Looking, listening, learning

John Oncken
Now Media Group

The 2016 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days running July 19, 20 and 21 will be hosted by Snudden Farms, in Lake Geneva, in Walworth County.

This is the largest agricultural show in Wisconsin and one of the largest in the nation. The three-day outdoor event showcases the latest improvements in production agriculture, including many practical applications of recent research findings and technological developments.

That's the introduction listed on the host county website for the upcoming event that will draw ag folks from Wisconsin and surrounding states to look, listen and learn about the latest in agricultural products and services and to meet and greet old friends and talk with experts about a wide range of agriculture subjects.

As always, the three-day event is held on an operating farm — this year, on the farm owned by Steve Snudden, with help from family members and 20 employees. The farm has been in Steve's family since 1925 and is home to 1,700 cows and consists of 3,000 acres, all within a 10-mile radius of the farm.

Looking ahead

In the early 1950s, farseeing agricultural leaders in the industry and at UW-Madison Extension searched for a way to bring modernization to farming. They came up with the idea of a big farm exhibit that moved each year to a different location in the state. They wanted farmers to see new machinery in action and to be able to talk with educators one on one in a farm setting.

Although the word 'networking' was yet to be coined, the ag leaders of the day knew that if farmers interacted with other farmers, the result would be education. And they believed that it should be a joint effort, involving the UW, private industry and the local farming community within a county.

Born in 1954

Wisconsin Farm Progress Days was born in 1954. The first event, scheduled in Waupaca County, was rained out. But the event was restaged in 1955 and has been held every year since.

Wisconsin agriculture was a very different world in 1954. Almost everything was smaller and simpler. Farms were small in acreage and operated by families who provided hand labor to shock oats, husk corn and drive a team of horses to pull wagons. Automation was in its infancy, and electricity was still used for lights and not much else. Tractors, combines, corn pickers and corn planters were just getting into gear for the coming industrial revolution on farms.

I believe the first Wisconsin Farm Progress Days I attended was in Adams County in 1966 when I was Farm TV director in Green Bay and did it out of curiosity.

I well remember the 1969 show (I was a committee volunteer) at the Gene Haen farm just south of Green Bay with its new indoor beef feeding operation and the 1970 event at the Lloyd Krebs farm in Sun Prairie. I had traveled from Green Bay to interview for the dairy advertising position at ABS and came a day early for the show. (Yes, I got the job.)


For the next few years, I missed the shows because of other commitments with ABS. In the late 70s I began attending the then Wisconsin Farm Progress Days pretty much every year. Although the individual shows are a bit of a blur, there are things that I well remember.

·In 1983, the severe tornado warnings issued a couple of hours after the show in Owen in Clark County had closed for the day caused a big scare over a wide area. I was staying in an older motel (without a basement) in Neillsville, and I and the others there for the farm show were mightily concerned, but the tornado missed us and did no damage in the area.

·The 1991 show in Dodge County was hosted by Gordon 'Gordy' Berg, nationally known Holstein breeder (Vigo Farm) and close friend. Gordy devoted almost all of his time to preparing for the event for most of two years, including building a two-story red and white dairy barn with an elevator, which was a big attraction to visitors.

That show drew one of the biggest crowds ever, and Gordy was extremely proud to have been the host. He died two years later of a heart attack while in a calf pen in the red and white barn with one of his newborns. I visited the red barn a few years later — the cows were gone and it was a machine shop. (Gordy is probably in heaven still crying.)

·At the end of one of the days of 2001 show at Venable Farms in Rock County, I came upon a minor auto accident and saw my friend, Sr. Thomas Moore, at the side of the road crying. I picked her up and she explained that her car was wrecked and that she probably caused the accident. I took her to Madison and got her a motel room, and a friend picked her up the next day and took her home to Silver Lake College in Manitowoc. (Note: Moore was a staunch defender of farmers and advocated for agriculture nationwide for many years.)

The show is close

·It was at the 2008 show at the Gerrits Country Aire Farm in Brown County when at 1:14 p.m. Wednesday, July 16, the announcement was made and heard all across the 60 acres of tent city: 'Attention! Your attention please! The Wisconsin Farm Technology Days show has been closed. Please proceed to your cars, and vacate the grounds as soon as possible. A severe thunderstorm with high winds is moving this way. Today's show has been closed!'

The 15,000 or so visitors scattered all across the grounds dropped what they were doing, turned as one and began to walk toward the parking lot, and exhibitors began packing things that the wind could pick up and scatter.

As I left the grounds, every vehicle had its lights on despite the early hour. The long line of lights slowly moving to the exit reminded me of the final scene in the movie 'Field of Dreams,' where the road was lined with slowly moving car lights fulfilling the prediction of 'they will come.'

The expected storm brought only heavy rain that prompted the final day to be canceled. I'll never forget how calm and cool everyone was as they left the grounds.

The new

·The 2000 Fond du Lac County show hosted by Abel Farm in Eden had two never-before-seen things: 1) The new freestall Cover-All milk cow barn made of white, canvas covered, steel framed, truss-arch structure that allowed light into the building and gives one a feeling of really being outside rather than in a barn (Cover-All of Wisconsin died in 2010) and 2) A robotic milker, one of the two that would shortly be installed at the Knigge farm near Omro. And yes, 16 years later, the Knigge family is still milking with two Lely robots.

·A few other notes: in 1958, the first scheduled three-day show was held previously (the shows were two days); in 1961, an estimated 250,000 people attended the 1961 show at the Dougan farm in Rock County; in 1965, 18 forage choppers were demonstrated in Manitowoc County; and it was 2001 when the board of directors approved the name change to Wisconsin Farm Technology Days.

There is much, much more, but I'll stop here. See you next week.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at