Mike Wilkinson: Back to the farm
We’ve all heard and probably repeated the old saying, “You can take the boy off the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the boy,” many times. Mostly it refers to people who left the farm and never came back to actually farm but always kept a soft spot in their hearts for farming and maybe attended a farm show once in a while or subscribed to a farm newspaper or magazine.
But, farm boys who went on to successful non-farm activities sometimes do indeed return to actually own and run a farm.
One such person is Mike Wilkinson, who grew up on a 225 acre dairy farm near Blue Mounds where he helped milk 60 cows in a 30 stanchion barn that had a basketball hoop in the hay mow.
Wilkinson started Wisconsin Heights High School in 1996 and played basketball for the Vanguards. In 2000, his senior year, Wilkinson was awarded the Mr. Basketball award, which is the player of the year award in Wisconsin high school basketball.
All Big 10
He went on to play Big 10 college basketball for the Wisconsin Badgers from 2001 to 2005, redshirting his freshman year, for a total of five years with the basketball program. Over his college career he averaged 14.3 points per game and was selected to the All-Big Ten Conference First Team his senior year. He was also the second player to finish his playing career with at least 1,500 points and 800 rebounds at Wisconsin. As a fifth year senior, he led the team in minutes, rebounds, blocks, and steals and helped the Badgers reach the Elite 8.
Ag Business degree and Europe
Wilkinson graduated with a degree in agricultural business management in 2004 and completed a year in a graduate program in Ag Economics.
Despite his outstanding collegiate record Wilkinson was not drafted by the NBA and turned to opportunities overseas where he played for nine years on teams in Greece (2 years); Russia (5 years) and a year each in Turkey and Bulgaria.
“I pretty much lived out of a suitcase and often traveled long distances to get to games,” he says, "but I saw a lot and made many close friends."
One of the trips to a game meant a nine-hour cross-country flight from his home in Moscow to Vladivostok located just northeast of North Korea.
Mike ended his professional basketball career after leading his European teams to several championships and winning many awards with the 2014 season and true to his lifelong plans he returned to the home farm in Blue Mounds.
Actually, Wilkinson never got very far away from that farm having bought half interest from his dad, Kendall and putting up a big machinery/storage shed in 2011. “I always planned to come back to the farm, but the summers between basketball seasons were hectic and didn’t leave much time for farming.”
Corn, beans, hay and beef
I traveled to the Wilkinson Homestead last week and met with Mike, his dad, Kendall and brother, Sam. Mike explained the farming operation as centering on corn, soy beans and hay. The hay is fed to their herd of about 40 Highland beef cattle and some is sold. They also do some custom baling for neighbors.
Mike was eager to show me the beef cattle most of which were grazing in a wooded area high atop a steep hill behind the farm buildings. “We selected Scottish Highland cattle because they are excellent browsers and we wanted to clear some of the tall grass and small trees that were clogging the woods," he says. "And, they have thick coats and can stand cold weather without being in a barn.
“They also make high quality beef that we have processed in Lodi and market direct to customers,” he added.
I admitted I had never seen a Highland beef up close so Mike and Kendall took me into a nearby barn where a cow and her new calf were housed. The cow didn’t much like the new face (me) and was very protective of her offspring by butting against the board pen with her long horns. “The breed is really protective of their calves,” Mike explained as he walked to the other end of the pen as the cow followed and put her head near him for some attention .
“Hop in the six-wheeler and we’ll go up the hill so you can see the rest of the herd,” Kendall said, so off we went up what I thought was a scary climb to the pasture. The route didn’t faze Mike, who was standing in the rear deck, even a little.
We found the cattle — cows, calves and a bull — grazing in small groups scattered around the pasture which was pretty much open land. They ignored us as Kendall drove from group to group of long-haired wooly animals. He pointed out that the cattle were doing as intended, clearing away the brush and long grass and opening the acreage.
The old Wilkinson dairy barn is on its last legs as Mike and his brother tear it down to make space for another big shed that will be added warehouse space.
A growing business
`Liberty Supply was formerly owned by a friend of Kendall's who they met at a basketball game at Mankato State in Minnesota where Miike’s sister was a team member. The friend jokingly asked if Mike would want to buy the business some day, which he eventually did.
“I commuted to Mankato for nine months before moving everything here,” Mike says. He and his brother Sam, a UW-Platteville grad run the business out of the farm shed. “We sell asphalt and pavement maintenance supplies,” Mike says. Seal coating tools, brooms and brushes, stencils like handicap and directional markings, crack filling tools and safety cones are among the many items featured in the company catalog.
“Business has increased every year, “ Mike says. “That’s why we’re building another shed.”
The farm life
But its the farm life that captures much of Mike’s attention. He tells of milking 60 cows in the 30 stanchion barn before high school. “Switching cows was no fun,” he remembers. Dairying ended at the Wilkinson farm in 2000 when Mike’s basketball career was taking off at Wisconsin Heights high school. “I wanted to follow basketball, Kendall says, “so the cows went. “
Does he miss his days of being a ‘power forward” in the Big 10 and all across Europe, playing before big crowds of screaming fans I asked. He didn’t give me a direct yes or no but admitted he enjoyed the different cultures he encountered overseas and the many friends he made over the years. “I plan to visit them again. “ he says.
“But I always planned to come back to the farm, so it was a planned return after many good years of basketball,” he says. “ I enjoy the rural life."
As I left the Wilkinson farm, Mike said he still had to deliver a load of hay and was playing basketball in a league with former UW teammates at 8 p.m.
So it goes — basketball and farming continues for the Blue Mounds farm boy But he can now see his corn growing and his cattle grazing in real life, not as a dream.
What could be better?
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.