As we approach the 70th anniversary of Wisconsin's agriculture ambassador, Alice in Dairyland, it calls to mind days long past and the history contained within seven decades. If we rewind 70 years, our country was just coming out of World War II. It was a time of rebirth and opportunity; when the ties that bind communities were stronger than ever.
I recently had the opportunity to fly to Washington D.C. with the Badger Honor Flight. More than 80 veterans from World War II, Korean, and Vietnam combats were able to travel to our nation's capital on this flight to see the memorials created in their honor.
Upon arriving at the Madison airport as the sun rose, I quickly made friends. I met two gentlemen whose story I could instantly recognize by glancing at their hands; their rough, knotted knuckles and callouses reminded me of my dad and grandpa's hands. With proud smirks, they couldn't wait to tell me that they've been Wisconsin dairy farmers their entire lives.
One of the veterans told me how their family bought the farm in 1873 for $40 an acre. They milked in stanchion and tie stall barns, and slowly adapted to the latest upgrades in technology over the years. Boy, were they amazed at the thought of the robotic milkers we have on some farms.
When we touched down in D.C., the veterans were greeted at the terminal with a band and harmonious applause thanking them for their service. We began our trip by watching the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, followed by some time to pay our respects to the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the day, we visited the Marine Corps Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean, Vietnam, and World War II Memorials, as well as the recently built Air Force Memorial.
I soon found that many of my conversations with the veterans would follow a similar storyline as my two dairy farmers I met. Many veterans had grown up on a farm or worked at a relative's during the summertime. I heard stories of threshing grain and milking cows by hand, and plowing fields behind a team of Belgian draft horses. It was big news around town when the first combine was brought to a farm.
On the flight home, each veteran was given a 'Mail Call' package of letters from friends and family, reminiscent of the letters from home they would receive while on base. While he was reading his letters, I had the privilege of visiting with Dr. Robert Bradley, an emeritus professor in the UW-Madison Food Sciences Department.
Throughout Dr. Bradley's 37 years of teaching and research, his focus was centered in the dairy processing industry. He has written a book on butter making and worked closely with scientists in Babcock Dairy Hall. One of his letters in his mail call package was from a former student of his that is now involved in a butter processing facility on the east coast.
For most of my year as the 68th Alice in Dairyland, I have been the one telling the story of Wisconsin's $88.3 billion agriculture community that we have today. Here, on this trip, I had the privilege and honor of being the one listening and it was an experience I will never forget.
Agriculture is a tie that binds each and every one of us, whether 70 years ago or today at this present moment. Our veterans deserve all the thanks in the world.
To learn more about the Badger Honor Flight and the Honor Flight network, visit www.badgerhonorflight.org.
Loether is the 68th Alice in Dairyland.