Looking back: Top stories from 2018

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Waupun Agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Tari Costello (left) gives Danielle Wetzel a hug and some moral support as the Wetzel family copes with wide spread destruction on their family farm east of Alto.

Farmers had a rough ride in 2018. From tariffs, low milk prices, waiting on a Farm Bill and extremes of weather, the year was challenging on many levels. 

Nationally, trade issues and retaliatory tariffs battered already weary producers while waiting for a new Farm Bill. Statewide, the ag community was stunned by the death of John Pagel in a plane crash. Weather ranged from piles of snow dumped by Evelyn in spring, heavy rains and tornadoes in August, to a wet fall that slowed completion of harvest and tested the mettle of many farmers.

Taking a look back at 2018, here are some of the biggest stories each month. 


  • Bone-chilling cold gripped the middle of the U.S. as 2018 began. The National Weather Service issued wind chill advisories covering a vast area from South Texas all the way to Canada and from Montana and Wyoming in the west through New England to the northern tip of Maine. Dangerously low temperatures enveloped eight Midwest state. The arctic blast was blamed for freezing a water tower in Iowa and halting a ferry service in New York.
  • In 2018, the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension service will begin full operation under a new organizational structure.  More than two years ago, Extension staff and working groups began planning for a reorganization to sharpen its focus on education, streamline administration, and meet state budget cut mandates.
  • Large dairy operations in eastern Wisconsin would have to limit manure spreading under new restrictions the state Department of Natural Resources board approved Jan. 24 in an attempt to protect groundwater from contamination. Manure spreading restrictions would impact 15 counties in northeastern Wisconsin. The DNR has been working on the regulations for two years, largely in response to widespread drinking water contamination in Kewaunee County.
  • Supporters and opponents of a proposed large-scale dairy near Wisconsin Rapids are awaiting a decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court on whether the farm will become a reality. At the center of the argument is whether building permits filed by the Wysocki Family in 2012 entitle the company to use about 6,000 acres for cropland.


  • An Ohio dairy lost a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's ban on ungraded butter. Minerva claimed the Wisconsin requirement was mere protectionism and an illegal interference with interstate commerce. 
John Pagel, Kewaunee County Land and Water Conservation chairman, at The Cannery Public Market, his Green Bay restaurant.


  • The Wisconsin dairy industry stunned by death of visionary and farmer John Pagel. Pagel, 58, son-in-law Steve Witcpalek, 39, and pilot Nathan Saari, 35, died when the Cessna 441 Conquest II they were in crashed on Feb. 22, in a farm field northwest of Indianapolis. Pagel and his family operate Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy, an 8,500 acre dairy farm located seven miles west of Lake Michigan that's home to more than 5,300 cows and employs over 100 workers.
  • A Milwaukee County judge will allow a lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging a settlement between the Dairy Business Association and DNR to move forward. The DBA filed a lawsuit in July 2017 alleging the DNR improperly blocked farms from using vegetation patches to filter pollution, improperly assumed oversight of calf hutches and illegally required farms to get pollution permits regardless of actual pollution. The DNR settled the case in October, 2017, agreeing vegetation patches are valid pollution-control systems and to stop regulating hutches. The DBA agreed to drop its illegal permit claims.
Jennifer and John Yost III take apart their barn roof, which collapsed under last weekend's heavy snow. Several cows were in the section that collapsed and had to be rescued.


  • The United States imposed a tax on Chinese steel and aluminum, resulting in China countering with tariffs on a host of U.S. products, including apples, pork and ginseng. Observers termed the actions between the world's two biggest economies, calling it a . "trade slap-fight" at the moment.
  • Snowstorm Evelyn dumped up to 30 inches of heavy snow in northeast Wisconsin, causing several barn roofs to collapse in northeastern Wisconsin, killing cows and disrupting milking operations. The weekend blizzard that pummeled the region left snow drifts 10 feet deep next to some barns, frustrating efforts to get ladders and snow removal equipment up on the roof.  The heavy blanket of snow was blamed for the collapse of a greenhouse at Pulaski High School and a hoop house at Winneconne High School.


  • The Chemical Safety Board released its investigative update, blaming combustible corn dust is blamed for causing an explosion that caused the collapse of four of the nine buildings at Didion Milling, killing five of the 19 employees working at the facility on the evening of May 31, 2017.  The other 14 workers were injured.
State fire marshals work at Didion Milling Plant in the Village of Cambria, Wis., Friday, June 2, 2017. An explosion at the plant on Wednesday night killed three employees and injured about a dozen others. A fourth died from injuries sustained in the blast.


