The silo behind the barn was new once, but it’s old now. It’s an example of changing technology in American agriculture in general, and my family’s Wisconsin dairy farm in particular. The silo stands alone, its two companions having been dismantled stave by stave and carted away. Their former foundations are all that remain to prove their existence, just two concrete crop circles, lonely labyrinths that lead nowhere.
Technology comes and goes on the farm, as it does elsewhere in life. Whenever I return to my rural roots, I’m likely to be greeted by another change. I’ve been coming home to something new at the farm for nearly 37 years.
I left home for college in 1980, when plans were underway for the farm’s first milking parlor. Each time I came back for a visit that fall, there was something new to see — the double 8 herringbone milking parlor, a freestall barn with a slatted floor over a manure pit, new silos by the barn. Because I hadn’t witnessed the day-to-day progression, the farm’s transformation seemed all the more pronounced.
Since then I’ve lived away from the farm — graduating from college, working in central Wisconsin, and moving to Iowa. During the intervening years two new freestall barns have been built, along with a larger milking parlor. Older tractors have been traded for newer tractors. Older buildings have been repurposed. A small calf barn went up, worked hard for several years, and now is being replaced by a larger structure with modern automatic feeders. New silage bunkers have been added and old tower silos have been torn down.
A few days ago I travelled the circular paths of the old silo foundations. I wandered through the framing of the new calf barn under construction. And I walked the farm, contemplating the past and the future. With each visit home to the farm, I remember the old, but I look forward to the new.
I wear my father’s letter sweater with pride. He earned it as a member of the University of Wisconsin Farm Short Course, class of 1948. He was one of 325* farm boy students who journeyed to Madison to learn the most up to date methods of farm management, crop production, and animal husbandry.
This is my letter for my father’s sweater. Though the garment is 68 years old, it is timeless, a testament to my father’s long-term commitment to education and agriculture. After graduating from the Farm Short Course, Dad took up farming with his father on the farm that already had been in the family some 40 years. He devoted his career to the place — always learning, working, and improving the family farm.
All seven of us kids had our shot at agriculture, working on the farm as we grew up. And all of us had the opportunity for post-high-school education of some kind. Not being all that good at farm work, I was one who opted for the public university liberal arts route, getting a bachelor’s degree in communications from another UW — the one at Stevens Point.
As I sought a newspaper job post college, on a whim I sent my resumé to a statewide agricultural newspaper. I figured: What the hell? I could write about farm stuff. With my dumb luck, I got the job and became involved in agriculture in the literary sense. Eventually that work led me to Iowa State University, a master’s degree in rural sociology, and a career as a communications specialist with ISU Extension and Outreach.
I know it’s a stretch, but in my view I’m carrying on my father’s education and agriculture legacy. And so I wear his sweater with pride.
*The 1948 class size is according to “A History of the Farm and Industry Short Course, 1885-2010,” College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was strictly the Farm Short Course when my father attended. Industry was added to the name in the late 1960s.