COLUMNISTS

A different kind of farm after 120 years

John Oncken
The O’Brien farmstead remains, but it's empty.

Thousands of cars travel Seminole Highway each day carrying commuters to and from their jobs in Madison. In addition, the highway – still semi-rural in nature – is a favorite route south into and out of town for Madison’s huge population of bicyclists who travel the bike path alongside the highway.

I suspect that many who traveled that road over the years admired the Stoner Prairie Dairy farm on the east side of Seminole Road and the young calves that Patrick “Pat” O’Brien often pastured along the highway, as well as the other aspects of farming that went on year-round. For many years it was the first operating dairy farm to be seen on that busy road leading out of Madison and it gave city dwellers a look at farm animals and other farm projects being carried out.

Travelers on Seminole Highway can see solar panels, but no calves.

They are gone, no more

But they are no more. The calves, cows and crops are long gone, but in their place are 140 acres of glass and steel making up the O’Brien Solar Fields.

A news item from last October briefly tells the story:

“Madison, Wis., Oct. 1, 2020 – Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) today received approval from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin for a 20-megawatt solar array to be built in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. Known as the O'Brien Solar Fields, the project will provide locally generated solar energy to local businesses, municipalities and public institutions under MGE's innovative Renewable Energy Rider (RER).

Long rows of glass panels sit on the O'Brien property.

The why? Consistent with the latest climate science, MGE is targeting net-zero carbon electricity by 2050. The company continues to work toward carbon reductions of at least 40% by 2030, as announced in 2015 and consistent with the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change."

A later story explains further: "The array will be the largest solar project in Dane County and will be located at the corner of Lacy Road and South Seminole Highway on roughly 160 acres. The project will consist of over 60,000 bifacial solar panels and is expected to cost about $32 million."

The solar panels follow the sun.

And recently, this:

“Madison, Wis., June 9, 2021—”Madison Gas and Electric (MGE) is pleased to announce that Dane County's largest solar array is fully operational and delivering locally generated, sustainable energy to MGE's distribution grid....MGE generates and distributes electricity to 155,000 customers in Dane County.  The company says the new solar field will produce;  More than 39,000,000 kWh annually, which is enough energy to: Power nearly 6,300 typical homes, Prevent the release of 27,713 Metric Tons of CO2, which is the equivalent to taking more than 5,800 cars off the road annually or planting more than 456,000 trees for 10 years."

Jean and Patrick O’Brien now overlook 140 acres of glass solar panels, but no cattle.
The manure pit is empty but he “must remove the concrete and fill it in,” Pat O’Brien says.

A top dairy

Pat O’Brien and his brother Tom had farmed the family farm (after their parents) since the early 1970s and built a top-production 240-cow herd with a rolling herd average of 29,000 pounds of milk. In October 2014 they sold the dairy herd to Doerfer Brothers a few miles away. Pat also remembers that was the day the farm had 300 visitors, hosted by Accelerated Genetics, who were attending World Dairy Expo. They also had 6,000 eaters at their Dairy Breakfast in 2003. The cows remained in the O’Brien barn and were milked there until July 2017, when they were moved to the Doerfer barn. 

In 2018 the farm equipment was sold at auction, and both O’Brien families – Pat and Jean, and Tom and Lyn – stopped farming, which ended the O’Brien era of farming in Fitchburg. But a new chapter was about open. 

The now-outdated farm sign.
Pat O’Brien says some panels are obstinate and don’t turn in the right direction. (Note the panel in center.)

A new beginning

Today, Tom and Lyn O’Brien live in Arizona, while Pat and Jean still live on the farm overlooking the empty, but still standing, farm buildings. Pat drives a school bus for the Verona, Wis. schools now.

Yes, the Stoner Prairie farm sign still stands, but the former dairy farm is now officially named O’Brien Solar Fields. No cows, alfalfa, soybeans or corn, just solar panels that follow the sun. That’s change – for sure.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.