CRAWFORD COUNTY - If one were to say of Vance Haugen, retiring Crawford County UW-Extension Agent, that he is a “giant of an agricultural agent,” that statement would be true in so many ways.
Haugen jumped into Crawford County’s agricultural life some 26 years ago, upon the retirement of former UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Don Daentl.
Haugen has been a passionate, hands-on, giant in advocacy for family-scale and sustainable farming in the county. In addition, Haugen has helped farmers continue in their farming careers with innovative, low-cost strategies for infrastructure improvement, and led the charge back to grass-based animal agriculture.
As soon as you meet Haugen, which for most of us involves looking up, you know that you are in the presence of someone who is no stranger to the kind of hard work that farmers do every day. Haugen himself has remained a farmer during his time as the county’s agricultural agent, with a grass-based beef operation just over the river in Minnesota.
Haugen’s last day as Crawford County UW-Extension Agricultural Agent will be January 31, 2018. He has served in the role since 1992.
Ted Bay, recently retired as Grant and Lafayette County UW-Extension Agent said of Haugen:
“Vance, whether talking with landowners, farmers or Extension colleagues, always wants his audience to understand both sides of an issue before making a decision on something,” Bay said. “So Vance will always start with the positive or advantageous side of a topic, and we would always know the other side we needed to consider was coming when he got to, "and just so we understand, the wild weasel in the woods on this. Then he would go on to explain the other side that we needed to consider in the discussion. Vance always promotes an informed decision.”
Karyl Fritsche Crawford County USDA NRCS District Conservationist has benefited from having Haugen at her side, working to promote sustainable farming in the county as well.
“Vance's dedication to resource conservation and education in our valleys and ridges will long outlast his years of service,” Fritsche said. “He was a great asset to this county and the unique opportunities the Driftless landscape provides.”
Haugen grew up in northern Minnesota in a small town near Thief River Falls, home of the Artic Cat snowmobile company. Haugen’s father ran a small, diverse, dairy farm. When Haugen was young his father milked 20 cows.
“And guess what,” Haugen said, smiling. “When he retired in 1959, he was still milking 20 cows.”
Haugen attended high school in Oakley, Minnesota and graduated in a class of 40. He always knew he wanted to be involved in agriculture. After high school graduation, he decided to attend North Dakota State University.
“I started out taking classes to become an agriculture teacher,” Haugen recounted. “As time went on though, I became more and more interested in agricultural mechanics, and wound up taking a double major.”
Haugen joked that he had graduated on Saturday and gone to work on Monday to work with the Agricultural Engineering Department at North Dakota State University. He worked there as a full-time research technician.
“One of the biggest benefits that went along with the job was I was able to keep taking classes,” Haugen said. “I have always had a love of learning, and so I kept studying and eventually took my masters degree with a specialization in biogas or methane digesters.”
Haugen said that “unfortunately” there was a rule that prohibited him from going on and obtaining a PhD. He remembered that the building he worked in was dedicated half to the university, and half to the agricultural extension. Both entities had a shared break room in the building.
“I liked the look of the Agricultural Extension,” Haugen said. “I wound up applying for Extension jobs in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and landed my first job with the Extension in Shawano, Wisconsin.”
While working in Shawano, Haugen attended a conference with his wife where he heard that Crawford County UW-Extension Agriculture Agent Don Daentl would be retiring on January 2, 1992. Haugen’s wife was raised near Canton, Minnesota, in the southern part of the state, so relocating to Crawford County from Shawano made a lot of sense for the pair.
“I applied for the job and was hired,” Haugen said. “Don Daentl and I overlapped for exactly one day, and I wish I’d had several months to try and learn even a little bit of what that guy knew!’
Haugen considers the growth of the grazing community in Crawford County to be the greatest highlight of his 26-year career.
“I remember, Great River Graziers held our first meeting at the Utica Lutheran Church,” Haugen said. “Donny Boland was there, along with Jim Wedeberg and Ron Leys, among others.”
The initiative is still ongoing, and many of the original folks are still involved.
“We’ve helped a lot of people over the years,” Haugen said. “The group has hosted over 200 pasture walks with an average attendance of 30 participants per event.”
Haugen reports that he is particularly proud of the no-till drill the group obtained 15 years ago. The drill is used for seeding into sod, to help in planting pastures.
