2018 has been a long, hard year for Wisconsin farmers

John Oncken

Another year and another 52 weekly columns have passed by as you read this.  Hopefully you have enjoyed and perhaps even learned some things in the reading. I know I learned a lot in the listening, asking and writing that went into the end product.

Looking back I found some especially interesting subjects (to me) and the people who were behind them. Here are a few.

Although the number of Wisconsin dairy farms have decreased, the cows remain and the milk production continues to rise.

Just too much milk

The annual Dairy Strong Conference in Madison in January kicked off the 2018 annual ag meeting season with a full program of seminars aimed at uplifting human emotions and improving dairy economics. But as expected, the hallway and table conversations centered on the dairy economy.  As is true of most every dairy conference, the networking (talking in the halls) was where most of the ideas and action were.

I  came away with the feeling that there was perhaps more worry and concern in dairying now than for some time. Milk prices and the dairy worker dilemma are no doubt  the most worrisome. And, most dairy farms over 150 cows utilize Hispanic workers.

Dairy herd dispersals are a common occurrence throughout the state.

Good guess

“It is clear that market sentiment is negative once again and farm milk prices will be declining as we begin 2018,“ that’s how Mark Stephenson, Director of Dairy Policy Analysis, UW-Madison CALS summarized the dairy pricing situation at the 2018 Dairy Situation & Outlook Forum held in January. 

“The U.S. really began its role in world export markets in the mid-2000’s as exports increased from 3-4% of milk production to 14-16% today. The result is that the U.S. dairy industry is now dependent on exports in a way much different than a decade ago,” he summarized.

“I am forecasting that farm milk prices will continue to decline through the first quarter of 2018 and probably hit bottom in April or May. At that point, prices should begin to increase on through the rest of the year., he said.

Note: What actually happened is that low price of Class III hit $13.40 in February and hit a high of $16.09 in September with a yearly average about $1.50 below 2017.

Still a long tunnel

Chip Flory, popular host of radio’s Agri-Talk, greeted attendees at the opening general session of the 2018 Corn/Soy/Pork Expo in February with these not very encouraging words about the grain markets: "I personally believe that the future is bright, but it'll take some time,” Flory said. “Farmers may not see much difference in 2018, and 2019 will probably not be great, either. But once we head into the 2020 marketing year, I think there's light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, it's a really long tunnel."

In spite of lots of weather challenges, corn production is expected t be the second highest ever.

History saved

I had another interesting visit with Ed Larson, former general manager of Larson Acres Farm at Evansville and now sort of retired from dairying but big time in the collection of dairy and farm memorabilia. Ed again led me through his vast collection of pre-modern milking machines to farm signs to mystery items. If you have a chance to tour the collection with Ed, do it. It’s the best such collection I’ve ever seen and should be on public display somewhere.

One of a kind

The word “character has many meanings but the one I’ve often went with is ”a set of qualities that makes a person different from other people for which they will long be remembered." Over my many years of meeting (and writing about) people, there are but a few people that I classify as “characters” in themselves.

The most notable and memorable of which is W.T. “Biil” Graham, a Word War II flyer who was shot down twice and spent a brief time in the English Channel and a much longer time in the ill-famed Stalag 13 prison camp.

Graham, a Madison businessman (and agriculturist), died in March at age 93. He led a life that is difficult to imagine. Born in the red clay farming area in northern Georgia, he was discharged from the Air Force in Madison, Wisconsin where while sporadically attending the U.W.-Madison, he was also selling typewriters. Along the way he invented a typewriter cleaning brush that was the start of his W.T. Rogers Company, which he sold for $50 million in 1990. 

After starting a number of ag related businesses that failed, Graham formed Agrecol, which is devoted to growing native prairie plants which worked and survives today.   Graham truly followed the motto of ”Ready, fire, aim,” thus breaking the normal business start up rules.

The big gathering

The 1350 attendees at the March PDPW Business Conference had a choice of dozens of seminars and learning sessions to attend. My interest as always centers on talking with ag folks and, of course, the main subject was the dairy economy.

 “The dairy world is full of marketing experts and they don’t have answers,” one farmer commented. “They seem to look at the export market as the 'white knight' of markets, but who is going to get it done?”

Speaker Mark Tauscher told how playing pro football was dangerous and insecure but you “keep going.”

58 years long

The 58th WPS Farm Show was again a resounding success with 500 exhibitors and 20,000 attendees. As I wrote then: “Dairy farmers' emotions are supposed to be at a low, low ebb what with the milk price and labor challenges but those who I talked with gave little sign of extreme duress. Each has their own way of dealing with the challenges and are surviving.

I'm amazed at the ingenuity of dairy farmers to adjust, readjust and innovate to survive. I don't think most people quite realize how smart farmers really are!

The Schultz siblings (from left) Kari Schultz Gribble. Nick and Katy Schultz  own Trifecta farm at Fox Lake milking 400 cows and farming 2000 acres.

A real family farm

“Our parents Keven and Cheryl Schultz are very thoughtful and strategic and had a rule for us,” Kari Schultz Gribble says. “If you ever want to come back to the farm, get educated, get other work off the farm for awhile and bring something back to the farm if you  want to stay involved,” she said. "And, we all did that.”  

That simple rule (stated and followed) has resulted in a 400-cow, 2000 acre farm near Fox Lake in Dodge county that is now basically being run and owned by three young siblings.The  team consists of Kari Schultz Gribble,CFO;  Katy Schultz , herdsman and employee manager and Nick Schultz, crops and marketing director.

The family agrees that part of their success is due to an estate plan they, with the assistance of Madison Attorney Shayna Borakove, developed.

Sandy and Jeff Notstad at Cambridge sold their cows in late 2016 but continue cash cropping but remain dairymen at heart.

No cows

Jeff and Sandy  Notstad milked cows for 36 years but sold their cows in late 2016,  mainly because of some health problems Jeff encountered and difficulties in hiring milking help.

Yes, they miss the cows but still crop 600 acres of land, feed 40 steers and are active in community organizations.

“I’m still a dairyman at heart,” Jeff admits.

Those are but a few subjects that come to mind at year’s end. I enjoyed writing about things that interest me and hopefully you enjoy reading and learning with me.

Happy New Year!

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at