The history of Wisconsin dairy research and promotion

John Oncken
The 1979 ADA of Wisconsin leadership seated l to r:  John Oncken, Sun Prairie, Vernon Schultz, Manitowoc, Ed Stuesser, Brookfield.  Standing from left: Delroy Peterson, Grantsburg, Elmer Abraham, Manawa, Bruce Odeen, Black River Falls, Ed Ahlers, Sheldon, Cliff Mack, Prairie du Sac.

Many, many times over the years I’ve been asked about the beginnings of the dairy checkoff, first known as ADA of Wisconsin, then Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), now Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (DPW). No one seems to remember except me, probably because I was the one most involved in the Wisconsin mandatory checkoff process dating back to Jan. 1, 1984.

The early days

The idea of farmers promoting dairy products got started nationally in 1938 as the American Dairy Association that made little progress until five states – Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, Montana and Washington and Wisconsin – formed their own ADA promotion units and joined the national group. 

ADA of Wisconsin’s finances came from a voluntary checkoff on producer’s milk production. First of 2 cents per hundred weight of milk for 15 days a year that became year around program in 1953. 

By 1957 the budget had reached $1.5 million in Wisconsin as dairy co-ops signed their producer members to contracts and the checkoff rate was increased to one-third of one percent. 

The long time logo of American Dairy Association of Wisconsin.

On the downhill

The co-op support lessened as the competition for milk grew and co-op mergers increased. The ADA then decided all promotional monies would come directly by producer enrollment. By 1975 the annual budget had dropped to $715,000, possibly because of efforts to create a mandatory checkoff, a producer referendum that failed and weak producer enrollment programs. 

By 1978 Wisconsin ranked near the bottom of states in terms of money raised for dairy promotion relative to the amount of milk produced. Former ADA of Wisconsin dairy promotion director, Don Peterson said that might be because most states had a mandatory checkoff program in effect.

The organization

The ADA of Wisconsin had long been organized into 13 districts with four producers and three processors forming a district committee with one of each serving on the 26 member State Board. The State Board (at the annual meeting) elected an Executive Committee including officers.

For several decades. Brownsville dairyman Robert Bird had served as ADA of Wisconsin president with WC “Bill” Johnson as general manager.

The election of Manitowoc dairyman Vernon Schultz as President of ADA of Wisconsin in 1979 made for major changes.

Change at the top

The 1978 ADA of Wisconsin annual meeting saw President Bird being defeated by Two Rivers dairyman Vernon Schultz for the President position and the beginning of a new era at ADA of Wisconsin was about to begin

It began with the release of Johnson as general manager and search for a replacement.

About that time I began receiving phone calls from two employment recruiting agencies (Madison and Milwaukee) about a great job waiting for me but neither would tell me what kind of job it was. I told them to quit calling until they could tell me more. 

Then, in conversation with a local dairy farmer, I learned of the changes at ADA of Wisconsin. Soon after, one of the recruiters called again and admitted he was seeking me to fill the ADA general manager position.

After considerable thought, after all as ABS Beef advertising director, I already worked for one of the greatest companies anywhere. But, I also knew ABS was going to be sold and things would change.

Announcement of my appointment as general manager and list of district meetings I attended.

Making the change

When the recruiter called again I agreed to meet with the ADA executive committee who offered me the ADA general manager position with the stipulations that 1) I not try to make sales experts out of the committee and 2) they not attend every dairy meeting being held across the land. They felt the previous president and GM had made the committee into meeting-goers which was not their job.  

It was September 16, 1978 when I became General Manager of ADA of Wisconsin. My first job was to learn about and understand what was what and who was who. To do that I attended all 13 district meetings from Elkhorn to Ashland over 13 consecutive days. And learn, I did!

The story will continue.

Reach John F Oncken at