The show did go on!

John Oncken
The Kalahari Resort provided the perfect venue for the PDPW annual Business Conference - following CDC guidelines.

Some 900 dairy farmers and ag industry representatives enjoyed two days of listening, learning and conversing last week at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) Annual Business Conference.  Attendees had the opportunity to participate in some 40 seminars and keynotes, learning lounge presentations, visiting  the 110 commercial exhibits, enjoying ice cream breaks and greeting old friends and making new. 

Since 1993

This was the PDPW”s annual Business Conference gathering – the first. The organization's initial gathering was held at the Hotel Mead in Wisconsin Rapids in March 1993. 

Quoting from my words in this column of April 2, 1993: "Just what we need – another farm organization – because if there was ever a group of people with organizations, it's dairy why a group of farmers calling themselves professional? Well, this group wants to go far beyond the normal plow, plant, harvest and deliver subjects ...this group of dairy producers are seeking the next level: business techniques, family communication, interchange of ideas, seeking solutions and to meet the ever-changing ag business head on. It's nonpolitical, won't advocate any specific style of farming and is for all types and style of dairy operations. " 

Some 900 dairy farmers and ag industry representatives enjoyed two days of listening, learning and conversing last week at the PDPW annual Business Conference.

A big winner

Almost three decades later, the PDPW was needed and most certainly succeeded in those efforts and membership continues to grow. Today there are just over 7,000 licensed dairy farms averaging 150 cows in Wisconsin compared to 30,000 herds with 52 cows per herd in 1993. Today the 1.2 million cows average 24,000 pounds of milk compared to the 14,800 pounds the 1.5 million cows averaged 28 years ago. That's change.

The PDPW has kept pace (and ahead) of the changing dairy scene as this year's annual business conference showed: The 110 commercial exhibits in the Hall of Ideas were equally “of the times,” ranging from feeds to seeds to farm supplies of all kinds to to investing to financial planning and more.  A dairy producer of the 1950’s and 60’s would find it difficult to understand the products and services available today.  

The big change in the 2021 PDPW Business Conference from past years was the masks attendees wore and the distance between people, all because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Masks and not too close

The big change in the 2021 PDPW Business Conference from past years was the masks attendees wore and the distance between people, all because of the coronavirus pandemic. No shoulder to shoulder walking the exhibit aisles; no long tables with side by side eaters; no crowded exhibitor booths, no hugging or even hand-shaking. 

Mark Binversie, right, president of the Investors Community Bank at Manitowoc remembers that it was St .Patrick's Day 24 years ago that he, Bill Censky, Wayne Mueller and Tim Schneider founded the bank.

What they say

As always, my objective at farm gathering is not the seminars, it’s the people. Here’s a bit of what I learned.

  • Most dairy farmers were little adversely affected by the quarantine - their farm is where their job is anyway;
  • Two farmer friends mentioned that they were drawn closer to their family while spending more time at home playing and studying with their children and helping their wife do household jobs;
  • Didn’t really feel a loss from not attending some meetings;
  • Were getting really bored or as one said “barn sour” from not seeing family and friends for a year;
  • Were emotionally drained from worrying about the threat of Covid to employees and family;
  • Several producers admitted they had a few cases of Covid among employees but with isolation and care no serious complications arose;
  • The vaccination rate was about like that of the general public: older folks - yes, younger people - not yet; 
  • Everyone seemed happy to get out and about.
Commercial exhibits offered a place to ask questions and maybe place an order.

New location

Of course, the major change for this year’s Business Conference was the location – the Kalahari Resort at Wisconsin Dells, not the Alliant Center in Madison. PDPW Executive Director Shelly Mayer related the process involved.

“We were one of the first meetings to go virtual last year,” Mayer said. “Our members began asking about 2021 and we (the Board) began serious thought and study in July. I and the Board of Directors investigated the possibilities of where and how we might hold the conference. Who could provide the location and health standards required for a big crowd.”  

Every session was recorded to be streamed on demand for people unable to attend.

The Kalahari knew how

“The Kalahari Resort located in Sauk County had been holding meetings during the pandemic and we spent a lot of time studying how they were doing so”, Mayer continued. "We found they were taking the required health precautions and could handle such things as food and space.  “We also considered the physical and mental health of our members and after much thought made the decision (not an easy call) in November to hold the conference at the Kalahari.” 

In one session, presenter Tom Thibodeau speaks to students on the need to serve and answer the plea for leadership.

The work began

Then the work like schedules, layout, workers and details began, and it worked out. “We never worked so hard - it was a labor of love,” Mayer says. 

Would you believe, PDPW has only 4 fulltime employees? So how do they conduct a meeting so big, with so many attendees and exhibitors, so many speakers?  

First there are the sponsors, the national and local organizations (dozens of them) who provide money and products from dollars to milk. Then there are the student volunteers who provide labor for the facility setup and presentation details. Lots of people doing lots of things.     

Next  year? Who knows but bet on PDPW to do it right!  

The Silent Auction - with nearly 100 items - was again a big winner for the PDPW Foundation, which raised $17,030 during the recent Professional Dairy Producers Business Conference in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at