With their busy lives, Christian and Gena (Polzin) Lilienthal don’t have a lot of time for reflection.
But when they do look back, they know they wouldn’t be where they are without FFA — and a gentle nudge from the hand of fate.
“We still live and breathe it,” Gena said of FFA.
Married for almost eight years, the Lilienthals first met in 2005 during leadership conferences and sponsor visits while Christian was serving as Minnesota state FFA president and Gena, who grew up on a dairy farm near Cadott, was state FFA president for Wisconsin.
“We just became acquaintances; we weren’t even best friends,” Gena said. “Your schedule’s so crazy when you’re in office, so you get really close with your team and make acquaintances along the way.”
That could have been the end of it, but their paths kept crossing — next in 2009 at the National FFA Convention while Christian was representing the New Century Farmer program for the National FFA Organization and Gena was employed by CHS and representing UW-River Falls at the convention.
In the years to come, they continued to bump into each other often at FFA events, and they began dating.
As fate would have it, Christian, then working as a local Extension agent, was serving on a committee to help revive the agricultural education program in St. Peter, Minn. The program had been out of commission for at least a decade.
After a few years working in the industry, Gina was looking for a change and finishing her student teaching requirements and master’s degree.
“He gave me the job application but wasn’t on the hiring committee,” she said.
“It worked out pretty good,” Christian said.
Since then, the Lilienthals have built a successful life for themselves — in agriculture, naturally — in southern Minnesota. Christian farms full time with his parents and brother near Arlington, Minn., while Gena is an agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at the South Central Minnesota Agricultural Science Academy in St. Peter, Minn.
Gena built the program from scratch. Recently, the school added a new building for it that includes wood and metal shops, along with a full-size greenhouse, garden and 40 acres of farmland.
“It’s fun to build a program and come from nothing,” she said. “When I started, I had a teeny, tiny classroom.”
Gena, who was honored as the 2018 Minnesota Teacher of Teachers and has received the National Association of Agriculture Educators’ Teachers Turn the Key and Outstanding Early Career Teacher awards, has several Career Development Event teams competing during the Minnesota State FFA Convention set for April 28-30 in the Twin Cities.
The chapter, which has grown to about 60 members, also is in the top 10 for the National Chapter Award. Two years ago, Gena coached her dairy judging team all the way to the international competition in Europe.
Gena, hired in 2011, is one of two ag teachers at St. Peter. The other, Mike Reeser, is in his second year and focuses more on the shop classes.
“It’s a very good school district,” she said. “I’ve got lots of community support.”
While traditional ag classes such as animal and plant sciences are taught, students also build a Habitat for Humanity house each year. Gena said the goal is to prepare students for college education as well as for entrance into the area workforce, giving students “more bang for their buck” vs. specialty classes.
Her future plans include forming a local FFA Alumni chapter, especially since some of her first students are now into adulthood. She also plans to tap into more collaborations with other local educational resources, including Gustavus Adolphus College.
After seeing some fields getting worked recently in Missouri and Iowa, Christian is anxiously awaiting the launch of spring planting.
“I’d love to get out and start picking up rocks,” he said. “We’re ready to go as soon as we get the green flag.”
Former hog producers, the Lilienthals now focus on beef cattle and crop production. They raise 2,500 acres of crops, have a small cow/calf operation and finish about 800 head of cattle each year. They buy most of their feeders out of Western states.
“That’s a lot for our part of the state, with our high-priority cropping ground,” Christian said, “but we have some topography in our pasture that lends itself to cattle.”
He recently returned home from a 12-day marketing and leadership experience in the Philippines and Malaysia offered through the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. While there, the group met with current and potential customers. He said many buyers there prefer U.S. beans because they “know exactly what they’re getting.”
Christian is hopeful that grain markets will bounce back soon, but until then, he is grateful for his farm’s diversity and the ability to share resources such as equipment with his parents and brother.
“That’s how a lot of our land rent is priced,” he said of the volatile commodity markets. “We feel bad for ourselves and empathize with landowners. I thought maybe more would happen with China ... . We just catch the rallies whenever we can.”
Since 2010, Christian also has been raising exotic animals including kangaroos, camels, deer and more — an enterprise inspired by his internship at a zoo in Sydney, Australia, as part of study-abroad requirements for his agricultural education degree at the University of Minnesota.
“He loved it so much, he found ways to start his own (zoo),” Gena said.
Through his Wild Things Zoo Attractions, Christian includes some 60 different species of animals in educational presentations and exhibits through zoos, museums, schools, libraries and community events such as fairs.
He is working to expand his zoo and create a permanent exhibit in a nearby community. His efforts to open a “Kangaroo Island” in Gaylord last year fell short.
Christian hires interns to assist him and plans to take this year’s group on a trip to Australia late this summer as part of their compensation.
Like his wife, he hasn’t forgotten his FFA roots, playing an active role in the local FFA chapter and volunteering at the state convention each spring. He also helps with judging at the Minnesota State Fair each summer.
“My social outlet is still the state fair,” he said.
Gena said she’s “learned a lot” since moving from Wisconsin’s Northwoods to the flat, fertile farm fields of south-central Minnesota.
“Markets are different and prices are different in certain spots,” she said. “The land is very different.”
The couple has a 3-year-old son, Lars, and is expecting their second child in September. Will they join FFA?
“I’ll assume so,” says their mother.
While the latest Census of Agriculture showed the continuation of some troubling trends, such as a shrinking number of farms nationally and a rising average age of farmers, there also are some bright spots to be found.
Wisconsin agriculture is “broad, diverse and strong,” Brad Pfaff, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, told reporters shortly after the April 11 release of the 2017 Census of Agriculture. More than 70 percent of Wisconsin farms responded to the survey.
“What I’m so proud of in this state is the fact that we have agriculture that fits our landscape,” he said. “People in this state know how to farm” and understand the need to work with the natural environment.
The census, which highlights data collected by the National Agricultural Statistics Service from farmers in all 50 states between 2012 and 2017, spans some 6.4 million new points of information about America’s farms and ranches and the people who run them. Surveyed farms have at least $1,000 in annual product sales.
Providing a valuable snapshot of U.S. agriculture, the 2017 census includes some new information that can be compared to previous surveys, along with the usual data about land use, farm ownership, demographics, production practices, income and expenses.
“While the current picture shows a consistent trend in the structure of U.S. agriculture, there are some ups and downs since the last census, as well as first-time data on topics such as military status and on-farm decision-making,” said NASS Administrator Hubert Hamer. “To make it easier to delve into the data, we are pleased to make the results available in many online formats, including a new data query interface as well as traditional data tables.”
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said this census “made some major leaps” as far as capturing better demographic information. This was the first year farmers could list multiple principals involved with business decisions, and this capability better expressed the important role of women in many family farm operations.
Of special concern was the fact that 56 percent of farms nationwide had negative net cash farm income in 2017, and farm consolidation continues. The average net farm income in the survey was less than $37,000. Wisconsin fell below the national average for farm income, Pfaff said. He said the state must do more to provide income-generating and value-added opportunities for farmers, as well as ways to limit costs.
Although the farm economy “is not where we’d like it to be right now” in terms of commodity prices, Pfaff said, Wisconsin agriculture rests on a firm foundation of varying farm sizes and types in a range of locations that can be built upon for the future.
Despite recent challenges, dairy and livestock continue to play a major role both in the state’s agricultural landscape and economy. In the latest census, Wisconsin had more than 1.28 million milk cows on 9,037 farms, compared to 1.27 million cows on 11,543 farms in 2012.
While the the average dairy herd size has steadily grown over the past 20 years, Pfaff said, Wisconsin herds average 142 cows, compared to the national average of 325.
The state reported 287,100 head of beef cows on 13,954 farms, compared to 248,305 head on 13,020 farms five years ago.
Some 96 percent of farms in the state consist of fewer than 500 acres, with more than 90 percent of them owned by one or two producers, according to the census. The state also is higher than the national average for the land going into farming, reporting the biggest growth in some surprising areas, such as Florence, Forest and Ashland counties in the north and Racine County in the south.
“It demonstrates the fact that there’s tremendous interest in agriculture in all parts of our state,” Pfaff said, adding that there has been a “return to small farms” such as those growing vegetables.
The percentage of farms in the 1,000-1,999 acre category barely grew in this census, he said, and farms greater than 2,000 acres were up one-half of 1 percent.
The state continues to be a leader in organic agriculture, second only to California. The number of organic farms in the state has grown by 30 percent in the past five years, to 1,537. The total value of organic sales grew by 105 percent, to more than $248 million annually.
Direct-to-consumer sales in Wisconsin grew to almost $47 million in the 2017 census — a 46 percent increase. Wisconsin leads the nation for dairy goat herds, at 1,900.
Pfaff said Wisconsin should be proud of the fact that it’s above the national average for farmers under the age of 35. More than 10 percent of Wisconsin producers are 35 or younger, and their operations have an average annual production value of almost $319,000.
“With 22 percent of our producers being new or beginning farmers, it’s clear people are optimistic for the future of Wisconsin agriculture,” he said.
The number of farms in the U.S. with Internet access rose from 70 percent to 76 percent in the latest census. Pfaff said that while progress on rural broadband access is being made, there’s much more work to do.
“At least we’re going in the right direction there,” he said.
On-farm renewable energy production more than doubled during the five-year period, as farmers seek new ways to create value on the farm, maximize their share of the food dollar and convert farm products into renewable energy sources. More than 133,000 farms produce renewable energy, up from just shy of 57,300 in 2012.
Pfaff said the census results “mirror” Gov. Tony Evers’ budget priorities, which include investments in dairy processing, developing new markets for high-quality milk, new farmers, buying local and expanding farm-to-school initiatives.
Other notable findings in the census were that the total number of female producers rose by 27 percent, to 1.23 million. Thirty-six percent of all producers are female, and 56 percent of all farms have at least one female decision-maker. Farms with female producers making decisions tend to be smaller than average both in terms of acres and production value.
The average age of the American farmer continued to rise, up 1.2 years from 2012, at 57.5 years old. The total number of farms and ranches was down 3 percent, to a little more than 2 million.
“We’ve got older farmers, fewer farms and fewer farm families on the land,” Johnson said. “None of that is positive for American agriculture or our rural communities.”
MADISON — Members of the Governor’s Dairy Task Force 2.0 met via teleconference last week to review results of a priority survey and discuss the next steps as they prepare to present a document to Gov. Tony Evers detailing their recommendations.
Forty-nine recommendations were approved at a March meeting in Sheboygan, while two other recommendations were approved by the task force last December, bringing the total to 51 recommendations. To prioritize, members were asked to use dot voting to indicate which recommendations should be priorities going forward, with each member receiving 10 dots to place among the recommendations.
Thirty of the 31 members of the task force participated in the dot voting survey. The top three recommendations receiving the most dots included:
• Investing in the Dairy Innovation Hub, a recommendation from the Research and Innovation sub-committee, receiving 24 dots.
• Support for a feasibility study for the Wisconsin Cheese Brand and Export Board, from the Markets sub-committee, receiving 18 dots.
• Support for a staffing analysis at the Center for Dairy Research and additional state funds for full-time positions there, from the Research and Innovation sub-committee, receiving 16 votes.
Three recommendations tied for the fourth priority with 14 dots each and included recognizing the importance of exports to Wisconsin dairy, from the Research and Innovation sub-committee; becoming a dairy product and business innovation center, from the Markets sub-committee; and reducing the number of milk classes from the current four to two, also from the Markets sub-committee.
The final four recommendations rounding out the top 10 also were tied at 10 dots each.
These priorities included support for regulatory changes needed to the Food and Drug Administration’s product standards of identity, from the Research and Innovation sub-committee; truth in food labeling, from the Consumer Confidence and Perception sub-committee; requirement of animal official identification, from the Dairy and Rural Community Vitality sub-committee; and the creation of a Cheese Export program at CDR with technical staff support, from the Markets sub-committee.
Task force chairman Mark Stephenson further reviewed the survey, indicating that only 16 members of the 30 who voted did not place a dot next to the top priority: an investment in the Dairy Innovation Hub. In fact, three members placed three dots next to this priority — the maximum they were allowed to give to one priority, with Stephenson commenting that a few members feel very passionate about this priority.
Dave Buholzer of Klondike Cheese in Monroe said he noticed that quite a few of the recommendations with lots of votes are items with crossover content and could be combined and strengthened in the final document.
Paul Scharfman of Specialty Cheese Co. in Reeseville suggested compiling a one-page summarized document for state legislators to better understand the recommendations put forth by the task force.
“We can make a difference in getting bills in front of legislators,” he said.
Stephenson agreed that the document produced by the task force will need to be “readable and approachable” for the public, with members voting in approval to move forward in creating a draft document to be presented.
However, Jerry Schroeder of Schroeder Milk Transit in Oconto Falls and Ryan Klussendorf of Broadland Grass Farm in Medford both voiced concerns about the top priorities not having a direct impact on the producer, with Schroeder acknowledging that there has been some criticism from producers who feel they have not been properly represented through the recommendations.
“It may not look like there will be a direct producer impact (with some of these recommendations), but it will impact them greatly down the road,” Stephenson said.
Brody Stapel of Double Dutch Dairy in Cedar Grove wondered what will happen to the remaining recommendations that are not outlined as priorities by the task force. Stephenson was quick to say that just because items were not identified as priorities through the survey does not mean they can be ignored or excluded; all of the recommendations were passed by the task force and provide an idea of what the dairy industry thought was of real concern to them.
Stephenson also noted the difficulty of implementing some of the recommendations, as some can be implemented at the business level while others need to be implemented at a higher level, perhaps with the assistance of agricultural organizations. Other recommendations will require state and even federal approvals.
“As we start to get the draft document, think about the implementation of recommendations,” he told the task force.
He also reminded members that the original Wisconsin Dairy Task Force, created in the mid-1980s, saw about a third of their recommendations implemented.
“We hope to address an overall vision in the draft,” he said. “The document will explain what a healthy industry looks like and how to get there.”