Jon Eiden doesn’t need to embellish this fish story.
The mammoth fish speaks for itself.
Less than two hours into the 2019 sturgeon spearing season, Eiden harvested a long-sought 85.5-inch, 171-pound lake sturgeon, one of the largest ever pulled up through the ice of Lake Winnebago.
Eiden has been spearing alongside his father, John Eiden, since he was in high school, but the sturgeon he speared near Oshkosh on Feb. 9 weighed more than his previous three sturgeons combined.
The fish is believed to be 100 to 130 years old, if not older, meaning it may have hatched in the late 1800s. It’s the longest recorded sturgeon speared in the Winnebago System.
“Disbelief and awe,” the 34-year-old Appleton resident said in describing his emotions. “Seeing it in person right when it came out of the water was unbelievable.
“I knew it was a really big fish, but beyond that I didn’t have an appreciation for what we had and the significance until the day went on and we registered it and saw it was 171 pounds.
“And then we found out it was the big fish people have been talking about that was tagged seven years ago. That’s when the magnitude of everything started to sink in.”
In April 2012, the sturgeon Eiden speared was tagged during a spawning run near the Shawano dam, about 60 miles from Oshkosh, drawing significant buzz in sturgeon spearing circles. (The same fish also was captured by DNR officials eight years prior to that in the same area). That tag enabled Wisconsin DNR sturgeon biologist Ryan Koenigs to track down some of the fish’s history.
The much-talked-about sturgeon eluded spearers until this year.
Eiden’s father first spotted the sturgeon at about 8:45 a.m. on opening morning as the men looked through their ice shanty hole. The fish was swimming along the bottom in about 10.5 feet of water with relatively good visibility.
Eiden speared the sturgeon slightly behind the midway point of its body, but neither he nor his father realized the overall size until it inched closer to the surface. Eiden said the largest of his three sturgeons in previous years weighed about 60 pounds; he last speared a fish in 2015.
“(Feb. 9) was a blur of telling the story to people,” said Eiden, noting he ended up meeting the biologist that day who netted his sturgeon for tagging back in 2012. “It’s kind of a surreal flurry of action all because of a fish being hauled out of the ice.”
Eiden’s sturgeon this year stretched 85.5 inches, setting a record for the longest sturgeon speared in the Winnebago System, surpassing an 84.5-inch sturgeon (weighing 143.7 pounds) speared last season by Kyle Jenkins of Oshkosh.
The heaviest lake sturgeon confirmed speared in the Winnebago System was a 212.2-pound fish harvested by Ron Grishaber of Appleton on opening day of the 2010 season. That fish checked in at 84.2 inches long.
Eiden said he was thankful to share the experience with his father.
“I have a long list of incredible adventures with him, memories that will last a lifetime — and more often than not it ends with me getting to take the shot,” he said. “He’s a really incredible dad and something for me to aspire to as a young father.”
The Eidens were among thousands of spearers who have ventured onto Lake Winnebago and the Upriver Lakes in east-central Wisconsin this month for the annual sturgeon spearing season. The season continues through Feb. 24, or until harvest caps are met. Spearing hours are 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A total of 12,890 licenses from 70 Wisconsin counties and 32 other states were sold this season. Of that figure, 12,411 licenses were for Lake Winnebago and 479 licenses were for the Upriver Lakes (Lakes Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan).
The Winnebago System is home to one of the world’s largest self-sustaining populations of lake sturgeon, with an estimated 40,000-plus adult fish.
Lake sturgeon can grow to more than 200 pounds, making them the largest fish in the Great Lakes. They are considered living fossils since they have survived, virtually unchanged, for more than 100 million years.
“Although this fish (that Eiden speared) is no longer in the population, what she represented still persists,” Koenigs said. “This fish was an example of the big fish that call the Winnebago System home, but I assure you she was not alone. In fact, there have been fish longer than 83 inches harvested during each of the past three spearing seasons.
“It’s only a matter of time until another sturgeon is captured from this population and captivates the attention and dreams of thousands of spearers and sturgeon enthusiasts.”
Nine years after first entering college, Emily Watson is moving closer to her long-awaited goal of becoming an agriculture teacher.
After wrapping up this semester, the UW-River Falls senior will embark on a fall semester of student teaching and then, if all goes well, land a position as an agricultural educator soon thereafter.
“I’ve waited a while for this, but it’s all worth it because it’s something I’m passionate about,” she said.
“If you talk to FFA students, myself included, we kind of found our home in our FFA chapters and our ag departments with those teachers who gave great advice. To be able to provide an environment like that for students is really important to me. I want to get students excited about agriculture like I am, because it means a lot.”
