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Troubling trends: Volatile weather, commodity prices defined 2010s

With the agriculture industry so heavily dependent on the weather, it comes as little surprise that the weather was one of the biggest stories of the past 10 years.

From the optimal planting and growing conditions that led to a “bin-busting” harvest in 2010 to an early warm-up followed by a fruit-crop-killing freeze and from widespread drought in 2012 to a 2019 that challenged farmers with everything from too much snow to too much rain and back to too much snow, the weather has been in the news as much as volatility in the agricultural commodity markets throughout the second decade of the 21st century.

As we begin the 2020s, The Country Today takes a look back at the past 10 years of our annual list of Top 10 stories. These are the stories that had the ag industry’s attention for the past 10 years.


The death of Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen was The Country Today’s top story of 2010. Nilsestuen drown July 21, 2010, in Lake Superior while volunteering for a Habitat for Humanity project in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Nilsestuen had been state agriculture secretary since January 2003. About a month after Nilsestuen’s death, Gov. Jim Doyle appointed Deputy Agriculture Secretary Randy Romanski as the next secretary.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2010 included bin-busting grain crops; raw milk; elections; flooding during Farm Technology Days in Pierce County; livestock siting; immigration; premises ID; Dean of the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Molly Jahn stepping down; and heavy rain and snow events.


Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to cut benefits and limit collective bargaining for state employees as part of state budget cuts was the paper’s top story in 2011. The partisan votes on the budget divided the Legislature, and by late in the year, an effort was underway to recall Walker.

Meanwhile, new state Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel struggled to keep Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection programs intact as federal money stopped flowing into some program areas and state funds were slashed.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2011 included crop price volatility; questions surrounding the 2012 Farm Bill; frac sand; a bear killing calves in Polk County; raw milk; manure tanker weight limits; The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announcing its plan to inspect dairy farms; land prices; and post office closings.


Widespread drought that was regularly compared to the drought of 1988 was the top story of 2012. Conditions were drier in southern Wisconsin than farther north, but as the year went on, much of the state suffered from at least moderate drought.

Grain yields were considerably lower than usual, although the dire predictions of total crop failure were averted on most farms.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2012 included the expiring farm bill; elections; dairy policy; mining; a wolf hunt; fruit losses due to a warm March and a late freeze; a legal case against Loganville dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger, who was facing charges of selling food and producing and processing dairy products without a license; the Dairy Business Innovation Center closing; and Wisconsin Farm Bureau leadership changes.


Weather extremes started with a wet and unseasonably cool spring that delayed planting in the southern part of the state until late April and had farmers in the northern half of the state waiting for snow to melt and the ground to dry in May.

Farmers did catch a bit of a break later that year, as temperatures and precipitation returned to average in September and October.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2013 included failure to agree on a farm bill; Vernon Hershberger acquittal and raw-milk legislation; a federal government shutdown due to budget disagreements; health care reform; discord between towns and farmers over implements of husbandry; immigration reform; high farmland prices; mining issues; and high-capacity wells.


After more than two years of partisan fighting over farm subsidies and food stamps, President Barack Obama signed the long-overdue 2014 Farm Bill in early February, earning that story the top spot in 2014.

Attention then turned to the implementation of the five-year bill, which overhauled the nation’s dairy policy to help farmers manage risk through a margin insurance program. The bill also eliminated controversial direct payments to crop farmers.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2014 included commodity prices, including a record high milk price of $26.60 per hundredweight in September but lower corn and soybean prices than had been seen for the past several years; a cold and snowy winter leading to propane shortages; implements of husbandry rules; backlash to the Waters of the U.S. rule; porcine epidemic diarrhea virus; undercover videos; raw milk; elections; and manure spills.


From crops to milk to meat, prices for farm commodities took a nosedive in 2015.

After peaking at nearly $7 per bushel in 2013, the corn price settled well under $4 per bushel in 2015. The September 2015 mailbox price in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was $17.76 per hundredweight, a drop of $8.51 from 2014 prices.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2015 included avian influenza; farmers seeing bumper crops; state budget cuts; the Waters of the U.S. rule; water quality issues; the Dairy Margin Protection Program; opposition to large farms; dairy farm numbers falling below 10,000; and country-of-origin labeling.


