Retiring FB president tells farmers to 'remain open to change'

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
American Farm Bureau Vice President Scott VanderWal presents retiring Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte with a token of appreciation during the organization's centennial celebration and annual meeting Dec. 8 at Wisconsin Dells.

Throughout Jim Holte's life, he has been open to change.

When Holte was invited to attend his very first Farm Bureau activity in Dunn County more than two decades ago, he never expected the wealth of opportunities that would come his way.

One of those opportunities occurred 24 years ago when Holte was first elected to the Board of Directors. At the time Holte had transitioned in his role as a dairy farmer to running a feed to finish beef farm and grain cropping operation near Elk Mound in western Wisconsin.

When the leadership of the state organization asked him to consider taking over the presidency in 2012, Holte said he sat down with his wife to consider what that would mean for the entire family.

"This was an opportunity that I could not turn down," he said. "I felt that I had something to give, and I hope I've done that."

Last weekend, Holte stepped down from his role as president of the statewide organization that marked its centennial anniversary at this year's WFBF annual meeting and YFA conference in the Wisconsin Dells.

Holte credits any successes that the organization has had under his leadership to the hard work of the teams, his mentors, support staff and the board of directors that support the mission of the Farm Bureau.

While the reality of retirement hasn't yet set in, Holte said he knew it was time to step down and let someone else take over the helm.

"The forces of time work on us all and I'm at the point where I want and need to spend more time with my wife and daughters and their families," he said. "I do have a great deal of confidence in the leadership that will take my place."

Buffalo County dairy farmer Joe Bragger was tapped to succeed Holte.

Lowest of lows

During his time leading the organization, farmers have enjoyed record milk prices and bumper crops. However, over the last four years of Holte's term as president, he has seen farmers endure the lowest of low times on the farm.

Holte recalls a similar time back in the 1980s when farmers like himself struggled financially.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte, right, spends time talking with American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall during a farm tour in Manitowoc County in October 2017.

"That experience gave me a better perspective on what today's farmers are going through, whether they're young or seasoned farmers or somewhere in the middle," he said. "That helped me to focus and stay within reality of what kinds of policies and programs Farm Bureau needs to adapt and carry forward to help them through this time."

What he didn't see coming was when milk processing plants began dropping dairy farmers in 2017, leaving them without a buyer for their milk.

"That was an out of the box situation," he said. "I don't think any of us ever imagined that could happen but it did. And it was devastating for some."

RELATED: Looking back at 2017: A year of turmoil for agriculture

Holte says Farm Bureau aspires to provide farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to manage the risk that is part of the business.

"The risk has always been there. It's just that it has become more of a focal point for those farming today than in the past," he said. 

To survive in these tough times, Holte says farmers need to remain open to change.

"Change is unsettling. My grandfather and father experienced a lot of change as well when they were farming and, in many cases, they had to find ways to adapt to it," Holte said. "You either make some decisions to stay in ag or find a different part of ag to work in."

While it's concerning to see the amount of change that has impacted the ag industry over the past four years, Holte says no industry is immune to change.

"We have to accept that fact and look for ways to adapt to it to the best of our own interests," he said. "But I do have confidence that the farmers of today and the younger ones coming up will find solutions to do that."