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OPINION

The virus came in - the farm fun went out

John Oncken
Duane and Tina Hinchley  hope the rescheduled Dane county Farm Breakfast at their dairy  is a go.

It’s been a couple of months now since the world spun out of control: “stay in and stay away” are the words we (everyone) are encouraged to abide by. No more baseball, basketball, in-store shopping, eating out or going to big farm events.

Farmers have long been known for milking cows twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for a lifetime. That’s sort of true but not quite, when you add up all the farm meetings held yearly usually attended by the good managers, high production, entrepreneurial, ambitious and community involved farmers.  

Meetings galore

Normally there are farm management oriented meetings being held most every week on a local basis: Farm tours, seed corn, UW-Extension, PDPW, Farm Bureau –information/education type gatherings are of the annual type or specialty/new product meetings with long standing sponsors with sales or products, services or ideas as the goals.  

In spite of the coronavirus, farmers are still farming.  Thanks to them.

Then there are the regional and statewide meetings and events: DBA, PDPW, Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) Farm Show, Farm Technology Days and World Dairy Expo. State FFA Convention and more.

Of course, the most extensive annual farm meeting series of all are the 60 (or so) June Dairy Breakfasts on the Farm held across the state.  This year will be different - so different.  

A few were held

Of all the major Ag-type meetings scheduled for 2020, I think of only a few that were actually held in a building with people in attendance: Dairy Strong (DBA); Corn/Soy/Pork Expo and the Wisconsin Agribusiness Classic conference hosted by the Wisconsin Agribusiness Association (WABA), UW Extension and the UW-Madison College of Agriculture & Life Sciences (CALS). These were held in January prior to the coronavirus public onset.

A few meetings were, or will be, held on a virtual basis via computer streaming where one could participate at home via phone or computer, a system OK for information, not so good for talking (networking) with fellow farmers or suppliers.

Lots of talking takes place at the PDPW Business Conference - but not this year.

Will they return?

Eventually the coronavirus will be stopped, as was polio with a vaccine and we can all go back to normal living and to attending farm meetings. But, will we? Will the meeting season be the same? Will the same meetings be held in years to come? Important questions that the answers —  when they come — could impact farming as we’ve lived it over the years. 

The three biggest farm gatherings in Wisconsin, the WPS Farm show, Farm Technology Days and World Dairy Expo have each been around for over 50 years. That’s a long run indeed but times and agriculture have changed so much over those years.  

A decision regarding the 2020 World Dairy Expo will be announced July 1.

The WPS Farm Show seems very popular and solid (from the outside at least) and is loved by exhibitors and farmers for its location and facilities and have set dates for next year.  

The future of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days seems a bit less certain considering the smaller attendance at recent shows and this years' cancellation. The first show in 1954 was aimed at bringing new farming information from the UW-Madison to farmers who were in the midst of a period of industrialization. Most important: farmer communication systems have vastly changed in recent years.  

World Dairy Expo faces major challenges ahead as dairying itself changes. The changing consumer, new nondairy product competition and supply management seem to forecast a new approach to milking cows. What that will be is an unknown and I’ve heard no viable suggestions from dairy leaders. I do know that in 1967 when Dairy Expo started there were 76,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin, today the number is near 7,000. 

Breakfast on the Farm

The now-traditional June Dairy Breakfasts on the Farm, some 60 held last year with most counties having at least one, date to 1970 and to a 4-H Club that held the first one as a “project.” The purpose was to invite city consumers to visit a local dairy farm and have a cooked-on-site breakfast, talk to dairy farmers and learn about dairy farming.  

June farm breakfasts draw big crowds of eaters.  This year?

For many years crowds of 5,000 plus have been common in counties located near urban centers with most breakfasts drawing 2000-3000 eaters. In contrast to most farm type gatherings, the “Breakfasts” are most often sponsored and carried out by local Dairy Promotion Committees composed of volunteers by the hundreds with some financial and technical assistance from Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

As for this year, I am aware of only one breakfast — Dane County — that has rescheduled from June 13 to Aug. 1 at the Duane and Tina Hinchley dairy near Cambridge. I hope all is well by that date as the dairy installed a robotic milking system some months ago and it would offer an interesting insight into modern dairying to visitors.  

I have not seen a schedule of state-wide breakfasts as yet but would guess there will be very few.

Based on history

The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Technical Conference, where dairy processors see the new equipment is canceled.  Milwaukee loses a big event.

The future of many farm meetings will be sort of based on the past: This “pause year” will no doubt prompt a lot of thinking and perhaps some changes. The meetings will return and farmers will again talk, eat. drink and learn together. It’s the togetherness and sharing thoughts, ideas and jokes that makes farming fun. The good times will return.

And I, as a now well-seasoned ag type was raised and grew up through many years of a changing agricultural landscape most which resulted in positive results for the farmer and the consumer. I milked cows by hand, cultivated corn with a team of horses, made hay with a hay loader and hauled oats to the threshing machine — all jobs now gone because of change. Great!

Agriculture, like everything else is in turmoil and no one has a clue or even a good guess as to what the future might hold, except that unlike many people, farmers have jobs. Take a ride through the countryside and note the tractors kicking up dust as the cropping season moves into high gear.  

Then pause for a prayer of thanks that farmers are still farming, doing what is indeed most essential to all of us: raising food for the world. 

Stay in, Stay well, until...

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