  • Wisconsin cranberry growers may have to reduce sales if the U.S. Department of Agriculture's federal market order is approved. The USDA's proposal would limit the nation's cranberry crop to 75 percent of its typical size in order to decrease stocks and raise prices.
  • Governor Walker directed DATCP Secretary Sheila Harsdorf and UW System President Ray Cross to create a dairy industry task force designed to bring industry experts together to create solutions to help farmers, processors and related industries.
  • Despite a slow, late start, producers caught up with planting this month as spring tillage hit 95 percent completion. A favorable mix of heat and precipitation boosted fieldwork and crop development. Farmers reported widespread crop emergence.
  • A Mayville Holstein owned by UW-Platteville student has been recognized by Holstein Association USA as the Star of the Breed.Smith-Crest-TW SH Virgie-ET is owned by Paul Grulke, 21, of Mayville.
Smoke rises from the scene of a reported plane crash Friday afternoon near the Sheboygan County Memorial Airport.


  • A plane crashed into a Sheboygan County farm, killing the 50-year-old pilot, Martin J. Tibbitts, from Grosse Pointe, Michiga. Tibbitts crashed into a farm building shortly after taking off from the Sheboygan County airport. The crash also injured  two farm workers, as well as killing or injuring about 40-50 cattle.
  • Farmers say Trump's $12 billion in farm aid won't cover their losses from the trade war. Farmers urged Trump to settle the trade disputes with China, Mexico, Canada and the European Union and get the commerce flowing again.  
The earthen dam once 50 feet tall has a channel ripped through it after flood waters breached the dam, sending a wall of water down the valley, washing away everything in its path.


  • The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Foundation has sold its controversial green energy initiative to a Pennsylvania energy company. REV LNG won a Monday, Aug. 27, auction with an investment nearly three times larger than an initial “stalking horse” bid of $2.1 million. The digester at Rosendale Dairy was just one of numerous investments the university made by funneling public money through the foundation, UW System officials allege.
  • Heavy rains pounded the Driftless Area of western Wisconsin, resulting in evacuations and roads closures. Heavy rains caused mudslides, downed trees and flooded farm fields.
  • The National Weather Service confirmed 19 tornadoes stretching from Marquette county, east through Sheboygan county on Aug. 28.  In Fond du Lac County, an EF-1 tornado uprooted trees, mangled farm building including one near Waupun sheltering the milking herd and pre-fresh cow.
  • Rain events during August produced localized flooding affecting numerous corn fields. Recent high winds combined with saturated soils have resulted in lodged corn.
Six buildings including a large freestall barn that sheltered the milking herd at Pebble Knolls Dairy were destroyed in a tornado on July 28.


  • Dairy farmers looking to protect the revenue on their operations will have a significant new tool as of October 9. The Dairy Revenue Protection insurance product, which was created under a USDA program, is an area-based revenue product designed to insure against unexpected declines in the quarterly revenue from milk sales relative to a guaranteed coverage level.
  • Hilrose Advent Anna-Red EX-94, an eight-year-old Red & White Holstein bred and owned by Hilrose Holsteins of Sherwood, Wis. has been named the 2018 Wisconsin Cow of the Year. Anna will be recognized with the honor at a special ceremony on October 4 during this year’s World Dairy Expo.


  • No longer a cosmetic leaf disease, tar spot is resulting in severe damage in some corn fields around the state. Fields especially targeted were in the southern third of Wisconsin. o see some yield impacts. Damon Smith says it's likely that tar spot will appear again next year.
  • Dairy economist Bob Cropp says projected milk prices will leave farmers struggling to cash flow operations. By September, milk prices had inched their way up to $16.06, prompting another mild wave of optimism for better prices. However the last couple of weeks in the cheese markets have shown a “nosedive” in prices.
Many dairy farms and livestock operations have posted signs on buildings and at the entrances to their operations in an effort to prevent the spread of disease to animals.


  • Chilton area dairy farmer David Geiser has been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.
  • A series of whole-herd tests have found several more cattle infected with bovine tuberculosis in a Dane County herd. The animal health incident began in late September when the disease was discovered in the carcass of a cow from that herd during a routine slaughter inspection.  Officials believe that a worker at Maier Farms LLC., near Waunakee infected the animals back in 2015. 


  • U.S., Mexico and Canada ink new trade agreement, but final ratification remains big hurdle. Lawmakers in three countries must ratify the new trade pact, which will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. That could take months.
  • President Trump signed the $400 billion Farm Bill heading to President Trump after Senate, House approval. The farm bill maintains current limits on farm subsidies. The legislation will provide for food aid, agriculture subsidies, and conservation programs.
National flags representing the United States, Canada, and Mexico fly in the breeze in New Orleans where leaders of the North American Free Trade Agreement met in April 2008.