After a long and brutal campaign, and hearing pollsters say that Hillary Clinton was virtually a lock to be elected president, Republican Donald Trump pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in presidential election history by winning the electoral votes from 30 states on his way to the White House.

Rural voters were instrumental in Trump’s victory in Wisconsin, as the number of rural votes he received more than offset the urban votes that went to Clinton.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2016 included a May frost and rainy fall challenging farmers; high yields but low prices; the UW-Extension reorganization; Farm Credit System’s 100th anniversary; a change in leadership at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board; World Dairy Expo’s 50th anniversary; low attendance at FTD in Walworth County; the Veterinary Feed Directive going into effect; and the Spooner dairy sheep flock being sold.


Lost dairy markets in spring 2017 nearly put 75 Wisconsin dairy farmers out of business and left low prices in their wake. Full to capacity, processors blamed having to cut farmers on the loss of markets due to restrictive Canadian trade policies. However, some in the industry pointed fingers at processors for failing to better manage supply and at farmers for too aggressively expanding herds, creating an industry awash in milk and low prices.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2017 included: Trump agriculture policies; Ben Brancel’s retirement as DATCP secretary and Sheila Harsdorf’s subsequent appointment to the position; a victory for three women in a lawsuit declaring Wisconsin’s ban on the unlicensed sale of non-hazardous home-baked goods unconstitutional; an explosion at Didion Milling that killed five workers; Wisconsin cows setting national single-lactation milk records; Farm Credit System mergers; Amber Horn-Leiterman’s election to the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board; FTD’s announcement of Huntsinger Farms, the world’s largest grower and processor of horseradish, as host of the 2020 event in Eau Claire County; and progress on the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center.


The general agricultural economy spent 2018 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 had endured several years of low milk prices.

In response to the disappointing dairy markets, farm groups took a closer look at implementing a milk supply management program similar to that in Canada. Gov. Scott Walker formed the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 in an effort to turn things around and save farmers from exiting the business.

Other stories in the Top 10 in 2018 included trade tensions; weather; the farm bill; the creation of the industrial hemp pilot program; the opening of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center; plane crashes effecting two eastern Wisconsin dairy farms: one in Indiana that killed John Pagel, owner of Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, and his son-in-law, Steven Witcpalek, and the pilot, Nathan Saari, and another on Fly-By Acres in Sheboygan Falls that killed the pilot, Martin Tibbitts, injured two farm employees and killed or injured more than three dozen calves; FTD’s decision to move off the farm in 2021; Democrat Tony Evers’ election as governor; and MilkSource achieving a triple crown.


Once again, the weather was the year’s top story, as farmers had to deal with the collapse of ag building roofs under heavy snow loads, early rains that made it difficult to get into fields for planting, late rains that made it difficult to get into fields for harvest and early snows that have left many crops in the fields.

The rest of the Top 10 included continued dairy farm losses; the rejection of Ag Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff; the cancellation of the 2021 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Jefferson County after low attendance in the county in 2019; a focus on farmer mental health; U.S. trade disputes; ATCP51; an increased interest in industrial hemp; Dairy Task Force 2.0 and the creation of the Dairy Hub; and Gov. Tony Evers declaring 2019 the Year of Clean Water.

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Farm succession workshops offer opportunity to plan for the future

A solid plan for farm succession can help ensure the future of a farm for the next generation as well as the benefits that farm brings to surrounding communities.

In order to make the process of farm succession clearer, UW-Extension is offering several “Cultivating Your Farm’s Future” workshops at seven locations around the state in the coming weeks.

Winter, especially as a new year and new decade are ushered in, is a time for self-reflection and to “think strategically about the future,” said Trisha Wagner, Farm Management Outreach Program manager with UW-Extension.

The meetings being offered are therefore a chance to begin diving into a subject that’s difficult to do all at once, said Kaitlyn Lance, UW-Extension La Crosse County agriculture educator.

