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OPINION

Today, spring of the coronavirus, and yesterday

John Oncken
There are still many (and growing) dairy herds that are pastured since the 1998 Forum.

As I sit at my computer to begin my weekly Cross Country column, the sun is shining and signs of spring are creeping into the world of agriculture: Snow is pretty much gone; the local radio and TV news remind us that spring officially springs forth in a few days: the farm meeting schedule is wending its way toward planting time and the planting equipment languishing in the sheds all winter long is ready to go to work

But wait a minute — this is not a normal “just about springtime” season — it’s the spring of coronavirus and our lives have changed! How much? No one knows just yet, but news media talks of closed restaurants, airlines pleading for federal money, hospitals predicting a shortage of beds, store shelves bare of toilet paper (why so?) and milk flying off the shelves.  

Not first time

Wisconsin now has several hundred dairy herds milking over 1000 cows, but still almost all family owned.

It’s a scary time for most of the population who are too young to remember the Polio epidemic of the 1940s and 50s when Wisconsinites feared paralysis of arms, legs and lungs (the photos of iron lungs were fearsome) and even death. (Read Jerry App’s book “Limping through Life’ for a close-up view.)  And I, a young farm boy, feared every breath could be the one with the polio virus in it. 

Fortunately, a vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s and today few people have ever heard of polio or of the results of a virus that left a few friends and neighbors limping for the rest of their lives.  

But, for now we wait and wonder what the next day, week and month will bring and we try to go about out lives in a normal fashion.

Normal isn’t

Normal for me would include attending the 2000 PDPW Business Conference originally scheduled for March 18 and 19 in Madison but long canceled except for a streaming of some sessions. Normal also would mean attending the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference in Madison, April 7-9, now canceled (except for possible streaming) and normally attending the annual Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) Farm Show at Oshkosh which was also canceled. 

Each of these events drew large crowds to their commercial exhibits, seminars and perhaps most important, the opportunity for farmers and ag suppliers to network — or in plain terms — talk to each other.  

Jeff and Kate Hendrickson, Belleville have kept current with a small, high genetics and production herd of about 100 cows.

The WPS Farm Show may be the biggest loss of all to the normal 20,000 attendees and the commercial exhibitors. In its 60 years, this event has become the premier place for attendees to see, learn and share thoughts about new services, products and equipment in the state.

I’ve always said that the hallway and table talking was the real important benefit that farmers and their suppliers gained from these large gatherings and get-togethers. But, not this year!

Looking back

As I thought about this week’s column as I have done each week since April 1990, I went back and looked at some of those written years ago. One dated April 15, 1998 reviewed a forum entitled “The future of animal agriculture in Wisconsin” which featured several speakers presenting their thoughts. Two who saw dairy agriculture following the hog industry into vertical integration.

300 cow dairies like that owned by Bill Endres and his son-in-law at Waunakee are considered small today.

Chris Hurt, an ag economist at Purdue University who at one time was a hog raiser who got out when the price of hogs dropped said, “We at Purdue believe farm industrialization will continue — get out of the way or get run over is the theme for animal agriculture.” 

Seek markets

Larry Lemmenes, then manager of the now long-gone Alto Dairy Co-op said, “It’s time to pay attention to Wisconsin’s advantages. Let’s take advantage of our resources, get innovative and seek new markets.”  

Another speaker, Paul Scharfman, who runs Specialty Cheese. Co. at Lowell in Dodge County, said, “The dairy processor has three choices today:“Give up, screw up or scale up, and the only viable choice is the scale up move. Like a dairy producer who faces the same choices.”  Scharfman admitted he was “terrified” of borrowing money to scale up but “I can’t go back.” 

One of the dairy farmers on the panel Lloyd Holterman of Watertown, told how he went from a small herd to 325 cows and now has time to travel and enjoy life. 

“No, it wasn’t a forum for anyone wanting the good old days or for anyone seeing the gloomy side of dairying ... it was about the future.”

Dairy processors like Grassland Dairy Products continually seek new products and new markets.

Those few words were written in 1998 — 22 years ago, so the current discussion of the dairy issues and challenges are not new. 

Now

Since that Forum, Larry Lemmenes and Alto Dairy (now owned by Saputo) have long ago left the dairy industry. But, Paul Scharfman and his Specialty Cheese Company at Reeseville are certainly still in business and still growing after finding their niche as a maker of ethnic cheeses. They now manufacture cheese in a former high school building with some 250 employees and are marketing internationally. 

Lloyd and Daphne Holterman and their Rosey Lane Holsteins have continued to be one of Wisconsin’s leading dairy herds with some 900 cows milking and 1,700 acres of farmland. They continue to be outstanding producers of milk and providers of dairy genetics.

The forum in 1998 was thought provoking and perhaps was ahead of its time but I’m not sure if anyone realized it then. Many of the discussion subjects are still current today, 23 years later. 

Still, the cornavirus is with us, let’s hope and pray for not long.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.