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Published July 22, 2010, 02:01 PM

Wisconsin ag secretary’s death leaves ‘glaring void’

MADISON, Wis. — Rod Nilsestuen, the head of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture since 2003 who died Wednesday while swimming in Lake Superior, was remembered Thursday as an even keeled, bipartisan, visionary advocate for farmers.

By: Scott Bauer, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Rod Nilsestuen, the head of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture since 2003 who died Wednesday while swimming in Lake Superior, was remembered Thursday as an even keeled, bipartisan, visionary advocate for farmers.

Nilsestuen, who drowned after spending the day volunteering with a church group building a Habitat for Humanity home in Marquette, Mich., was 62.

Those who knew him described him as a tireless advocate for Wisconsin agriculture, helping to bolster cheese and milk production, instituting groundbreaking animal disease identification requirements, and pushing to preserve farmland for future generations.

“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 cattlemen. He understood there was room in the state for everyone.”

Police said Nilsestuen went for a swim after dinner on Wednesday and was seen by witnesses 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 reported to police.

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

Nilsestuen’s family released a statement through the state that said they were “saddened and shocked by the unexpected death.”

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

Nilsestuen was picked by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to be his first secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2003. Prior to that, Nilsestuen worked 24 years as leader of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, now known as the Cooperative Network.

He was also involved with creating the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and recently over-saw passage of a new program called the Working Lands Initiative that offers tax credits to help keep agricultural land available for farming.

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

Under Nilsestuen’s tenure, Wisconsin was the first state in the country in 2005 to make mandatory the identifying of 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 and 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.

Nilsestuen was not only “one of the most important agriculture leaders in Wisconsin history” who helped protect farmland and connect residents to local farms, but also was a wonderful father, husband and friend, Doyle said in a statement.

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

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

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

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

Funeral arrangements were pending.



Wisconsin Department of Agriculture: