The rainy weather at Farm Technology Days matched the mood of many attendees who knew Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen. Nilsestuen died Wednesday evening while swimming in Lake Michigan. Nilsestuen was taking part in a Habitat for Humanity building project in Michigan while on vacation. He was 62.
Nilsestuen succeeded Jim Harsdorf as state agriculture secretary. Harsdorf says their lives overlapped in many ways. “We probably started out in the public policy arena almost at the same time,” says Harsdorf. The two men ran against one another for state Assembly in 1977. “We became friends after that. I would only say Rod had that same commitment to agriculture that I think is so important. I told him when he came in to take over the secretary’s role as I was leaving, ‘I’m glad it’s you coming in, because I know you’re going to have the same commitment to growing our dairy industry and keeping agriculture strong.” Harsdorf says Nilsestuen was always committed to a strong agricultural industry and credits Nilsestuen for “taking to the finish line” several agricultural policies started by farm groups in the 1990s.
State Senator Dale Schultz of Richland Center Calls Nilsestuen a good friend, who he worked with, many, many times. “I have a lot of things that I consider major accomplishments where he played a major role,” says Schultz, citing in particular the state’s agriculture siting law. Mary Wackershauser, the Grant County Director For the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, says Nilsestuen not only played a key role in the formation Of the WMMB and its marketing plan, but 10 years ago he also helped the board hire a new CEO. “When you year the governor talking about the impact of the dairy industry, that was Rod’s point,” says Wackershauser. “He was telling the politicians and other people with the government how important the dairy industry was to Wisconsin.”
Nilsestuen was raised on dairy farm near Arcadia. He was the state’s agriculture secretary since the beginning of Governor Jim Doyle’s administration in 2003. Before that, he headed the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives since 1978. In media interviews, the self effacing Nilsestuen wasn’t above joking at his own expense. In an interview earlier this year with KFIZ in Fond du Lac, he joked that he was in the third grade before he could spell his own last name, and that farmers have to be smart, and he wasn’t intelligent enough for his own family’s operation. “That’s true, my brothers kicked me off the farm,” he said. But Nilsestuen was deeply knowledgeable about the changing agriculture industry. “Farm production has changed tremendously,” he said in that interview. “Actually the pace of change, whether you’re talking technology or genetics or machinery is changing rapidly, too.” Nilsestuen said it’s a delicate balance between using farmland for agriculture or giving in to development. “What happens when you start nibbling off farmland, pretty soon not only the farmland is gone, but then the people who defend on farmers. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.”
“Rod Nilsestuen was a Wisconsin farm boy who left the farm, and who went on to become a leader for rural Wisconsin,” says Casey Langan of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. “His passing really leaves a glaring void in Wisconsin’s agriculture leadership circles.” Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold called Nilsestuen “a passionate advocate for farmers and a champion for rural Wisconsin.” Feingold said he was honored to work with Nilsestuen, most recently at the joint USDA/Justice Department workshop in Madison focusing on ensuring fair competition in the dairy industry.
Thanks to Jeff Petersen, WIXK, Doug Wagen, WGLR, Bob Nelson, KFIZ & John Colbert, WIBA