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'Best job I could have ever asked for': Manitowoc County ag agent retires after 33 years

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Scott Gunderson

Scott Gunderson knew he wouldn't be a farmer at an early age.

He grew up in a family of five brothers on a small dairy farm of 10 cows. He had a passion for animals from the beginning, but one of his older brothers ended up taking over the farm before he could.

But his love for farms, dairy farming in particular, still kept him on the path to pursue a career in agriculture. He went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and got a degree in agriculture education, then went on to Colorado State University for his Master's in animal science. 

What he didn't expect, he says, was that he would become Manitowoc County's Extension ag agent, specializing in dairy, for the next 33 years after he graduated with his second degree.

"I was 25 when I started this job," he said. "I really didn't know what the future held. ...I think it's the best job I could have ever asked for."

Since then, Gunderson has become one of the most well-known ag educators in the state. He co-founded the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in 2018. He served as vice-chair of the Extension Department of Agriculture and Life Science for nearly a decade. He was a mentor to new agents and educators across the state for 25 years.

Most of all, he helped hundreds of farms to streamline their dairy management, helping them run the best farm they could. Gunderson said one of the best parts of the job was sitting at a kitchen table on a farm, just getting to connect with people and help them improve both their business and their lives.

"I love to see people improve themselves," he said. "That doesn't mean, if you're a farmer, that you have to go from 100 cows to 1,000 cows. Absolutely not. I've always thought getting better before bigger is the key."

UW-Extension Agent Scott Gunderson of Manitowoc County checks out one of the interactive displays at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center.

Gunderson wasn't just born a good teacher - he said he also learned from the best. One of his most memorable mentors who helped him early in his career was James Crowley, a Ph.D. candidate at UW-Madison. Crowley's extensive experience in dairy nutrition, which Gunderson said was a very small field during the 1980s, helped him develop his own passion for specializing in dairy management.

Gunderson especially became interested in learning more about dairy herd improvement testing. He helped work on a software called Badger Balance, which served as a virtual dietitian for cows by measuring butter fat and protein levels in milk samples and recommending diet plans based on the data.

"It all depends upon what the farm's needs are," he said. "You can see, over time, what the development is ... leading that successful transition from mom and dad to the next generation."

Carl Duley, Buffalo County's own extension agent, was the one to refer Gunderson to the job all those years ago. Gunderson was studying for his bachelor's degree in ag education at UW-River Falls when Duley was going for his Master's in the same field.  Since then, they've been friends and colleagues.

Duley has served as the Buffalo County agent for 35 years and has joined Gunderson in ag education efforts from time to time. While the two have worked on opposite sides of the state for decades, Duley said Gunderson has always been his go-to person to call about anything dairy.

"He's always willing to help," Duley said. "Scott always had a good attitude. I think in today's world in agriculture, especially in the last ten years or so, it's been kind of hard to stay positive. But Scott always was."

Duley added that Gunderson is a good mentor to others, driven by his love for Wisconsin agriculture. 

"He was able to keep his ideas, his teachings (and) his techniques fresh. I don't think he ever really got stale at his job," Duley said. "The State of Wisconsin is going to miss him."

Traveling and volunteering are on Gunderson's retirement to-do list. While traveling is made difficult right now due to the pandemic, he said he plans on getting more involved with volunteer work at the Wisconsin Farm Discovery Center. He's also considering volunteer consultation for some farms, but noted that those plans aren't set in stone. 

He also wants to spend time in the great outdoors. One of Gunderson's favorite places to go fishing, hunting and logging is the Chippewa Falls area, he said. His father was a logger, cutting pulp for paper mills and stripping the bark off poplar trees, so he said logging is "in his blood."

"I'm not going to retire to immediately go back to work, I'm going to check things out for now and see how I like it," he said. "We do have some plans though."

Scott Gunderson, center in yellow, at a “Dairy After Hours” event held at Meadow Brook Dairy Farms in Manitowoc in 2005.

Due to a hiring freeze in the UW system because of the coronavirus, Gunderson is unsure when his replacement will be hired. He said thinking about the future of his position is troubling because of budget cuts in the university system – the administration is considering combining the Manitowoc County extension system with neighboring counties, he said, which may reduce the ability of the office to respond to local farmers with questions and concerns.

He said it's important to keep the Manitowoc County ag agent position dairy-specific, because Manitowoc County is always in the top five counties in milk production for Wisconsin and top 25 in the nation. He also said centralizing the office will make it harder to be involved in local committees, advisory boards and event planning. Gunderson served on 

Regardless of the office politics, Gunderson said he's kept the same framed quote hanging in his office for the past 20 years: "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."

"I live by it ... and I truly believe that."