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Dairy, weather woes top news in 2018

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From the ailing farm economy to the whims of weather to changes in policy and trade, 2018 was anything but boring.

The lackluster farm economy and ongoing troubles in the dairy industry topped The Country Today’s annual Top 10 story list for 2018. The list was formulated through a vote by The Country Today editorial staff members on a list of 17 contenders. Staff aimed to determine the 10 most important or impactful stories to readers over the past year.

Following is the final Top 10 list for 2018, as developed by The Country Today editorial staff:

No. 1: Lackluster ag economy

The general agricultural economy spent the year in the doldrums, with commodity prices for milk, corn and soybeans below levels of profitability for many farmers.

The pain was especially poignant in the dairy industry, which has endured several years of low milk prices, dubbed by analysts as “a long scrape.” Farmers struggled as the milk supply continued to outpace dairy product demand. Even the organic dairy outlook soured, and Grade B milk producers faced growing pressure from processors to upgrade to Grade A.

In response to the disappointing dairy markets, farm groups took a closer look at implementing a milk supply management program similar to that utilized in Canada, and a contingent from Wisconsin traveled to New York for a meeting to discuss solutions. Governor Scott Walker last summer formed the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 in an effort to turn things around and save farmers from exiting the business.

No. 2: Trade tensions

Trade tensions escalated in 2018 as the U.S. entered into a trading of tariffs with several countries, including China and Mexico. The tariffs caused many farmers to worry about loss of markets in an already struggling agriculture industry. Tariffs targeted multiple industries, but many were directly aimed at agriculture, including soybeans, milk and pork.

To help alleviate the pain farmers felt from the $11 billion impact of retaliatory tariffs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized up to $12 billion in relief measures with the intent of helping producers meet the costs associated with disrupted markets.

Some farmers were unimpressed by the aid, saying they would rather hold trade partners and build markets than accept government assistance. Other farmers said the aid would provide temporary relief while trade concerns continued to be ironed out, including renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Late summer brought the announcement that the U.S. and Mexico had reached a deal on terms to replace NAFTA, a step in a positive direction for many. The deal also was thought to place pressure on Canada to come to an agreement with the U.S.

The trade and tariff battles built upon depressed market prices, causing already frustrated and hurting farmers to grasp for stronger footing by looking at alternative revenue streams.

No. 3: Wild weather

2018 proved to be a wild year for weather, starting in the spring, which was plagued with an unusually cold and snowy April, pushing farmers further back in their spring planting schedules as they patiently waited for the growing season to show up. Although not unheard of, the colder and snowier April saw most of the state still snow-covered as of the mid-month.

“It seems April likes to take the April Fool’s joke to extremes,” said Trisha Wagner, Jackson County UW-Extension agricultural agent. “But farmers know that the weather will always present risk in farming. (However), the fact that the lows in the single digits are persistent is somewhat surprising.”

A major snowstorm that weather forecasters named Blizzard Evelyn brought 3 feet of snow, whipping winds and towering snowdrifts to some regions, with farms across 10 counties in the northeastern part of the state reporting barn collapses.

“I’m not sure if we’ve ever seen anything quite like this,” said Sheila Harsdorf, former Wisconsin secretary of agriculture, after visiting several hard-hit areas of the state in late April.

For some farmers, snow became the least of their worries later in the year as historic rainfall continuously fell on southern Wisconsin in the late summer. In late-August, an historic 11 to 15 inches of rain fell west of Madison over a 24-hour period, impacting the communities of Black Earth, Cross Plains, Mazomanie and Middleton and flooding fields along the banks of Black Earth Creek and other waterways.

“I’ve never seen flooding quite like this,” said Claire Hottmann, who resides on Sunny Creek Farm on Highway 14 between Mazomanie and Arena. “Our pasture has flooded severely in the past but nothing like this ever before.

“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen it.”

As rain continued, reports of rescues of residents by boat emerged from the communities of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills as the Kickapoo River swelled its banks. Tornadoes were also reported from Waushara County to Manitowoc County in northeastern Wisconsin.

A state of emergency was declared by Gov. Scott Walker on Aug. 29 due to the ongoing statewide weather pattern.

Complications from the persistent, prolonged and heavy rains reached into fall as farmers began to harvest crops from once-flooded fields. Feed quality, along with mold and mycotoxins, topped concerns for both corn and soybean farmers; compaction also was a concern as anxious farmers waited for fields to dry out enough for them to complete the harvest.

No. 4: Farm bill

At long last, Congress came to a consensus on a new farm bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, late last year. It was signed Dec. 20 by President Donald Trump. The 2014 Farm Bill had expired Sept. 30.

Lauded for the certainty it brings to some uncertain times in agriculture, the five-year bill was praised by the dairy industry as it bolsters the safety net for farmers through improved risk management tools and greater flexibility in the new Dairy Margin Coverage program.

It also opens doors for growers interested in industrial hemp through the federal legalization of hemp farming and removal of hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill places full federal regulatory authority of hemp with the USDA and allows state agriculture departments to file hemp programs plans and regulate hemp cultivation per their state-specific programs.

No. 5: Industrial hemp production legalized

In late 2017, Wisconsin joined 33 other states in passing legislation to legalize industrial hemp production and research, and 2018 brought the first growing season for farmers looking to diversify into the crop.

Emergency rules for the pilot program were created and published in March, with a May application deadline for interested growers. The announcement was met by much interest as farmers in Wisconsin struggled to find new ways to bring profits to their farms.

About 360 applications to grow or process hemp were received by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, but it is estimated that only half of those farmers were able to actually get the plant in the ground. Wet weather, high weed pressure and other challenges met first-time growers.

As the year wrapped up, suggestions were made on what needed to change in the program in its second year. Many farmers expressed that they had learned a lot in the first year and felt better prepared for the 2019 growing season. With the inclusion of hemp in the new farm bill, farmers were excited to see several major obstacles, including whether or not growing and processing the crop was truly legal, removed from their path going forward.

Government officials continue to work on replacing the emergency rules for the program with standard rules, something they hope to have completed by 2020.

No. 6: Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center opens

After more than eight years of dreaming, planning and building, the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center officially opened to the public on July 28 in the Manitowoc County town of Newton.

The $13 million state-of-the-art agricultural education center, billed as the first of its kind in Wisconsin, features 15,000 square feet of interactive exhibits as well as the Land O’Lakes Birthing Barn (where more than 125 calves have been born so far), Wisconsin Café, Ice Cream Acres, gift store and conference center. Visitors also can tour nearby Grotegut Dairy Farm.

“We’ve been saying for some time it’s coming, and to say it’s here is really exciting,” said Julie Maurer, co-owner of Soaring Eagle Dairy and president of the center’s board of directors. “Together, here we will tell our story. Because of our collective efforts, more and more Americans will better understand the role of agriculture in their lives. Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is here.”

The center aims to show farmers’ commitment to providing food, fuel and fiber in methods that are safe, humane and sustainable. To date, more than 1,500 students comprising dozens of school groups have toured the facility.

The nonprofit Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center was the vision of the late Norval Dvorak, an agricultural pioneer who passed away in 2015 at the age of 93.

No. 7: Planes crash

A pair of plane crashes directly impacted farming families in eastern Wisconsin this past year.

On Feb. 22, a twin-propeller plane crash in Indiana killed John Pagel, 58, owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy near Kewaunee, and his son-in-law, Steven Witcpalek, 39, the farm’s operations manager. Also killed was the pilot, Nathan Saari, 35, of Marquette, Mich.

Pagel, a prominent figure in the state’s dairy industry, oversaw the largest single-family-owned dairy farm in Wisconsin. The family milks about 5,300 cows and manages about 8,500 acres in Kewaunee County. The family also acquired Kansas’ High Plains Ponderosa, which milks about 4,500 cows.

In addition, Pagel started an on-farm cheese plant and was the owner and visionary for The Cannery, a farm-to-table restaurant/market in Green Bay. He also was involved in numerous agricultural entities since taking over the family farm in 1978.

Five months later, on July 20, Fly-By Acres, a 550-cow dairy farm near Sheboygan Falls, was rocked when a vintage military jet crashed on its property moments after takeoff from nearby Sheboygan County Memorial Airport.

Pilot Martin Tibbitts, 50, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., died in the crash. His jet clipped the edge of a corn field adjacent to the farm before crashing through a nearby calf barn, narrowly missing two other buildings and coming to rest in an area about 40 feet from the milking parlor.

Two employees feeding calves were injured, more than three dozen calves were killed or injured, one of the calf barns was destroyed and three other buildings were damaged. Billowing black plumes of smoke from burning jet fuel were visible for miles immediately after the crash.

Jim and Chris Kroeplien own Fly-By Acres, which started in 1879. Tibbitts, the deceased pilot, was a co-founder of the World Heritage Air Museum. He was in the area as part of an event leading up to the EAA AirVenture event in Oshkosh.

No. 8: FTD to move off the farm

After a successful 2018 show in Wood County, Wisconsin Farm Technology opts to move off the farm in 2021.

Organizers of this past year’s FTD were pleased with the turnout for the July event, with attendance topping out at 42,220 — the highest it’s been in almost 10 years. Attendance for the first two days of the show especially surpassed expectations, with FTD General Manager Matt Glewen saying that numbers for the first day’s crowd hadn’t been that high in many years.

“If we were to compare this show to any other, I would say the crowds were just as big, if not bigger than the 2009 show in Dodge County when it was held at Crave Brothers Farm,” said Anna Maenner, Tent City coordinator. “A great location in the state and very nice weather made for an ideal situation to bring people out.”

Hosts for this year’s FTD included Daryl and Brenda Sternweis and family, who own and operate a fifth-generation dairy, Ken and Joellen Heiman and family, and Kelvin and Marilyn Heiman and family, with the Heimans having strong ties to dairy and cheesemaking.

Next year’s big event will be held in Jefferson County at Walter Grain Farms in Johnson Creek. Jefferson County will have another opportunity to host soon as it was announced late last year that the show will be held at the Jefferson County Fair Park in 2021.

According to Glewen, two sites were under consideration to host the 2021 event, with Jefferson County Fair Park, located on the northwest edge of the city of Jefferson, selected over the Iola Old Car Show Grounds in Iola.

The 2021 show will be the first one in the show’s more than 60-year history that will be off-the-farm and organized and run by Wisconsin Farm Technology Days Inc., the statewide organization that supports the event. In all past events, shows were organized and run by the county selected to host each year.

The show will return to a county-hosted show in 2022 with Clark County. The location and dates have not yet been announced.

No. 9: Walker out, Evers in

Wisconsin voters ousted Republican Gov. Scott Walker from office in November’s midterm elections and voted in Democrat Tony Evers, former superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

The change in power in Madison means installation of a new Cabinet, including the appointment late in the year of Brad Pfaff as secretary of the DATCP. Pfaff, former executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wisconsin Farm Service Agency, replaces outgoing agriculture secretary Sheila Harsdorf.

No. 10: MilkSource achieves triple crown

MilkSource Genetics achieved a triple crown. With the upgrading of Weeks Dundee Anika, a black-and-white Holstein, to the EX-97 classification by Holstein Association USA in August, the town of Freedom show barn in Outagamie County reached the pinnacle score with cows from three major show breeds.

Last February, another MilkSource Genetics cow, Musqie Iatola Martha, became the youngest Jersey in history to achieve the 97 score. And in 2014, the farm’s Blondin Redman Seisme became the first Red and White Holstein cow to achieve the elite rating.

“When Martha reached EX-97, I described it as ‘lightning striking twice.’ It was unforgettable,” said John Vosters, MilkSource Genetics partner. “But doing it again? There simply aren’t words to describe it.”

It is believed there are fewer than six cows living in North America with EX-97 scores, and MilkSource Genetics is home to three of them.