Jane Mueller spent the last 33 years on an Eau Claire County dairy farm. Such stability is a bit of a shock to the system for a former, self-described “army brat.”
“I didn’t grow up anywhere,” she said of her upbringing that involved 28 moves before she graduated from high school.
Eau Claire is where she was born, where her grandmother lived and where her family listed as their official residency during all of those moves. She returned there to attend college. During that time she was introduced by a friend to her future husband, Doug, who enjoyed a more stable upbringing on farm that had been in his family since 1906.
“He never had a different bedroom,” Jane said with a chuckle. “As newlyweds we moved into the bedroom he grew up in.”
In the years that followed, she taught middle school math and religion at a Catholic school. Together, they milked 60 Holstein cows and farmed 530 acres of hilly terrain. They raised three children: Meg, 30, is a large animal veterinarian in nearby Osseo; Peter, 25, has returned full-time to the farm; Steven, 20, is an agricultural engineering student at UW-River Falls who also shows an interest in farming.
Jane serves as chair of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Women’s Committee. She speaks to other farm women about planning for their futures and what to do when the unexpected happens. It’s wisdom that she learned the hard way. Doug went to the doctor with a back ache in 2006 and went home with a prognosis of an aggressive form of prostate cancer and two to six years to live. Instead, he died 15 months later.
“We had a year’s notice,” Jane said of the process the family was forced to undertake. “Everything on the farm was home-built, home-grown. Nobody but Doug knew how everything worked on the farm.”
He started making lists and a relative helped put together operating manuals for everything on the farm, which were critical for volunteers who lent a hand when Doug fell seriously ill during the 2007 harvest season.
“Be proactive and think about if you have everything covered,” is her advice to other farm families.
Jane is thankful the Muellers had gone through the legalities of ensuring a smooth farm transition years prior to Doug’s illness. It’s a process she’s going through again as she prepares for the next generation to farm.
Feeling a need to carry on the farm’s legacy, Jane says she never really considered selling the cows.
“Even during a stressful year like this, we get it done,” she said during the wet spring of 2013.
Jane and son, Peter, are assisted by a farm manager, Larry Duerkop, at Mueller Hilltop Acres. At 91, family matriarch Kathleen Mueller, is still part-owner of the farm and an active gardener. As for the future, Jane says the family is mulling over changes to their milking barn. She would like to eventually see a herd of at least 100 cows with a milking parlor.
Farm Bureau Pride
“I love my Farm Bureau family and getting to know people,” Jane says with enthusiasm and pride.
Doug and his father, Ken, both served as the Eau Claire County Farm Bureau president for decades.
“Farm Bureau has always been an extension of the farm. It is part of us,” said Jane who now represents west-central Wisconsin’s District 4 on the state Women’s Committee. She was chosen to lead the committee last December. As chair, she also serves on the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Board of Directors.
“What we grow might be different, but the family, community, weather, safety and pricing issues are basically the same,” she said of the other dynamic farm women she meets at state and national gatherings.
Early on, Jane got involved with the women’s committee and Ag in the Classroom on the local level.
“It was my teacher interest more than anything,” she said. “I didn’t like seeing curriculums and text books that did not pertain to modern agriculture. I’m an educator at heart. It saddens me to see misperceptions about farming. Farmers at some point lost the reputation by some in our society as good stewards of the land. Our story has been drowned out by others.”
“It’s the best of both worlds of who I am: a teacher and a farmer,” Jane said of her Farm Bureau involvement.
- Jane and Doug were both graduates of Leadership Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program). “We had a deal. Both of us kept getting nominated, so after the kids were old enough to be in school, I said, ‘Why don’t you go and then I’ll go afterwards.’” Doug was part of Class 9 (2000-2002) and Jane was in Class 10 (2002-2004).
- Jane directs two choirs as the music coordinator at St. Raymond’s Church.
- As a dairy ambassador for the Eau Claire County Dairy Promotion Committee, she, a local builders group and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board are set to open a farm display at the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. It features a plastic cow that milks, half-sized barn with haymow, small utility tractor and tractor simulator.
- The Muellers hosted a barn dance fundraiser in May for a scholarship in memory of Doug where two students who want to study agriculture from Eau Claire Memorial High School receive $500 scholarships.
- Jane is a recent recipient of the Concern for Community Award from the Eau Claire Energy Cooperative.
- Doug and Jane received the Distinguished Service to Farm Bureau Award in 2007.
Bringing the World to Their Farm
The term “agvocacy” might be new, but the Muellers have been living it for years.
Doug and his father, Ken, always kept pride in keeping the farm always ready for visitors. In addition to tours for thousands of people from elementary schools, colleges and 4-H clubs, the farm has played host to these unique visitors:
- A busload of Swedish farmers traveling from the World Dairy Expo to the Mall of America. They didn’t speak English, but recognized the names of cattle sires.
- Bill signing ceremonies for governors Thompson and McCallum.
- Former U.S. Congressman Steve Gunderson flew to the farm via helicopter with another congressman while touring the locks and dams along the Mississippi River.
- A Nigerian businessman driving along I-94 wanted to know what farms were like. So the local chamber of commerce sent him to the Muellers.
- A missionary took their antique cream separator and corn sheller to Africa because that equipment was considered current there.
- Bad weather forced a scheduled visit by President George W. Bush to an indoor venue in Eau Claire.
For 10 years the Muellers hosted foreign journalists through a partnership between Macalester College in St. Paul and the World Press Institute. In addition to guests from Romania, China and Germany, there was a Hindu from Nepal who taught the Muellers about their homeland’s unique burial practices; A man from Liberia who had spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya; and a Mongolian woman with ultra-communist views.
“At first she was sure we were all evil,” recalls Jane, “but at graduation she cried at the realization of how deceived she had been.”
Story by Casey Langan. Original version appeared in the August/September 2013 issue of Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route.
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