Notes & quotes

John Oncken

On occasion I realize there are things that I planned to include in this weekly column but didn’t have space or forgot and some things I found really interesting and wanted to elaborate more on but just didn’t.  Let this be a catch-up week  and see what happens.

The election of a new president has created much discussion nationwide among groups of many kinds who have chosen to march, picket or expound loudly to hopefully further their cause(s).

Sort of quiet

Not so in in the agricultural world: U.S. farmers, unlike some in France who drive tractors down city streets to get attention, are by nature rather quiet on government policy discussions leading to new law and rule-making, leaving the legwork and lobbying to their many representative organizations.

Of course farmers, especially  those involved in enterprises requiring high labor inputs such as raising fruits, and vegetables and milking cows, are concerned about the future of that labor supply.

Most of the larger dairy herds utilize Hispanic employees.

Milking the cows?

In Wisconsin, the labor supply  is a big and ever bigger concern as dairy farms increase in size and go far beyond “mom and pop” operations. Most every dairy  farm milking more than 100 cows is hiring non-family help, mostly Hispanic and perhaps illegal, although the dairy producer is unsure because of current rules.

In the early days of dairy expansion 15-20 years ago, Hispanic cow milkers, mostly single, young men, came for a year or three, made some money and returned home to Mexico. The number of Hispanics increased as more dairies expanded and many other industries hired the hard working immigrants.

While most dairy herds in Wisconsin are smaller than 100 cows, they are disappearing as the next generation joining the family operation may require more income.

Any answers?

So far I’ve heard of only one program offered by anyone, anywhere, with a suggestion of how the immigrant challenge might be handled in the dairy industry. Laurie Fischer, head of  the American Dairy Coalition (former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association) offers a basic outline;

“The Broken System - The American dairy industry depends on immigrant labor to fill positions that are unwanted by domestic laborers. These full time positions, typically offering wages well above minimum wage and including a variety of benefits, are year round - therefore not covered by current visa programs. To expand, thrive and meet the demand of the world’s growing population, the dairy industry must have access to a reliable, stable and consistent labor pool.

Congress should create a new nonimmigrant visa category alongside the current visa programs...

 Allow the states to petition the federal government to issue visas to immigrants that they wish to sponsor.

 State sponsored workers would not receive citizenship and this program restricts access to all welfare, tax credits and entitlements.

 States can offer undocumented immigrants currently working the opportunity to obtain a work visa...and can extend visas to new immigrants.

 A maximum number of visas would be allotted per state, however these caps can be increased as an incentive.

The American Dairy Coalition prioritizes securing a workforce solution. Our 30,000 ADC members (represented through state and national dairy associations, producer and allied industry membership) demand a federal policy to provide a workforce solution for our dairy industry.”

Good or bad, right or wrong, it’s a start. Contact the ADC at for more information.

Tobacco sheds that were often built without foundations - just balanced on a rock - seem to never fall down. This one on Highway 12-18 near Deerfield has  been gradually falling for at least 10 years.

Still tobacco in Wisconsin

The 2016 Wisconsin tobacco season has about come to an end as the last of the leaves are being stripped from the stems, pressed into bundles and delivered to the warehouse at Stoughton.

At one time tobacco was a money making crop for many farmers in southern Wisconsin (Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties) and in the southwestern counties of Vernon, Crawford and LaCrosse. The hard hand labor required a change in government programs and much less demand for the chewing tobacco produced from the crop has made it a minor crop in the dairy state today.

Raymond Lund strips tobacco in his family’s strip house near Utica in Dane County.

Most of the remaining Wisconsin growers have raised tobacco for a long time and see the crop not only as an income source but as part of their heritage and family tradition.

If you never worked in tobacco, you might be surprised at the crop's long history in our state. If you grew up raising tobacco you have fond memories of hot, sweaty and long days working in the fields and an overwhelming pride in knowing that you did it and survived. I do.

When milk isn’t milk

Dozens of state and national farm organizations are supporting Senator Tammy Baldwin’s proposed “Dairy Pride Act” aimed at enforcing the FDA regulations defining dairy products as “being from dairy animals,” something the agency does not do. This has led to dairy cases full of “dairy labeled” products ( soy, almond, rice milks among them) that contain a range of plant-based ingredients often not equivalent to the nutrition content of dairy products.

The Dairy Pride Act  is a popular bill among dairy groups, not so popular among some consumer groups that say “everyone knows the difference.”

My thought: It’s not really about the nutrition, it’s about calling powdered almonds and water the hallowed and prideful term “milk.”  (And then, what about peanut butter or milk of magnesia?)

Forty-pound bundles of tobacco leaves ready for delivery to the buyer

Three of the best to quit

It is unusual to see three of Wisconsin’s outstanding registered Holstein dairy herds selling out in the space of a month. True: Willows Edge, owned by Henk and Bonnie Van Dyke at New Richmond are selling their complete herd on March 18; a week later on March 25, all the cows and most heifers at Mark and Nicky Rueth’s Rosedale Genetics at Oxford are going under the gavel; and on April 7, Indianhead Holsteins, owned  by Bob and Karen Schauf at Barron are being dispersed.

These three herds have competed at the top level in the show rings at county fairs, breed shows and World Dairy Expo and in breeding great cattle that have found their way into top dairy herds across the dairy world. Each of the owners have their own logical reasons for dispersing their herds, and they will be missed throughout dairydom.

Although herds over 200 cows are still a minority in the state, they produce a big percentage of the milk.

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