Topics including tax implications around farm succession; retirement resources; U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency loan programs; business plans; estate planning tools and strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT) analysis will be covered at the workshops. Individual meetings with resource professionals are also on the schedule.

The workshops will be “looking at the broader picture of farm succession” and aim to address the questions “Where do you want to be?” and “Where is the farm now?” Wagner said.

Doing so helps prepare for the jump into action, aspects of which will also be addressed at the meetings.

But “first, make sure you’re clear about what you want,” Wagner said.

Opening up the conversation about farm succession can be tricky, Wagner said, and conflicting visions for the future of the farm can emerge. These workshops are therefore designed to help formulate and clearly articulate an individual’s vision for the farm and provide tools to help resolve conflict and protect relationships.

“The very first conversation is really the hardest,” said Joy Kirkpatrick, outreach specialist at the UW Center for Dairy Profitablity.

Having an outside facilitator can make starting the conversation easier, Kirkpatrick said.

Once the conversation is started, the facilitators can also help the owners and successors communicate more clearly.

Ensuring that the owner generation can convey what they see the future of their farm as to the successor generation and that the successor generation is in a spot where they can learn from the owner generation is necessary, Lance said.

Data from the 2017 Census of Agriculture shows the average age of an American producer to be 57.5 years old, 1.2 years older than recorded in 2012. As that age inches upward, ensuring plans for transitioning farms are in place becomes more of a priority.

Some farmers, particularly in challenging economic times, don’t see a point in getting their kids involved anymore, Wagner said.

It’s still valid, however, to trust that the next generation would bring in new ideas and potentially an entire new skill set, Wagner added.

Even if the farm has been through some hard times, farmers still have to think about what they want for the future of it, Lance said.

For farm families, farming is “more than just income,” Lance said. “It’s a livelihood.”

Making sure that the next generations are able to continue Wisconsin’s agricultural legacy is also important to ensuring vibrant rural communities and a healthy, nutritious food supply, Wagner said.

“Wisconsin is know for producing,” Wagner said.

Lance added, “Agriculture is the backbone of Wisconsin.”

Those putting off succession planning, anticipating it to be a problem for further down the road, are advised that, simply, unexpected things happen, Wagner said.

Day-to-day operating can make sense, Wagner said, but it can also make a farmer vulnerable.

There are a lot of things “we don’t really have control of,” Lance said.

According to Kirkpatrick, there are several “Ds” that can arise that a solid farm succession plan can help an owner/successor team work through: death, disability, disaster (e.g. fire, hail, crop failure), divorce, disagreement, debt, depression, dysfunction (a higher level of disagreement) and denial of any of the previously listed items.

Succession planning “can help you survive major impacts” from things like these, Wagner said.

With a written plan in place prior to a stressful event happening, Kirkpatrick said, decisions don’t have to be made in that time of crisis and there will be something concrete to fall back on.

Beginning succession planning early can also ensure that the successor generation, which often can’t buy the farm outright, has time to work with the owner generation, especially since the transition process can take 10-plus years, Lance said. She likened the process of being a successor to that of being an apprentice.

Holding the workshops is supposed to provide the opportunity to get started thinking about what’s next for the farm and bring awareness about farm succession, Lance added.

The real work will continue beyond the workshops, Kirkpatrick said, as participants continue to work specifically on their individual plans.

Each farm will have different circumstances to work through and around, but the upcoming meetings can provide a general overview and starting point.

The first workshop will be held Jan. 21 in Walworth County. Five other workshops will round out the month of January, and one workshop is scheduled for the end of February.

Registration for a workshop is $20 per person and includes lunch, refreshments, speakers and workshop materials. Workshops are scheduled to run from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

For more information on workshop schedules and registration information visit farms.extension.wisc.edu/programs/cultivating or call the Walworth, Green, Marathon, Dunn, Ozaukee and Washington, La Crosse, or Brown county UW-Extension offices.

Follow-up meetings, based on participant feedback, will be offered in the host counties. Farms can also request individual meetings with UW-Extension educators and specialists or the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Farm Center staff.