Reminiscing on changes in agriculture over the years

John Oncken
One of the hardest jobs on the farm was shocking the oats (or other grain) to dry it a bit prior threshing.  You can still wee shocks on some Amish farms

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the period between Thanksgiving and March was sort of the 'getting ready time" on family farms in Wisconsin. There were few farm meetings at the time (the Corn -Soy Expo, Dairy Strong and PDPW Conference had yet to appear) and It was the time for fixing and planning for the coming spring cropping season.

The farm machinery was resting in the shed waiting for the spring fix-up and the horses were enjoying doing nothing much except hauling the manure to the field (if they could get there) and the kids were back in school after the long Christmas school vacation. It was sort of a resting time on the farm but no one really rested. The cows had to be fed and milked, the barns cleaned every morning, the hogs cared for and the chickens fed and watered and the eggs gathered daily.

A Jamesway manure carrier that ran on a track got manure from the barn gutters out to the manure spreader.

Pardon me if that scenario sounds a bit strange — what Wisconsin farm today raises cows, pigs and chickens? None, but when I was a farm boy growing up on the 80-acre Oncken farm in the township of Rutland in Dane County, most everyone did. It was also a time when dairy barns were cleaned daily with a fork, shovel and scraper and manure was stored on a pile in the barnyard, silage was thrown down the silo chute with a wide fork and hay was stored loose (or in small bales) in the haymow.

A long time ago

Why bring up thoughts of decades ago? Simple — because the slow season is the time for memories as everyone over about 40 years of age will know. (Don't scoff younger readers, if you are lucky you will also reach the age when your youth will come back to haunt you or fill you with pride and good memories.)

Corn was stored by the ear in a corncrib until recent years when the combine was developed that would remove the kernels from the cob.

My memories of growing up on the farm are all good; it seems I've forgotten the bad things that I'm sure must have happened. For instance, I can't remember any details of the six weeks of back-to-back measles and mumps when I and my brother were quarantined to the house (that was the law) or the sore throat after having my tonsils taken out.

Nor do I remember the cold wind and snow when my dad, brother and I carried two, 100-pound cans of milk down the quarter mile driveway to meet the milk truck that couldn't navigate the four-foot snow drifts that isolated the farmstead for several days at a time each winter. Note: That was before the township took ownership of the driveway and got it snow plowed immediately.

Mostly good

Yes, the good memories about growing up on the farm are so many and more crowd my mind by the minute as I write. I guess the work was harder than today's school kids face, but we did what we had to do given the rather low technology of the day. I guess I'm not alone in having thoughts of years gone by as this letter I received this morning tells.

A Case two bottom 14-inch plow was pulled behind the old Farmall tractor.

Hello John, I am a former dairy farmer in Central Illinois.  I remember in younger days listening to your dairy report on WGN 720 in Chicago with Oren Samuelson while milking our cows. I still marveled at the direction you and Oren and Max Armstrong took. Telling me as a small dairy farmer I need to expand or get out. I liked to milk our cows and got even greater pleasure from the breeding of our Brown Swiss. Fortunately before all the mating tools of computers, I chose some crosses that turned out well. And after a stint as a volunteer in Vietnam as agricultural extension worker during the war, I came back to the farm. And grew the herd to 50 cows. But the war experience and my dad's Great Depression life did not lead me to borrow deep and build more to expand, though I was encouraged to! In hindsight, I live next to my neighbor who did with beef feeding and almost lost it.   

So in reading your column,  I can see now that you and your family now realize that all this loss of dairy farms in Wisconsin is having really detrimental affects on rural communities. I thought that way back in the late 60's and 70's. Individual ownership of business in the United States is the key to our capitalist economy.  When it gets consolidated to where only a few sway the direction of production and retailing, our whole society loses!  

So, thank you for your column because it shows that forces outside an individual's ability to be efficient and innovative does not mean they are a failure!!!  And no, I have no solution for the situation beyond the cooperative marketing and procurement model of farming. But sadly, most farmers think they are smarter, faster and more able to navigate the market and Mother Nature than their counterpart.

The surge milker was the most popular milking unit of the first half of the1900’s, and was hung from the cow using an over the back strap.

I still farm while not dairying and am not afraid of physical labor. But my children tell me I should. I hope that my daughter and son-in-law on Koepke Farm in Oconomowoc are big enough to have their sons come on to keep going through the next generation. But time will tell. I think one big dairy per county for sure is not good for Wisconsin. So keep writing and telling our urban population that leaving dairying has many causes but few failures! God Bless, Ron Ackerman "

Thanks Ron!

John Oncken can be reached at