Farm meetings: Not like dad attended

John Oncken
A non-ag silo built by Wisconsin Silos, Plover. The silo was designed to support the “outlook” structure and enclose the elevator.

I suspect  that nary a week goes by  in which a farm centered meeting doesn’t take place. Whether big or small in numbers or attendees, with farmers or agricultural suppliers as attendees, with experts/officials providing information or organizational updates, the meetings go on.  

As it was

Several decades ago these farmer events were held in church basements and school ag rooms with cheese sandwiches and milk as the standard eating fare. 

Then came the motels with their event centers and swimming pools. For a couple of decades the old Holiday Inn at Stevens Point and the Holiday Inn South East and Heritage House in Madison were popular meeting sites. All are long gone now and only the older still-farming dads will even remember.

There are many fewer farmer education meetings these days as cooperatives have merged (thus fewer district and annual meetings) and the number of dairy farmers have shrunk from the many tens of thousands to under 9,000.  

Some 160 people attended the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin hosted “Food and Policy Summit Dec. 6-7.

But the farm type meetings go on: Yes, with fewer local extension sponsored gatherings with a big array of general subjects (traditional Farm-City Days for example) to bigger and more specialized seminars covering two days. 

During my many years of agricultural involvement, I’ve easily attended and or participated in perhaps thousands of ag meetings and found each one interesting (to some degree) and educational (learning something).

Last week I attended two such gatherings both interesting in their own way, both held on the same day, both held in Madison at motels.

For 110 years

The International Silo Association (ISA) drew about 30 silo builders and equipment suppliers to the Comfort Inn on Madison’s east side. This was the organization’s 110th such meeting dating to 1907 when the nation’s wood stave silo companies formed the National Silo Manufacturers and Jobbers Association. They organized and held their first meeting in Chicago with 28 companies represented.  

Two 18 x 60 silos built by Wisconsin Silos, Plover, were added to the UW-Madison dairy facility on its Madison  campus several years ago.

What is now The International Silo Association was known by nine different names over the years before assuming the current name in 1979.  

Yes, there are upright (tower) monolithic, stave and steel silos being built today with Canada being the most active new silo building area. The long-standing milk production quota program has kept large mega dairies at a minimum and dairy farmers seek mechanization and quality forage, thus the popularity of upright silos.  

Still being used

Marvin Reiff, owner of Greenwood Silos is the new president and administrator of the ISA.

Upright silos continue to be popular in Wisconsin among the smaller dairy operations using traditional stanchion or tie stall barns who have a couple (or maybe more) upright silos. While there are new silos being added today, the silo companies mainly provide the all-important repair and equipment source functions for the thousands of tower silos in use today. 

Bruce Johnson of  Wisconsin Silos at Plover says his company is "the most complete builder of concrete silos in the US and that no one in the country has the capability to build the variety of cylindrical concrete structures that we do.”

Although primarily an agricultural based company it has increasingly built built silos for non-ag use. He cites the concrete silo with an elevator leading to a rec room at the top, a silo with a sauna and another silo with a circular staircase topped by an outlook room.

Although changes in farming have seen a move to bunker and bag storage the ISA still plays a major role in silo building, repair and maintenance. Marvin Reiff, Greenwood is the current president and administrator of the ISA. He and his wife Rachel own and operate Greenwood Silo, specializing in rebuilding and erecting Harvestore silos and marketing and maintaining silo unloaders.   

PDPW hosts summit

Meanwhile, across town, the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) hosted their Annual Food and Policy Summit. Unlike the majority of farm-type meetings offered to farmers over the years, it did not feature discussion about feeding, breeding, raising and managing cows. 

Rather, the subject matter was aimed at informing farmers and their suppliers about the big picture surrounding dairy agriculture. The meeting introduction explains: “The rise of social media and new technologies are giving activists with fear-based claims a broader reach than ever before. From GMOs and antibiotics to emerging technologies like gene editing, understanding the issues that are influencing consumers’ food-buying decisions is critical to protecting and sustaining your dairy business now and for generations to come.”

A gathering of experts

"The 2017 PDPW Food and Policy Summit, PDPW, will bring together a full slate of leading scientists, policy experts, and other industry specialists to provide an inside look on the issues, technologies and debate that surrounds our industry. Innovative dairy farm owners, industry CEOs, food system executives and key decision makers and thought leaders from across the food value chain will join in the discussions to learn how to engage consumers in a credible, transparent way.  The Food and Policy Summit will provide important insights in the perceptions that consumers have of modern farming, the science behind key issues, and how to be more credible and transparent in telling the farmer’s story." 

Dr. Mark Borcherdt, USDA microbiologist and Dr. Allison Van Eenennaam, U Cal Davis, animal genomics and biotechnology specialist answer questions after their presentations.

Why would farmers spend time and money to listen to an array of PhDs and business experts talk about such things - after all their profession is milking cows?

It’s not only milking

You’ve probably noticed that consumers today want natural food, produced by kind and gentle farmers who treat their animals as pets while farming land in an environmentally sustainable fashion - that’s why.

Is manure impacting our water?  Farmers try hard to follow spreading rules.

And, would you believe, most farmers do all these things. The challenge is to understand that consumers want to know what farmers are doing and how? But, dairy farming takes most all of a day’s time, every day, all year, leaving little time to 
know and understand all the details of emerging science, carbon footprints, antibiotics, marketing and public relations. 

The speakers talked in some depth about such things as the genomic approach to selecting cattle less susceptible to disease, mitigating air emissions affecting human health, predicting the emergence and spread of infectious disease and, perhaps most important, being able to explain farming to the consumer if asked on TV, or by other media.  

More than just farming

In contrast to my days growing up on a farm when a farmer had to be an expert in crop and animal management, weather, mechanics, hard work and gut feelings, today’s farmer must have an understanding of GMO’s (Genetically modified organisms), DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid), HR (Human resources) and IT (Information technology) among others.  And must be able to talk with the TV reporter who calls (out of the blue) and wants you to explain GMO soybeans or genomic testing of your calves. 

Are the cows being treated right is a common question. The answer is yes.

Complicated? Yes - that’s why  PDPW (and other organizations) are offering seminars, webinars and training on such non traditional subjects.  

Times have and are indeed changing!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.