Wisconsin Mourns a Great Ag Leader

Wisconsin lost a great leader in the passing of Secretary Rod Nilsestuen. His vision will continue to lead Wisconsin agriculture for many years to come.

Leading the state through the low milk prices and whole herd sales of the early part of this decade, Rod created a vision for agriculture that mirrored the strengths of our great state.

Under his leadership Wisconsin agriculture reversed its decline. By creating policies that encouraged growth, arrived at through diverse consensus and conducting business through a transparent public process, Rod created an environment where Wisconsin agriculture thrived.

From the hills of Trempealeau County, Rod brought a love of Wisconsin’s dairy industry. He believed in the importance of diversity: large and small dairy farms, excellence in a wide variety of cheeses and diversity in dairy farm management. Through his support, programs to help Wisconsin dairy farmers modernize created a new landscape for our dairy industry.

Through Rod’s leadership in encouraging innovation and reinvestment among our creameries and dairy co-ops, he helped create Wisconsin’s reputation as the home of more varieties of cheese than any other state or nation. Our state’s cheese makers produce more championship award winning cheeses than their counterparts from any other state.

Rod was also committed to diversity in Wisconsin agriculture through his attention to so many types of producers. From honey bees to captive feral pigs, Rod shared his enthusiasm for diversity and all types of opportunities for farm profitability.

Trempealeau County’s son became the father of 21st century agriculture in Wisconsin. The vision he left us provides a map of not only where to go but how to get there.

Secretary Nilsestuen used his cooperative background to create a public place to solve problems. From the siting of new livestock facilities, the protection of producers from bankrupt grain dealers or creameries, to the protection of farm land and the recently created raw milk working group, Rod believed in making decisions in public with a diverse group of people at the table.

These “working groups” became Secretary Nilsestuen’s preferred way of doing business. By bringing people together, Rod worked to find solutions that blended together the best ideas of all those in the group.

Just like in our cooperatives, through the public process, Rod built consensus.

He was not afraid to tackle complex, thorny or controversial issues. The recently passed Producer Security Act was the culmination of countless public meetings and years of work. Saving Wisconsin’s grain dealers nearly a million dollars by streamlining reporting requirements and protecting Wisconsin producers from bankrupt creameries and mills, the Act creates a shared fund to reimburse farmers’ losses. The new law will protect farmers far into the future.

Rod had a vision of farmers living in harmony with their rural neighbors. He used the Working Lands Initiative as a way to bring leaders from around the state together to discuss keeping farmland forever in agriculture. He believed in planning for the future and in making space in the country for rural residents, rural manufacturing and production agriculture.

Working to find new ways to preserve Wisconsin farmland and preserve our agricultural heritage, Rod worked out details of the Working Lands Initiative with many state leaders. The recent passage of the Initiative was the culmination of five years of work and the input of thousands of people throughout the state.

Rod’s legacy will be his commitment to Wisconsin agriculture, his ability to build consensus around controversial issues and his commitment to the public process. Nowhere else in state government is there the type of hands-on, ‘let’s ask the people’ commitment to getting the job done right - regardless of the time required to accomplish the task.

All of us in agriculture offer our sincere condolences to Secretary Nilsestuen’s family, his wife, Carol and three boys, including Joel, my co-worker - who clerks the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education.

Your dad will be mourned by all of Wisconsin.

Senator Kathleen Vinehout and her husband own and operate a farm in Buffalo County. She serves as Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education.