Official’s death saddens locals

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Gazette staff and Associated Press
Friday, July 23, 2010
— On Wednesday evening, a group of Rock County farmers, politicians and planners voted to approve a map that could become the key to preserving the county’s farmland.

Three Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection staff members joined the meeting.

Shut in a conference room in the Rock County Courthouse, none of them knew Wisconsin had just lost its foremost farmland preservation champion.

“We were meeting there because of Rod’s work,” said Paul Benjamin, Rock County planning director. “I doubt we would have been sitting around that table without his efforts.”

Rod Nilsestuen, the head of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, died Wednesday evening. Nilsestuen, 62, drowned while swimming in Lake Superior.

Benjamin worked for the department of agriculture when Nilsestuen took the job in 2003.

Benjamin and his coworkers knew things would change at the department when they read the e-mail Nilsestuen sent introducing himself.

The e-mail included quotations from the book “The Land Remembers,” a memoir of a man who grew up on a ridge farm in southwestern Wisconsin, Benjamin said.

Rock County will benefit from at least two programs created under Nilsestuen’s leadership. Both programs are part of Wisconsin’s Working Lands Initiative, which aims to preserve farmland.

One of the programs is PACE, or Preserving Agricultural Conservation Easement. The goal of this program is to protect farmland from development.

The Rock County meeting Wednesday night was a planning meeting for the county’s own PACE program.

Another is the Agricultural Enterprise Area program, which will provide tax credits for landowners that qualify. The goal is to keep high-quality land in farming.

The town of La Prairie has applied to be an Agricultural Enterprise Area.

At the time Nilsestuen took over the department of agriculture, the state’s farmland preservation program suffered from a lack of accurate information, Benjamin said.

Nilsestuen’s efforts led to legislation requiring municipalities to update farmland preservation plans, he said.

“The fact is, we needed to renew the program,” Benjamin said. “The legislation does that. The program would have died had Rod not stepped in.”

Nilsestuen’s greatest skill was his ability to bring leaders together, Benjamin said.

He also was able to speak to any sort of crowd, he said.

One winter, Benjamin drove Nilsestuen across northern Wisconsin from county seat to county seat.

Nilsestuen drew a crowd, and never talked down to people, Benjamin said.

“He could talk to farmers, and he could talk to bigwigs,” he said.

Around the state, agricultural leaders Thursday remembered Nilsestuen as a consensus-building, bipartisan, visionary and tireless advocate for farming and agriculture.

“He had a genuine love for Wisconsin agriculture and how important it is for the state of Wisconsin,” said Terry Quam, a Lodi farmer who is legislative chairman for the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association. “It didn’t matter if you were a dairy farmer, a honey bee farmer, a vegetable farmer or a cattleman. He understood there was room in the state for everyone.”

Nilsestuen’s death was a shock to his colleagues and his family.

He spent Wednesday volunteering with a church group building a Habitat for Humanity home in Marquette, Mich.

Police said Nilsestuen went for a swim after dinner and was seen struggling after a wave pushed him away from a sandbar near Picnic Rocks, a recreation area along the lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nilsestuen tried to get back on the sandbar but couldn’t, witnesses told police.

He was pulled from the water less than an hour later and pronounced dead at a hospital after attempts to revive him failed, police said.

Two of Nilsestuen’s three sons work for Democratic state lawmakers. He also is survived by his wife.

Nilsestuen grew up on a dairy farm near Arcadia started by his Norwegian grandparents, graduated from UW-River Falls and earned a law degree from UW-Madison.

“We will sorely miss Rod’s compassion, wit, humor, love and generosity,” his family said in a statement released by the state. “He will always be in our hearts.”

Nilsestuen was picked by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle as the department of agriculture secretary in 2003. Prior to that, Nilsestuen worked for 24 years as leader of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, now known as the Cooperative Network.

He also was involved in creating the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Under Nilsestuen’s tenure, Wisconsin in 2005 was the first state to make it mandatory to identify farms exposed to foreign animal diseases. That system was seen as a national model.

“He was always thinking ahead,” said John Manske, director of government relations for the Cooperative Network who worked 10 years under Nilsestuen. “He was always thinking of ways to improve agriculture, to improve rural Wisconsin.

“He’s really bigger than life.”

Nilsestuen worked to expand the membership in the cooperative group and also brought Minnesota co-ops into the now 600-member organization, Manske said. The trade group represents a range of cooperatives, including rural electricity, dairy, farm supply, insurance and credit.

Nilsestuen helped found a national cooperative task force that resulted in federal investment in cooperative development and held leadership roles in several regional and national cooperative groups, his website biography said.

“He was just such a compassionate person and treated everybody like family,” said Randy Romanski, deputy secretary of the department.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Bill Bruins said in a statement that Nilsestuen’s death “leaves a glaring void in Wisconsin agriculture’s leadership circle.”

Nilsestuen’s “passionate commitment” to preserving agricultural land will leave a “towering legacy of his influence,” said Molly Jahn, dean of the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“One thing I’ve enjoyed under him is nobody ever backed away from a problem,” Quam said. “Nobody fixed a problem until all sides agreed. … I didn’t see him play to any political interest group one way or the other.”

Nilsestuen was “one of the most important agriculture leaders in Wisconsin history” who helped protect farmland and connect Wisconsinites to local farms. He also was a wonderful father, husband and friend, Doyle said in a statement.

The governor credited Nilsestuen for dramatically increasing Wisconsin’s production of cheese and milk, promoting the development of biofuels to generate local renewable energy and ensuring that “farmers received the economic value of their work.”

Nilsestuen is one of only three of Doyle’s cabinet secretaries who have been in the same positions since the governor took office.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Last updated: 2:17 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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