Walworth County Government Today: Field trip proves ag lessons should hit home for all of us

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Dave Bretl | February 22, 2016

For a guy who couldn't tell the difference between a heifer and a milk cow when I first started working for the county 15 years ago, my knowledge of agriculture has improved over the years. Knowing the difference was important in 2001 because we still operated a farm back then. One of the first meetings I ever attended here was of our ag committee.  Members were wrangling over what to do with a barn filled with heifers, but no clear plan on how we could produce milk. I violated the old lawyer's rule of thumb by asking a question to which I did not know the answer.   Someone in the room patiently explained to me that heifers, unlike house pets, were not just kept around for companionship. I recall that the dilemma we faced was explained by an old agricultural rule of thumb known as the chicken and egg problem. Our milking parlor was in need of some major unbudgeted upgrades. We couldn't breed the heifers until we had a way to milk them and we couldn't afford to pay for the upgrades until we had milk to sell. 

While the committee members were polite enough, their raised eyebrows told me all I needed to know. I shut up for the next several years and just listened whenever farming topics came up.

I'm pleased to report that my animal husbandry skills have reached a new level after I attended an animal injection workshop sponsored by the Southern Wisconsin Agricultural Group on Feb. 4. Darien Town Hall was the site of the training, which was conducted by Dr. David Chapman of Stateline Veterinary Services. About 60 students from agriculture and science classes taught by Martin Speth and Alexius Metten at Darien-Delavan High School were in attendance. I was invited to the class by local businessman Gerry Pelishek, who keeps me apprised of all the issues taking place in southwest corner of our county. I will admit that I averted my eyes when Dr. Chapman brought the big needles out, but I learned a lot from the first hour or so that I was able to attend. 

One of the missions of SWAG is to educate people on the many steps involved in putting food on our tables. I really didn't appreciate the importance of this goal when I first heard it because there are lots of products that I use and like, but really can't describe how they are made; electricity comes to mind. After attending the workshop, however, I think that SWAG is on to something. In a county where agriculture is a major industry, knowing the challenges faced by producers is important for all of us to keep in mind. Beyond that fact, however, we all are consumers. Despite the recalls that are featured prominently on the news, most food makes it safely to our tables. I learned that vaccines are used sparingly in animals and safeguards are in place to ensure that our food supply remains safe. Aside from the ethics of administering unneeded shots, vaccines are expensive, can delay bringing products to market and (I have to believe Dr. Chapman on this one) are not particularly fun to give to 1,600-pound animals. As a result, they are used sparingly and for the same reason that you and I receive vaccines — to stay healthy.

Another takeaway from the training was that agriculture still is a viable career choice for young people preparing to enter the workforce. Rob McConnell, a beef producer from Clinton and SWAG director, spoke to the students on this point. Although he said it a bit more colorfully than I will, Rob pointed out that today's jobs in agriculture entail more than just cleaning out barns. He cited the example of his own daughter, a recent college graduate, who is employed in the industry flying drones over farm fields looking for ways to increase production. 

I have been following SWAG for the past several years. Their original goal was to establish a state-of-the-art training center where they could conduct large-scale educational programming for kids from southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It takes money to do that and, in the meantime, rather than wait, they are finding available classrooms like the town hall and putting their message out.

I appreciate the teachers like Mr. Speth and Ms. Metten, who find ways to get their students to programs like the injection workshop. I have made presentations to students at the American Legion's Youth Government Day, Youth Leadership Development of Walworth County and the alternative high school and I know it isn't easy for teachers and administrators to spring kids from the classroom.

When I went to school, field trips seemed more common than they are today and I understand why they have been cut back. For one thing, there was less to learn back then. We had five fewer presidents and probably two or three less elements to worry about. Today there are AP classes, clubs and whole batteries of tests that we didn't have to deal with. The cost of transportation is also an issue. In the case of the injection workshop, the Delavan-Darien FFA alumni organization sprung for the cost of the bus.

My final lesson from the field trip, and the other youth programs that I described, is that the students who attend are better behaved than my class ever was, well-prepared and inquisitive. Despite some of the negative stories about the educational system and young people, I think our future is in good hands.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at 262-741-4357 or visit www.co.walworth.wi.us.


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