How Wisconsin dairy promotion was remade

John Oncken
The growth of ADA membership attracted even more members.

Two weeks ago I wrote the first part of the story of how the Dairy Producers of Wisconsin got to be the dairy promotion, research and education branch of Wisconsin's dairy industry. We continue today.

It was at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the ADA of Wisconsin when Robert Bird was replaced by Manitowoc dairyman Vernon Schultz, as president of the organization. Soon after longtime ADA Manager Bill Johnson retired from his position, leaving the post open.

I had been receiving phone calls from two recruiters suggesting they had a great job for me but neither would tell me what it was and I was happily serving as beef advertising manager at American Breeders Service (ABS), one of the great companies anywhere, and had no interest in pursuing an unknown position. Until, a local dairy farmer told me of the changes at ADA of Wisconsin.

I met with the ADA Executive Committee (out of curiosity) who surprisingly offered me the General Manage position. I said I'd think about it and after a few days decided to accept the challenges inherent with the job and left my eight year home at ABS.

I learned early on that ADA of Wisconsin was in financial distress as its voluntary dairy farmer contributions were stagnant and even dropping. I found out that: 1. The ADA of Wisconsin was a virtual unknown to most dairy farmers, 2. There were no effective enrollment recruitment programs being carried out to gain members and 3. Some employees were lackadaisical about their jobs. It meant a major remake of the whole association – in fact, a complete rebuild.

I began the process by attending each of the 13 District meetings: That was one a day for 13 consecutive work days, thus meeting all the district officers and learning about the organization. I continued attending all farmer dairy meetings that had program space and talking about ADA. I instructed our field representatives to do the same.

I made two major (and most effective) moves by appointing Field Representative John Frizzel of Manawa, to membership director and convincing Lois Hellenbrand (later Loff) to join us as office manager. Note: Lois had been my longtime secretary at ABS and I knew her as an intelligent and brilliant leader who always knew what I was thinking before I'd explained.

John Frizzel as Membership Director created an active enrollment program that was a big success.

Several other employees retired and were replaced by people with the ambition to succeed. This included Arvid Berge who applied for a communications writer position but who I saw as better fitted to supervise our huge supply of promotional materials; getting them sorted and sent out to users orders (members and businesses) and managing the warehouse itself. He succeeded beyond my expectations.

Membership drive

Meanwhile, a full-fledged membership program was being put together. Someone –perhaps a combination of minds came up with the idea that maybe the already farmer/members would somehow get involved in signing new members. Bob Draxler, St Croix county dairyman and Executive Committee member volunteered to conduct a membership drive in his area with local ADA members helping.

Executive Board member Bob Draxler, a St. Croix County dairyman volunteered to lead the first mass farmer contact program that exceeded all expectations.

John Frizzel helped organize a training program for a small group of dairymen who agreed to try the visitation program. Their biggest concern was they didn't know their neighbors very well and might get a less than pleasant reception. Frizzel agreed to bring several other ADA field reps to assist in the calls and help fill out membership forms. They were also at a noon lunch gathering to answer questions.

No fears, at day's end the visiting farmers each had a handful of signed memberships and told how much fun the day had been as they met neighbors they barely knew or didn't know at all. No one got a bad reception but instead made new friends and volunteered to do it again.

The farmer visitor program spread statewide as Frizzel and his troops worked with the local dairymen.

The result? The office staff was nearly overwhelmed with work: Notifying processors about the monthly payments to ADA from farmer milk checks; making bank deposits and developing the promotion programs to fulfill its purpose.

Early on, I also felt we needed to do something to put ADA of Wisconsin in the spotlight.

For some reason, I went to Madison on a Saturday and found the Capitol Square blocked to car traffic, I parked and went to see what was going on and found out there was a bicycle race in progress. I was curious never having seen such an event up close and stood on a corner to watch.  

A crash

As a pack of cyclists came around the corner, there was a crash and a women racer slid across the asphalt and brick street and landed at my feet.

I helped her up, she was unhurt except for a bit of road rash, and we got to talking. The cyclist, Mary Doctor, who I had read about as a rather famed speed skater and cyclist from Madison, said, “you know, Beth Heiden is in the next race and she’s the world champion woman cyclist. You could probably get to meet her – she’ll be near the starting line at Martin Luther King Drive."

All the sudden it dawned on me, wouldn’t this world famed speed skater/cyclist make a great person to advertise dairy products and at the same time get every one to hear about the ADA of Wisconsin? Off  I went at a trot, got to the race starting line and with a bit of help found Beth Heiden straddling her bike ready to start the race in a few minutes.

Beth Heiden worked at ADA of Wisconsin for parts of two years.

Strangers meet

I introduced myself with some trepidation and told her about what we we doing at the ADA of Wisconsin and would she consider working for the dairy farmers of Wisconsin?  (I knew it was much reported that Beth was not  interested in signing with any of the many major advertisers that were courting her, but...)

To my surprise and shock, she said, “That sounds like a great idea. I’ll give you my agent’s name and phone and you can call him and make arrangements. Now this race is about to start, so you’d better leave.”

And, I did. The next day I talked to Vernon Schultz, Manitowoc dairyman and president of ADA who thought it was great idea and that I should work out the details. So, I called Art Kaminski, a well-known New York lawyer and sports agent for many cyclists and hockey players and worked out an arrangement for Beth and ADA of Wisconsin.

The ADA hosted an introductory event at the Concourse Hotel in Madison for Beth, her parents and the ADA delegates, board and employees. I remember Beth was wearing the red, white and blue US cycling outfit she had worn in her international cycling competition.  

A booming success

Needless to say, the event was a huge success. Remember, Beth Heiden was without doubt the most popular woman in the country at the time because of her and brother Eric’s Olympic fame, their journey from Madison to the top of the sports world and their likable personalities.

The success of the ADA of Wisconsin continued: Cheese Festivals were held across the country with great participation; We got a license to use the Real Seal from California; Extensive advertising in Chicago was carried out and so much more. Our small but brilliant crew at CreataCom Advertising produced many outstanding programs.

Off to a fast start the Milkweed newspaper says.

Making a law

The success also attracted the attention of the Wisconsin Legislature who saw it as an opportunity to pass legislation requiring all dairy farmers to pay 15 cents per hundred pounds of milk to pay for the advertising, research and promotion programs being carried out by the ADA of Wisconsin.

The legislation easily passed and the days of the ADA were numbered as a new organization was to be formed. (I never knew why a new organization was needed or formed as ADA had accomplished so much in the recent years. I heard it was somewhat of a political decision with other people wanting power positions. Don't know, but I had already bought a computer, rented an office and incorporated my own Oncken Communication, Inc. business.)

The new group named Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board took over on January 1, 1984—years later they renamed themselves Dairy Producers of Wisconsin as they remain today. Thus my story ends.

John Oncken is at