Watson, 26, who was raised near Elkhorn in Walworth County, received the Outstanding Young Member Award at the Wisconsin FFA Alumni’s 39th Annual Convention earlier this month in Stevens Point.
Her appreciation for FFA and agriculture has remained steadfast over the years.
After graduating from Elkhorn Area High School in 2010, Watson enrolled at UW-Platteville but opted to leave after two years. In 2012 she was elected State FFA vice president, and during her year in that role she spent several weeks working closely with students in classrooms.
“I already knew I liked ag education, but that’s where I truly fell in love with it,” she said.
Determined to pursue a career as an ag teacher, Watson started working at Best Buy to raise money for college. She returned to college in 2016, enrolling at UW-River Falls, and is on track to graduate in January 2020.
David Kruse, the agricultural sciences instructor/FFA adviser at Elkhorn Area High School, said Watson has the tools to succeed.
“As a future agricultural educator, Emily is going to bring with her, first and foremost, a deep interest in the agriculture industry along with the skills and instinct to share agriculture’s message with others,” Kruse said.
“I have always known Emily to be the type of person that would invite others in to learn about agriculture, agricultural education and FFA. As a freshman in high school, she was already an advocate for agricultural education when recruiting other students, and her advocacy has only continued and improved in her post-secondary journey.
“I have enjoyed and taken pride in the moments I have seen Emily continue her involvement with the Wisconsin FFA, either at Wisconsin FFA State Conventions or providing training to current agricultural educators during her work with the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.”
Watson’s interest in agriculture originated on her parents’ hobby farm near Elkhorn, where they raised several Brown Swiss dairy cattle. She showed cattle during her years in the local 4-H group.
As a high school freshman, Watson joined the Elkhorn FFA chapter and embraced the opportunities it provided.
“I enjoyed being able to travel, especially to leadership sessions and conventions,” said Watson, noting one of her most memorable trips was a weeklong leadership development conference in Washington, D.C.
“And I also liked that we could judge dairy cattle and learn more about them in the classroom. I learned a lot through FFA and my ag teacher (Kruse).”
In addition to attending UW-River Falls full time, Watson has worked full time at Best Buy for the past five years. She said the managerial skills she has developed will benefit her agricultural students when it comes to preparing them for the workforce in whatever field they choose.
“There are so many facets and areas of agriculture that students can get involved in,” Watson said. “It’s Wisconsin, but it’s not just dairy farming. It’s whatever you want your career to be in agriculture, whatever you’re passionate about. Agriculture needs people with that passion.
“I want to show students all of those opportunities they have and hopefully help them find something that they want to do and are passionate about in life.”
Watson encourages people to contribute in whatever ways they can, big or small.
“As young alumni members, we need to remember it’s the little things that matter,” she said. “Just being there, available and willing to help makes all the difference.
“There are so many people who have worn the FFA jacket, and if all those people did one little thing — even if it’s not their home chapter, but a chapter close to them — it would make such a big impact. Doing the little things is important to supporting our FFA chapters and our ag teachers and our FFA students.”
MADISON — While UW-Madison professor Jed Colquhoun recognizes and appreciates Wisconsin’s focus on America’s Dairyland, he also thinks there is another agricultural area in the state’s portfolio that’s worth noting.
“Specialty crops can add diversity in the long-term strength that really balances our outlook for agriculture,” he said during his presentation at the Wisconsin Agricultural Outlook Forum held in late January on the UW-Madison campus.
Not only do specialty crops add value in a farmer’s rotation, but more importantly, they add value in processing, packaging and distribution, contributing to Wisconsin’s economy. However, not unlike other agricultural sectors in the state, specialty crops have also been fighting the trends, which have led to challenging times as consumption decreases while production continues to increase.
Cranberries remain “an absolutely wonderful, historic strength in Wisconsin agriculture,” Colquhoun said. Wisconsin produces about 60 percent of the nation’s cranberries. Globally, the state remains the top leader in production.
However, he’s seeing an increase in acreage and a decrease in farm price in the majority of the nation’s cranberries, with Wisconsin’s farm price per barrel for cranberries down 39 percent since 2012. Colquhoun said this is not only because of the decrease in consumption of many cranberry products, but globally, there continue to be increases in acreage and production as others learn how to produce cranberries.
“It’s the worst of both situations,” he said.
Processing vegetables, like sweet corn, snap beans, green peas, carrots and cucumbers, are “in a similar conundrum,” he added, with Wisconsin’s planted acres down 21 percent since their peak in 2012.
“Crop value is also down, alarmingly by 53 percent since a peak in 2013,” he said.
This is partly due to a decrease in consumption, which has been recorded since 1996. Even with pushes from nutritionists about the benefits of incorporating vegetables into a healthy and balanced diet, a decrease in consumption can be seen across all types of vegetables, from fresh to canned to frozen.
A particular example Colquhoun shared was with canned snap bean consumption. Wisconsin supplies 40 percent of the nation’s snap bean crop.
“We’ve seen a drastic decrease from about 4½ pounds (annually) in 1970 down to just about 3 pounds (annually) in 2016,” he said, adding that with decreased consumption comes decreased farm prices.
Some of this issue can be traced back to efficiencies and gains that have been made in production, similar to other agricultural sectors in Wisconsin and across the nation. Based on genetics and better management, “we’ve almost become too efficient in some cases,” Colquhoun said, finding ourselves with an oversupply that also matches with a reduced or stagnant consumption.
“Our production (of snap beans) over the past 30 years has increased from an average of 3 tons per acre up to above 5 tons per acre in 2015,” he added. “That’s a significant increase in a very short time period.”
For Wisconsin potatoes, Colquhoun has seen fewer harvested acres over the past few years, but with production down, the price has continued to increase. He warned that this might not be the case moving forward as the price tends to balance out, but it has “been a shining light” as the volume has been controlled to allow the price to stabilize a bit.
But even as consumption decreases, Colquhoun is quick to add that consumers aren’t the only variability that presents risk and opportunities. Specialty crop farmers, and farmers in general, are seeing a change in the length of growing seasons, with Wisconsin farmers planning on the season being 10 to 14 days longer than the growing seasons of a generation past. This allows them to plant earlier and harvest later, which could translate into an opportunity for farmers.
However, 2018 was an anomaly in that as cold, wet weather delayed planting, shortened harvesting time and affected crop quality in many areas throughout the state, he said.
Labor is also becoming an increasing issue. Over the past 100 years or so, those involved with agricultural employment in the U.S. dropped from about 35 percent of the population to 1 to 2 percent of the population.
“And those in the specialty crops require a lot of labor and that’s becoming an issue that we’ve heard about in dairy and other agricultural sectors,” Colquhoun said.
There has also been a decrease in economic activity stemming from production and processing of specialty crops in Wisconsin; the number of jobs has decreased along with it, with a 24 percent decrease in production jobs and 32 percent decrease in processing jobs, for a total 29 percent decrease in the specialty crop industry in Wisconsin.
“So while they’ve been part of the rural glue and have historically been strong contributors to that portfolio, right now we find ourself in a depressed situation in the specialty crop production also,” he said.
But innovation is one advantage farmers have in Wisconsin, and it’s why the state has enjoyed a diverse specialty crop portfolio, Colquhoun said.
Hemp production in Wisconsin has been a great example of the innovation that Wisconsin farmers have. Colquhoun has seen market developments in grain, seed, CBD oil and fiber, with growing interest in adding more producers and processors for Wisconsin’s hemp crop.
Wisconsin also has a transportation advantage, with access to railways that carry the state’s products across the country. Our geography also poses an opportunity to Wisconsin as there are 34 million people to feed in the Great Lakes Basin, with more than 20 million people within 200 miles of Wisconsin alone.
“If local is an interest to consumers, we’re at that table and we have a strength and opportunity there,” Colquhoun said.
There is also a Specialty Crop Task Force that has been created to continue to study ways to strengthen Wisconsin’s specialty crop sector, asking questions about what farmers are growing, how they are growing it and if there are opportunities in marketing and the creation of new products.
“I have optimism that we’ll continue to diversify and continue to have a strong specialty crop sector, but it may change what we produce, how we produce it, and that’s an opportunity where we can build on the innovation we’ve had historically in Wisconsin,” Colquhoun said.
Education, agritourism, rural broadband and funding of local roads are among key issues being tackled by the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0’s sub-committee on Dairy and Rural Community Vitality.
During a 1½-hour meeting Feb. 12 via teleconference, sub-committee members approved several recommendations aimed at building upon the strength of the dairy industry and better communicating its value at the local level.
While “some recommendations are largely articulated as far as pathways and dollars and cents,” committee member Dennis Bangart said, “some are just a statement for the industry: Here’s an idea, run with it in your own communities, connecting the farm to the industry and the industry to the community.”
The Wisconsin dairy industry has changed dramatically through the decades, and the picture of a farm has changed. As a result, local infrastructure has shifted, but rural Wisconsin still relies heavily on the economic activity generated by dairy farms.
With an economic impact of more than $43 billion, the dairy industry is more important to Wisconsin than citrus is to Florida (at $9.1 billion), potatoes are to Idaho ($3.4 billion) and apples are to Washington ($7 billion), according to figures shared by the sub-committee.
