ACE meetings provide discussion opportunities on important farm issues

Dan Hansen
Participating in the discussion at the recent ACE meeting (from left) were: Ron Brooks, Zoey Brooks, Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, and Jon Hochkammer, outreach manager for the Wisconsin Counties Association.

WAUPACA – Keeping dairy producers connected with local, state and national government officials – and member of the public – is vital to the continued growth of Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture industry.

Maintaining those important lines of communication is the primary reason the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW), along with the Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Towns Association, sponsored a series of Agricultural Community Engagement (ACE) meetings recently around the state.

The meetings were free and open to community leaders and members, educators, local and state elected officials, conservation group members and dairy and livestock producers. They provided an opportunity for discussion about farming practices, protecting land resources and building rural communities.

“Our farm hosts for the ACE On-the-Farm Twilight Meetings are tremendous examples of the breadth of today’s Wisconsin dairy farm families,” said Shelly Mayer, executive director of PDPW.  “Whether they are first-generation or sixth-generation dairy farmers, or whether they milk tens or thousands of cows, they are all focused on providing the best care for their animals, protecting the environment, and strengthening their local economies and communities.”

Brooks Farms

The first twilight meeting was held at Brooks Farms south of Waupaca, and began with an hour-long tour of the farm’s new freestall barn and milking facility conducted by Ron Brooks and his daughter, Zoey, who manage the grain and dairy farm that has been owned and operated by the family since 1855.

Corn, soybeans, alfalfa and other crops are grown on the 1,600-acre farm. The current dairy herd consists of 300 Holsteins milked twice a day, with plans to expand the herd to 700 animals over the next few years.

Between the grain and milking operations, the farm currently employs 12 people, including both Ron and Zoey Brooks. Additional employee are expected to be added as cow numbers. 

After the farm tour, and a dish of ice cream, attendees were ready to ask questions and discuss a wide variety of issues.

Local, state, national officials

Along with Shelly Mayer of PDPW, Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, and Jon Hochkammer, outreach manager for the Wisconsin Counties Association, were on hand to help facilitate the discussion.

Also in attendance were area State Assembly members Kevin Peterson, who represents the 40th District and Gary Tauchen, representing the 6th District. Members of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson’s staff were also on hand.

Jeff Lyons, Interim secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection made his first official appearance as DATCP secretary at the meeting. 

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) interim secretary Jeff Lyon  outlined some of the issues he and his staff are currently addressing during ACE on-the-farm twilight meetings.

Co-director of the UW Discovery Farms Program, Eric Cooley , also participated in the discussion. He coordinates and implements water quality research, collects and disseminates data, and develops educational materials based on Discovery Farms’ research.

Koles, who previously served as University of Wisconsin Extension community development educator in Waupaca County for 16 years summarized the purpose of the meeting.

“At these meetings, we want to highlight the best of the best to show how local government can work together with farmers to produce such a great farm as you have here,” Koles said. “The economy in our towns and counties is heavily dependent on agriculture, and we want to make sure those relationships are strong throughout the state.”

The discussion

Jeff Lyons, interim DATCP secretary, praised the groups that organize these meetings around the state. “It’s a great network, and these meetings really help keep the lines of communication open between farmers, our department staff, elected officials and other businesses in their communities and beyond,” he said.

Lyons reported that DATCP is continuing to work with local officials on livestock siting standards. “Our goal is to have local governments adopt the stateside standards so that farmers who meet all those standards will receive approval to expand their operations,” he said.

“it’s important for us to sit down, have a dish of ice cream, and talk about the challenges that you are facing so that we can continue to grow our diverse agriculture that’s so important to our state’s economy.”

Eric Cooley explained that Discovery Farms’s purpose is to enable more Wisconsin farmers to interact with each other. “We strive to have an open dialog among farmers, and a variety of agricultural specialists so that we can share the latest information that will help farmers do a better job of managing their operations while protecting the environment,” he said.

Manure management – particularly removing water before it’s applied to the fields in order to get much of the weight off the road – was a concern of many in attendance. Cooly and Lyons reported that research is being done on this issue, and they’re hoping to have more test cases and demonstrations on various systems that can help meet this challenge.

Several questions were directed to the Brooks’ family, including how farm ownership has transferred to the next generation. Ron explained that through an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) farm ownership has been transferred to Zoey and her three sisters, with each owning 25 percent.

Zoey responded to questions many have asked regarding the reasons for their dairy expansion.

“We’re expanding because our cows and our employees deserved better,” she said. “We were milking in outdated facilities built in the 1970s, that were overcrowded. There was poor ventilation and we weren’t able to give our cows the comfort they needed.”

Another reason behind the dairy expansion was to bring about a balance between the dairy and cropping operations.

“In the past, we invested so much in our agronomy and feed division that we were land heavy and cow short,” Zoey explained. “We’re working to achieve a balance between our dairy herd and our land base. We have enough land to support about 1,200 cows, and we don’t need to get any bigger than that.”