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OPINION

A few good things, but, the bad one remains

John Oncken
From the highway the alfalfa looks good.

Successful farmers spend their lives facing challenges: weather, pests of one sort or another, labor and most important, the economy. This year spring is starting out with decent cropping conditions, some quietness on the labor front but with a farm economy that turned from recovering last fall to horrendous this spring.  

Last Sunday I took a brief tour of northern Dane County (what else can one do during the stay home, stay in situation in effect?) to get an idea of the spring of 2020 cropping conditions. And, the fields look good with much of the corn planted and the alfalfa green and growing.  

Much of the corn is planted in southern Wisconsin.

On a statewide basis the Wisconsin Ag Statistics Service, in its weekly crop report says “things are looking good in terms of planting progress when compared to last year and as of last Sunday, just over a third of the state's corn had been planted (That’s 16 days ahead of a year ago and five days ahead of normal with the soybean crop 14% in the ground and 18 days ahead of normal.)" The report also says “topsoil moisture conditions were rated 6% short, 79% adequate and 15% surplus.” And that’s good. 

Not much else - but the coronavirus remains

The relatively good crop conditions are still about the only aspect of agriculture — specifically in farming, that can be considered “relatively good.”

Consider: Producer milk prices below cost of production figures: meat processing plants closed due to employee coronavirus infections and deep concerns all across the farm front in most every aspect of the economy.  

Add in the lack of sporting events in the nation’s ball parks and arenas that would normally fill the nation’s TV screens, making for dull days and nights from an entertainment standpoint. And, the lack of high school softball, baseball and track and field events that should be filling our lives during these sunny spring days are not with us. And the worst of all, people who have lost their jobs find themselves in nowhere-land. 

Jacqueline Dougen Jackson, farm girl, college professor, historian, writer.

Read a good book, or maybe two?

For sure, boredom has set in, in my life and many others. What to do? How about reading a good book or books? The kind of book that tells us something. Something about agriculture and farming we might not know (or should know) and very important,  a book that is interesting.

I’m suggesting reading one, two, three or all four of the “Round Barn” series of books written by Jackie Dougen Jackson, the former farm girl, university professor and writer.  You may remember my reviewing these books as they were published over the recent years. 

The Round Barn Saga 

It was about six years ago that I wrote the first of several columns about a book “The Round Barn, A Biography of a Family Farm,” that centers on the Dougan Dairy at Beloit that existed from 1906-1972. 

The author, Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, a retired English professor from the University of Illinois at Springfield, was raised on that farm. She writes vividly about the era when Wisconsin dairy farming was moving from hand labor and horses to mechanization as we know it today.  The 540 page book described Dougan Guernsey Farm, an outstanding dairy farm in its day. The Dougan Farm Dairy, a longtime milk bottler and door-to-door milk man, Dougan Seeds, the farm's hybrid seed corn business and the round barn in Beloit.

The "Round Barn" just before it was demolished.

About the people

Mostly however, the book talked about the people who came under the aura of The Round Barn beginning with Wesson Joseph “WJ” Dougan, a deaf minister who bought the farm in 1906, built the round barn five years later and made it into one of Wisconsin’s outstanding family dairy farms. While the round barn that existed on Colley Road just east of Beloit is the central presence throughout the book and is discussed, the book is really about (in her words) “the barn, silo and dairy business.” 

I concluded the column with this: “Yes, I'm enthusiastic about the book — I've not seen such a great history of dairying as carried out on one farm by a family that seemed to be always ahead of the times.”

Volume Two

Within a year, “The Round Barn Volume II, came into being. It centered on the Big House (where employees lived), the Little House (the family home) and farming operations including the advent of hybrid seed corn and artificial insemination. 

Again, it is about the people on the farm and those who worked with them, always following the five aims of the farm as established by W.J. Dougan, the founder of the farm in 1903 and the author's grandfather. The Five Aims as engraved on the concrete silo inside the round barn were: 1. Good Crops; 2. Proper Storage; 3. Profitable Livestock;  4. A Stable Market and 5. Life as well as a Living.

Volume Three

Early in 2014, “The Round Barn Volume Three” was published and “expands to cover in more detail the farm’s relationship to the state, nation and world.” This 475 page book tells in depth the growth of artificial insemination (A.I.) of dairy cattle especially by tracing the growth of what became ABS (American Breeders Service). Note:  I’ll admit to a special interest here as I served as advertising manager for some nine years at this great company in the 1970s.

The farm house, Round Barn, Jackie Dougen and her calf.

The final book, Volume Four 

Volume four of The Round Barn became available a couple of years ago as Jackie Dougen Jackson completed her almost unbelievable effort in creating what I believe is the most complete history of Wisconsin agriculture ever recorded. It tells of the farm’s effect on the state, nation and world and their effect on the farm.

Many books have been written on the subject of farming but none I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them) are as complete and as interesting as "The Round Barn...A Biography of an American Farm" series that began in 2012 and now includes four volumes, each of them some 500 pages long.  

You can get new or used copies of any or all of the volumes at most book outlets. Reading would brighten your day now that you must stay home. They are big books full of big farming history that you’ll enjoy reading. Try one!

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