The dairy industry supports one in 10 Wisconsin jobs, and the economic impact of that supports another 1.46 jobs. The average dairy cow in Wisconsin generates $34,000 in economic activity annually.
In an effort to raise awareness of this impact, the sub-committee recommends that the state offer grant funds to study existing or proposed dairy and agricultural infrastructures in communities, counties or other areas, along with the current or potential future impacts.
The sub-committee also passed a recommendation to work on better connecting local chambers of commerce and others to resources on agriculture and encouraging the establishment of ag-based programs emphasizing dairy.
“It’s more of a self-awareness thing in the community,” Bangart said, adding that local chambers in Greenwood and Neillsville host dairy breakfasts, and the city of Marshfield has an agribusiness committee working on job creation and business development in the ag sector.
Another recommendation would offer educational programming for local non-farm professionals to raise their understanding of modern dairy farming practices. Programs would cover the basics of a dairy cow, farming essentials and business management.
Janet Clark said this would consist of a full day of interactive programming for people such as local business owners and employees, town board members, bankers and state Department of Natural Resources officials.
The sub-committee also advanced a recommendation to help farms add value through agritourism with help from a step-by-step process for standardizing and reducing their risk when providing on-site tours. They also called for better centralized marketing, such as state or regional farm listings.
Melissa Haag said many farmers are generating their own marketing efforts and are unaware of options to assist them. Also, many of them are concerned about litigation.
“Any time you have people on your farm who aren’t familiar with how a farm operates, liability is a big concern,” Haag said.
The group also discussed concerns related to official identification of animals and the threat of disease outbreak on dairy farms. A recommendation was forwarded to support creation of a system for unique individual animal ID to create an “efficient paper trail for traceability of animal movement.”
Haag said the industry must be proactive vs. reactive and develop a more organized system of animal ID to help streamline the process and limit disease spread. This also would instill consumer confidence regarding food safety.
Bangart said Wisconsin recently has become a “dumping ground” for a lot of out-of-state dairy herds, and several hundred head of cattle flow into the state’s livestock markets each week from all over the Midwest, raising concerns about disease transfer.
“This could potentially wreck an industry if the wrong one came across the state border,” he said. “We are very open to a lot of exposure.”
The sub-committee OK’d a recommendation designed to keep more funds at the local level to help pay for road construction and maintenance.
“All of these recommendations are going to cost money somewhere,” Dave Buholzer said. “People won’t mind paying a little bit more for this or for that, whether it’s a fuel tax or a wheel tax ... as long as they know it’s their roads that are getting fixed.”
The recommendation includes mandating that a set percentage of the state transportation budget go toward local roads, supporting a local wheel tax for towns and/or counties, requiring farms over a certain size to partner with local towns to help build roads to major highways and treating Class A trucks used to haul feed and/or manure the same as milk trucks.
Also, a dyed fuel tax for farm equipment would go directly back to townships, not through the general transportation fund where it could easily be siphoned off for other uses.
Buholzer said Green County recently implemented a wheel tax that’s expected to generate as much as $600,000 in revenue for county roads.
“We need to look at how much of what we’re paying ... goes into the general state fund,” he said, as most of it is funneled into big projects in the state’s metropolitan areas and only a small amount actually goes back to locals. “If we can get some coming back, it would be a huge help.”
Bangart suggested the possibility of cost-sharing and a separate pool of money maintained for local road funding: “Otherwise, you’re floating ideas of raising taxes and there’s no guarantee of it getting where it was intended.”
The sub-committee passed a recommendation to continue pushing for broadband Internet in rural Wisconsin. Clark said good progress has been made in the state budget to advance rural broadband access, which affects many farm families both personally and professionally. Some dairy producers want to implement new technology but can’t because of poor Internet access.
“Companies will reach out if they understand there’s enough business that they can get a return on their investment,” Buholzer said. “I hope it’s a sign of things to come — towers going up and services being brought further out in rural areas.”
Recommendations generated by all sub-committees will be considered by the full Dairy Task Force 2.0 at its meeting Friday, March 15. Five sub-committee teleconferences remain before the full task force meets.
Teleconferences, which are based out of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection headquarters in Madison, are scheduled as follows:
• Education and Workforce: 2 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20.
• Generational Succession and Transition: 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21.
• Price Volatility and Profitability: 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.
• Regulatory Certainty: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26.
• Research and Innovation: 1 p.m. Friday, March 1.
All meetings and teleconferences are open to the public, and people are welcome to make comments in person or submit written remarks at any time.