Lost faces of agriculture
When it comes to notable figures, the Wisconsin agriculture industry said goodbye to an educator, a voice on the auction block, a servant leader and a dairy advocate in 2019.
The passing of ag educator and advocate Joe Walker, auctioneer Pat O'Brien, dairy mentor and servant leader Randy Geiger and energetic dairy champion Dean Strauss left voids in the industry that can't be filled.
Joe Walker was raised on farm outside of Tower City, North Dakota during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
Walker, a resident of Waupaca, passed away on Dec. 31, 2018, at the age of 93, leaving behind a rich legacy in the classroom, 4-H program and UW Extension offices during his long life.
He taught agriculture in Poynette, a few miles south of his boyhood home in Columbia County. After leaving the classroom, Walker served as the 4-H agent in Oconto County and later as the 4-H agent in Outagamie County. A couple of years later he headed to Waupaca County where he began working as a county agricultural agent.
Walker served as executive secretary of Farm Progress Days when it was held in Waupaca County in 1978.
Pat O'Brien's rolling banter was absent as the county fair circuit rolled through Wisconsin this summer.
O'Brien who presided over auctions at the Wisconsin State Fair, nine county fairs along with the small Alto Farm Bureau fair and countless farm and estate sales and FFA banquets passed away at the age of 84 on May 15.
He got his first taste of the auction business as a young man, helping out his father and uncle with the family business, O'Brien Brothers Auctioneers. Years later, Pat and his older brother, Jim, would take over the business running cattle, estate, farm and household auctions.
O'Brien was well-known for his work at Midwest Livestock Producers in Lomira and later at the Milwaukee Stock Yard. He also provided daily market reports for KFIZ radio station and was an integral part of the Fond du Lac County Fair for well over 50 years.
In 2014 he was inducted into the Wisconsin 4-H Hall of Fame. O'Brien was also tapped to receive an honorary State FFA Degree as well as the Fond du Lac Friend of 4-H Award.
Randy Geiger, passed away on Sept. 9, 2019, at the age of 69, following complications from a heart attack he suffered while side-raking hay on the family's 152-year-old farm.
Geiger began a 50-year career in dairy farming following his father’s untimely death in 1966. Together with his wife, Rosalie, they bred and developed a prized herd of registered Holsteins, which won numerous awards from Holstein Association USA.
With Geiger's compassionate cow care, the milk quality at Ran-Rose Farms, with Randy being the “Ran” and Rosalie being the “Rose,” was among the very best in the nation. From 1996 to 2015, the herd was awarded the Manitowoc County DHIA Udder Health Award each and every year and maintained a somatic cell score — a measure of cow and udder health — under 100,000 cells.
in May 1989, he began a crusade to find some way to help the 170 farmers who collectively lost $2.1 million in milk check money that year. He wrote over 250 letters and made countless phone calls to elected officials. Eventually, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson signed a bill into law in April 1991 to restore half of the money following potential state negligence in a bonding issue.
One of the National Milk Producers Federation's largest member cooperatives, FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative, owes its formation to the leadership role that Geiger played to help bring together three of Wisconsin's dairy marketing cooperatives into one powerful grassroots entity with more than 3,000 members.
Geiger also served on numerous boards where he shared his passion for agriculture. He garnered high honors in the extremely competitive Dairy Hay Division at the World Dairy Expo World’s Forage Superbowl and was a dedicated School Tour leader at World Dairy Expo.
It was a shock to the ag community when Dean Strauss, 48, died on Sept. 29.
In May, Strauss was one of three farmers in the nation honored for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability. In July he experienced sudden cardiac arrest while driving home from a dairy meeting in St. Paul. Several months later, he died peacefully at the Sharon Richardson Community Hospice Center.
Strauss served on several boards including the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center board, being one of the initial funders in the center, the Executive board of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and the Dairy Policy Committee for Wisconsin Farm Bureau.
Previously, he served on the boards of the Wisconsin Beef Council, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) and Dairy Management Inc.
In 2005, before animal rights were in the spotlight, Strauss helped PDPW start an animal welfare initiative that eventually lead to the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative. While many in the industry didn't want to put the time and energy into the initiative at the time, Strauss was passionate about the dairy industry defining animal welfare instead of allowing extremist groups to define it for them.
Strauss was a young energetic leader with promise, forward-thinking and passionate about agriculture and dairy.
Each man brought specific qualities, skills and talents to the agriculture industry. Looking back on 2019, their contributions are sorely missed.