That’s how Ben Brancel, Wisconsin Department of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary, described the multi-generational audience of calloused hands and humble smiles before him. I was honored to be sitting among the hard-working families being recognized at the Wisconsin State Fair in August. Brancel reminded all in attendance of the obstacles each family faced to make a living at farming. He thanked them for not giving up.
I was proud to be celebrating my own family’s history: our sesquicentennial. It was 1865 when my great-great-great-grandpa Manske bought a farm from a Civil War widow, just south of New London in Waupaca County.
I’ve heard stories from my grandpa about shucking corn by hand and milking six cows stool-side. I’ve listened to stories from my grandmother about how tough times were during the Great Depression. I’ve watched the dedication my mom gives to a sick calf and I’ve seen the long hours my dad puts in during planting and harvesting. In other words, I’ve seen firsthand the obstacles that Secretary Brancel spoke of.
What gives me a sense of hope is seeing the same look of determination in the eyes of my younger brother as he prepares to carry on our family farm’s legacy.
No two farms are the same and that held true among the group of farmers that had gathered here, but each family shared a special trait: at least 100 years of farm ownership.
During the event’s breakfast, I overheard bits and pieces of conversations of where farms are located and what is grown and raised on them. You could see young farmers soaking in the experience of being around elders whose stories soared about how they first got into farming. In this farm-friendly crowd, everyone wore pride on their shoulders and comfort on their faces.
I will admit, there’s something refreshing and consoling about being at a gathering that’s exclusively farmers.In this safe and comfortable zone, you can talk about fresh cows and third crop without having to explain what you mean.
Much has changed about farming over 150 years, and not just the efficiency of equipment, crops and livestock. Farmers are now a minority in society, a point that was very clear later as we walked around the state fair that afternoon.
With matching, bright orange shirts with our farm logo, fairgoers couldn’t help but identify us as farmers. Many asked us questions. One woman even said she had never met a farmer before.
That stuck with me.
If we’re not willing to serve as a walking billboard for agriculture where non-rural folks gather, then agriculture’s struggle to connect with its customers will continue. Overcoming this doesn’t require wearing orange shirts.
Consider visiting a library or an urban grocery store to answer questions and connect with someone who has never met a farmer. Better yet, partner with a school or daycare to coordinate tours.
I know this may be uncomfortable for the typically humble farmer, but consider this: It took guts for our ancestors to settle farms on Wisconsin’s wooded and wild landscape several generations ago. Today’s farmer faces a different landscape, but one just as daunting. Leaving our comfort zones is now a requirement if we expect our farms to be around another 150 years.
Amy Eckelberg was raised on her family’s dairy farm near New London in Waupaca County. As an active member of the Sandy Knoll 4-H club, Eckelberg grew up showing hogs and dairy animals at the Waupaca County Fair and was a New London FFA member. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 2012 with a degree in communication. Amy is the Director of Communications for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and resides in DeForest with her husband, Jonathan.
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