds began business (and remains) during a period when the ag seed industry was and is consolidating.

“We are one of the few seed companies in Wisconsin where you can still call and talk directly with an owner (Bruce Ceranske at 717-467-2555),” said District Sales Manager Dale Budtke, Stratford.

And he’s right.

It’s about comfort

The big John Deere machine slowed me down for a look. From the front it looked like a tractor,  but it was actually a high-capacity dry nutrient applicator with a 330 cubic foot capacity. Its major improvement over other such machines, according to the information  brochure, are “improved ride quality, more than 30 percent better than competitors.”

My first thought was big deal. My second thought was that the person operating the big machine no doubt spends long hours and long days over roads and rough fields, and comfort was indeed important.

Accuracy

Then there was the display with an array of pipes and readouts that had me befuddled. Mark Magee of Cedar Rapids and Iowa-based Junge Control was eager to explain.

“This system is used to blend different liquids by weight,” Magee said.  “For instance,  accuracy is extremely important when you are blending liquid fertilizers, insecticides and other ag products.

And so it went, display after display of technology, from software to crop testing laboratories to equipment big and small. The need for the supplier to learn and understand the “new”  to better serve their farm customer is so important, and as one supplier told me, “We must know or we’re out of business.”

Millennials an issue?

I attended the seminar “Millennials talk about millennials: What you should know about the evolving workforce" — a subject much discussed and often not well understood.

A panel of three millennials (born from 1977-2000) — Aaron Cole, The DeLong Co.; Anne Moore, CHS, Larsen Cooperative; and Kristen Faucon, Growmark —  related how they got their jobs and how they perform them in companies with older bosses and traditions.

All agreed they liked where they worked and want to stay long term. Each recognizes that agricultural businesses often require hard work and long hours, which they see as acceptable, and each wants to be challenged in their jobs.

They also suggested that managers must determine their work habits and be open to some changes.  Their age group probably wants a more instant response via email and texting than their supervisors are familiar with, but now even farmers (especially farmers) are texting and want a fast response, the millennials said.

After an hour of discussions and questions, I concluded that the millennial conflict issue may not actually be an issue at all. This group was little different in their desires and actions than I was when I was their age. The young employee and the older supervisor must use common sense, listen to each other and be open to change.

Looking back

I remember as a young county agent in Clark County, along with a couple of adjoining county agents, merging seven individual county DHIA units into one Central Wisconsin DHIA. We had to convince the local DHIA boards and county ag committees (all who were older, traditional farmers), who finally agreed that change was good, and it was successful for decades.

When I joined ABS as advertising manager, one of my first big projects was to create the annual sire directory. I proceeded to change everything from the wording to layout without getting much advice. My boss didn’t much like to do it, and President Bob Walton apparently trusted me. The next year, the entire A.I. industry was following our new ABS sire directory system.

Looking ahead

My grandson, Joe Oncken, who is working on an engineering Ph.D. at Michigan Tech University, visited me with his family at Christmas. He cautioned me not to be too critical of millennials: “We have a lot to offer. Some things may be different, some very good.”

Yes, the “millennial issue” is much discussed, but change is inevitable. Just look at farming today versus 20 years ago. My guess: most of the changes came from the next generation, not the parents.

The WABA  is indeed at the cutting edge of agriculture, offering programs of many kinds and leading ag companies to the production, by farmers, of safe, healthy, readily-available food for consumers in the U.S. and beyond.  A great cause indeed.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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