2017: Some ideas and opportunities

John Oncken

The year 2016 is gone. Thus ends another year, and there is no way to change what we did or what happened, good or bad. For sure we’re all a year older and, as the old saying says, “a year smarter.”  Maybe, maybe not. It’s up to each of us to figure that out.

Rural Wisconsin is the home of thousands of former dairy barns. The reasons why are many.

Wisconsin farmers can look back at 2016 and see major "ups" (record or near record corn and soybean yields) and severe "downs" (milk, beef, pork and commodity prices). In spite of low farm-end milk prices, Wisconsin cows produced more milk on fewer farms than ever, and another old saying — “high milk prices make more milk and low milk prices make more milk” — was again proven true.

Jim Grotjan was not raised on a dairy farm but now milks 200 cows with a 32,000-pound milk average on his own farm in Eagle that he bought in 1998.  He admitted that moving from employee to farm owner is not easy, but it can be done.

Always optimistic

Needless to say, farmers and all of agriculture remain optimistic for the New Year. Milk price is on the rebound (maybe), as the basic milk price has risen five of the past six months and milk futures are showing higher prices than a year ago.  Besides, being ever-optimistic is a farmer’s trait, what with the continuing challenges of weeds, insects, animal health, labor, rules and regulations, uncertain income and expenses they face daily in their business.

As always, nature plays a big part in the success or failure of crops (and income) on individual farms, and sometimes it can be very fickle. Can we expect to see another year of near perfect weather and crop production?  Logic says “probably not."  The professional farmer who depends on producing farm crops for the world thinks, “Why not, and if not, we’ll adjust.”

Cows live a better life today as they move freely in their barns and eat when they want  to.

Welcome the new

There will be a new president in January and Mr. Trump will do as all new presidents do: replace all the state and national Farm Service Agency executives and top people in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the Secretary of Agriculture.

The president to be has not yet (as of Tuesday) appointed a new Secretary of Agriculture to replace former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who has been on the job for all eight years of the President Obama era. Interestingly, agriculture so far seems little concerned. Yes, there have been a few names kicked around but none that have prompted much discussion.

Don't bet on the new ag secretary to revolutionize farming. Can anyone remember an ag secretary who has?  Maybe Henry A. Wallace, who served under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933-1940, did so but probably more because he founded Pioneer Hybrid Seed Corn than as head of the USDA. About the only ag secretary anyone remembers is Earl Butz, who served from 1971-1976 under Presidents Nixon and Ford but is most remembered for the jokes he told that got him in trouble and cost him his job.

One hundred fifty bushels per acre of corn was near impossible a generation ago. Today, 200 bushels is not uncommon as this year’s record crop will attest to.

Some free advice

If soon-to-be President Trump and his ag secretary, whoever that might be, arelooking for some advice regarding the farm front, I have it.

  • Please pay serious attention to agriculture. It's still in relatively good financial health, and farmers and farm groups don't tend to run Ponzi schemes or get into unexplainable financial troubles that Wall Street experts seem to do. And more important, everyone eats food that comes from farms.
  • Another suggestion: Make an effort to convince congressmen, senators and all their aides that farmers aren’t out poisoning things like some poster-carrying, pure-food types would like you to believe. Tell them carrots, broccoli and tofu are also made up of chemicals and such. In fact, tell them all food is chemicals, and that if one person in our 250 million is allergic to radishes, that doesn’t mean radishes are bad.
  • Sit down with a few people and seriously explore the illegal immigration challenge. Hispanic workers are the main cow milkers across dairyland and the field workers in the fruit and vegetable industry. It may be the No. 1 serious ag challenge.
  • You might want to come to Wisconsin, and meet some living, breathing farmers. We could arrange a beef or pork barbecue and have the Rock County dairy promotion group serve milk shakes and the Stoughton FFA Alumni cook up some fried cheese curds. 

I’d even be willing to arrange a meeting with Laurie Fischer of the American Dairy Coalition,  George Siemon of Organic Valley, Dallas Wuethrich of Grassland Dairy Products and a half dozen farmers from different farming enterprises, and  in a couple of hours you’d understand agriculture.

Our grandfathers would be amazed at the farm equipment of today.

The year 2017 will again see agriculture facing pressures from outside forces. Corporate farming is a popular subject for media stories. The fact is, almost all of Wisconsin's dairy farms are owned and farmed by families that include two and even three generations of farmers. A small farm must get bigger to allow the next generation to enter the business, and the corporate structure is the best way to get this done.

Laurie Fischer, CEO of  the 1-year-old American Dairy Coalition that represents over 30,000 dairy farmers throughout the U.S., believes successful policy-making  that needs to best serve our industry begins in Washington, D. C.

Yes, dairy farms have grown in size with dozens over 1,000 cows and several that exceed 5,000 cows, but big companies are not behind the growth.  Blame it on some very smart and progressive sons and daughters of very smart mothers and fathers who want to be farmers far into the future.

Blame it also on the Dairy Business Association and Progressive Dairy Producers of Wisconsin, two farmer-run organizations that have revitalized dairying in the last 20 years, or the University of Wisconsin and technical colleges, which teach the basics, as well as the advanced side of cow milking and managing.

Blame it on change, as farmers apply technology with management and operational skills to get more food from fewer acres than were farmed in granddad's day.

Three generations of the Statz family in Marshall milk over 4,000 cows and hosted Farm Technology Days in 2015.

Yes, there are those who blame many of the ills in agriculture (and life) on bigger farms doing bigger things. But consider, if farmers were limited to raising food on community-supported farms with hand labor, no herbicides, pesticides or big equipment, many folks would not have food to eat. Take a look at some third-world farms and see.

The next year offers us the opportunity to do better than last year. It's a clean slate, and what we write on it is mostly up to us. It’s the time (they say) to begin again, to make resolutions, to lose weight, to be nice, to do good things.

Farmers will indeed still produce food in spite of the challenges, and consumers will still be able to get everything they want (and more) at a grocery store. And I bet we won't need to stand in line or have a ration coupon to buy it.

Thanks to farmers who keep us all healthy and well-fed, sometimes despite government and activist group interference and our own stupidity or ignorance in choosing what we eat.

Happy New Year!

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