A short look at 2016

John Oncken, Columnist

Another year has come and is nearly gone. During this past year, I’ve visited a great assortment of farms, attended a wide variety of meetings and, most important, have met so many interesting people all with fascinating stories to tell. 

In many of these weekly columns, I ran short of space before I ran out of subject matter, so this week, I’ll add some words and review special stories that remain in my thoughts. 

The magnificent mural

You don’t see 80-foot-long painted murals on the walls of a farm equipment dealership very often. In fact, I know of only one. It overlooks the parts department of Hennessey Implement (formerly Studer Super Service) in Monroe. 

It was in 1948 when Ernest Studer noted a mural that had been painted on the wall in a tavern across the street from his farm implement business and met Herman Wall, the man who had painted it. Wall asked if anyone else would like a mural painted. Studer invited Wall to to come over to his office and see if they could work something out. 

The result was the large mural — an 80-foot-long and 5-foot-high western scene — on parts of three walls across from the parts counter. “It took him 72 hours to paint the huge mural,” Fred Studer (Ernest Studer’s son) said. “I don’t know who he was or what we paid him, but he was obviously very talented.”

Do customers at this farm equipment dealership look at the intriguing art work, and do they admire it as I did and wonder about the mysterious artist? And are there other such murals in Wisconsin? It would not seem that the artist would have done but two murals. I still wonder.

Part of the 80-foot mural painted in 1948 that still adorns Hennesey  Implement in Monroe

A story from the heart

“In 1982, Bill and Kathy Endres bought the 320-acre farm near Waunakee in Dane County that had been in his family since 1898.

“We bought the farm on a land contract,” Bill said. “We had ownership of a 50-cow operation, and my mother had a regular income for years. 

“By the mid 80s, we had expanded to 150 cows, added a freestall, bunkers and more buildings. Kath met with sales people, designed the breeding program and managed everything. I was the worker. “

In May 1995, Kathy died, and Bill turned to several consultants to assist with the farming operation and hired Joe Ziegler, a local farm boy who was dating his daughter Heather, as a full-time hired man. 

“They married in 1997 and became seriously involved in the farm,” Bill said. “He really knows cows.” 

Things went well on the dairy farm, and Bill suggested the Zieglers become 50/50 partners with him in the farm business. "I saw it as a logical move, and I put everything in to it,” he said. 

On Jan. 1, 2003, Woodland Creek Dairy LLC  was formed, and the beginning of the transition to the next generation began. 

“Many farmers resist giving up ownership until it is too late and the farm is sold. I felt it was something I just had to do,” Bill said. "We respect each other and make joint decisions ... it works well."

Today, Bill Endres, Joe Ziegler and longtime employee Stefan Endres run the farm and are milking 190 cows. The Zieglers have three daughters, and Bill and wife Deb (a teacher in the Waunakee school system), who were married in 1998, live in a modern home about a half mile from the farmstead. 

Endres believes every farm family should plan for the future of their family farm business, especially if they have family members who would or could be the next generation. Wise words from a very wise farmer.

Bill Endres, a Waunakee dairyman, made a decision to keep the farm in the family.

The big, black cow  

Gigi, the big, black Holstein, was calmly standing in her box stall at Bur-Wall Holsteins, a 60-cow registered Holstein dairy near Brooklyn in Green County, when I visited her last spring. Wallace Behnke, who had bought Gigi’s dam as a calf in 2004, introduced me to “the queen.”  

The world milk record holder “Gigi” produced 74,650 pounds of milk. She lives at Bur-Wall farm in Brooklyn owned by Wallace (pictured), Donna, Bob and Denise Behnke.

And a true queen she is having produced a Holstein record of 74,650 pounds of milk in her previous 365-day lactation on twice-a-day milking and no added rBST.  That’s a ton and a half more milk than the previous record holder.

Three years ago, Wallace and Donna Behnke sold the dairy cows and heifers to son Bob and Denise, but Bur-Wall Holsteins remains a family operation, and Gigi rests on her laurels. 

Organic, local and non-GMO

The event was the 24th annual Community Supported Agriculture Open House held annually in Madison in February. There were several dozen CSA farmers promoting their products — ranging from eggs to meat to vegetables — to potential customers who could contract for a weekly box of food during the 20- to 26-week growing season.  And the CSA farmers are paid in full before the crop is planted. 

A yearly cost of $500-600 for a weekly box of organic vegetables (lettuce, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, melons and whatever is in season) seems (to me) like a lot of money for a young family. I asked many buyers, and here’s why:

“We know where our vegetables come from because we’ve visited the CSA farm."

"I just don’t like big farms. The animals are mistreated and the meat isn’t as good as that I buy from a farmer."

"I want organic food that’s not loaded with pesticides and other chemicals. You can’t trust those big chemical companies that sell farmers the chemicals they use on their crops. Maybe the chemicals will grow bigger crops, but what will they do to me years later?”

And buying only non-GMOs (genetically modified organisms) was a universal want.            

Yes, it's about the food; yet, I think there is another reason: Buying food direct from a farmer is a way of getting out of the big, fast, merry-go-round business world and schedule-filled home life and back to simpler things in life.

I learned much from this side of consumer wants, but needless to say, I did not explain that I often wrote about modern farming and big farms. 

An update

My recent column of Nov. 11 told the story of Bryanna and Dylan Handel, who are milking Jersey cows on a farm near Barneveld that they bought in August. And how 25-year-old Bryanna is the cow person who began buying cattle in high school, while Dylan (age 26), who works off the farm, is the crop and machinery specialist and 15-month-old Elizabeth tags along learning about farming.

Lyle John, son of Dylan and Bryanna Handel and brother of Elizabeth, was born Dec. 6 and has already been in the dairy barn on the family dairy in Barneveld.

During our conversation, Bryanna said she was going to have a baby in December. Well, she did. Lyle John was born on Dec. 6, and as she promised, Bryanna was back milking on the 10th. Wow!

Ross and Theresa Halverson in the second floor of the old feed mill they remodeled over a four-year period -- an impossible job completed.

Just a few columns from 2016 that I’ll not forget, and there are many more: farm auctions, the old feed remodeled into a home by Ross Halverson in Gotham, Cari Stebbins' round barn in Spring Green, the fried cheese curds in Monroe. It’s much fun to hear, learn and write, and thanks for your calls and notes. 

The first milking parlor in Sauk county built in 1959. All that remains is the pit, weeds and ruins. Cari Stebbins, now the farm owner, stands in the overgrown pit where milkers once worked.

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