“The members of the grazing group take care of the implement, and share it among themselves,” Haugen said. “It’ a great help and a great device.”
Don Boland, a rural Seneca dairy grazer, grazing mentor, and one of the early group of grazers in Haugen’s group is sorry to see Vance leave. “We’re going to miss his expertise. He was interested in working with the grazers from the time he started in the position,” Boland remembered.
Boland considers Haugen to be the best facilitator of a pasture walk of anyone he’s ever worked with.
“Vance has a nice way of steering the conversation at a pasture walk, and pulling things out of people,” Boland said. “He can get people talking and sharing ideas even when they have very different opinions about things.”
“I've worked with Vance for almost 20 years and I consider him to be one of the most dedicated and col-laborative partners that I've ever had in conservation,” said Cynthia Olmstead, the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative Project Director.
“My first big project as a new executive director at Mississippi Valley Con-servancy in the late 1990s happened with a referral of landowners to me from Vance. That property is now the Sugar Creek Bluff natural area near Ferryville,” Olmstead remembered.
Vance was the mover and shaker in the field that helped to get Olmstead’s group, the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, going.
“Because of his work with the Great River Grazer’s, and as a longtime dairy grazer himself, he worked with us to educate interested folks, and we've now helped hundreds of farmers and landowners begin or transition to rotational grazing in Crawford County,
Olmstead said. “The impact on our soil conservation and water quality has been tremendous.”
Ask around the county, especially with some of the older dairymen who are still milking, and they’ll tell you Vance Haugen is one of the reasons they’re still in business.
Haugen considers his work with implementing low-cost parlors in the county to be one of the highlights of his career.
Roger Dahlberg, a rural Eastman dairy grazer, is the farmer that Haugen refers to as the “poster child” of his low-cost parlor work.
Before building his low-cost parlor, Dahlberg was getting on in years, milking in an old stanchion barn. He told Haugen that he didn’t think he was physically able to continue milking his cows.
“When Roger Dahlberg came to me and told me that after 20 years, he was going to quit dairying, I told him that I had the solution that would save him work and money, and keep him going for many more years,” Haugen remembered.
The Great River Graziers did a parlor raising for Dahlberg. It took them three days to build the low-cost milking parlor, which raised the cows up on a platform in the barn so that Dahlberg no longer had to stoop and bend in order to milk. The parlor’s kick guard also prevented the cows from kicking him.
“Vance is informed and knowledgeable about things,” Dahlberg said. “We’d disagree, but then we’d talk it out and find our agreement. He can get a bit ornery at times, but that’s just the nature of a Swede and a Norwegian working together.”
Dahlberg and his neighbor Dennis Rooney both benefited from Haugen and the Great River Grazier’s work with low-cost parlors. Both men joined Haugen in promoting the low-cost solution for dairy farmers who continued to operate on a smaller scale.
“We’d go out on tours with him, talking to folks who were looking for solutions to stay in business just like we had been,” Dahlberg remembered. “Dennis Rooney and I joke that we could easily have paid for our parlors if we’d just charged a 50 cent admission fee,” Dahlberg said.
Haugen has gone on to help producers build the low-cost parlors all over the State of Wisconsin. At this time he is helping to build three similar parlors in Waupaca County.
“We fit the parlor to the size of the operation, the terrain, and the farm economics,” Haugen said of his work.
Haugen definitely sees the easy availability of information on the World Wide Web, and computers in general, as the biggest change in his time with the Extension.
“When I started, I was the owner of file cabinet after file cabinet full of bulletins,” Haugen remembers. “Now, all of that is gone and everything is available on the Internet.”
He remembered the first computer he had when he began his work with the Extension in Shawano. Haugen recalled, chuckling, that he used a 300-baud dial-up connection to get onto the Internet.
“We are no longer the keepers of the data,” Haugen said. “Even though all that information is so readily available to folks, that doesn’t mean that they don’t need help understanding or interpreting it. And even just knowing the right way to search for the information can be difficult for some people.”
Haugen says that the role of the next generation of Agricultural Extension Agents will shift from “keeping the data” to “interpretation, facilitation and implementation.”
Haugen also has a classic piece of advice that he has given to young agricultural agents he has helped to train. The well-read agricultural agent gleaned the wisdom from a classic American author, Mark Twain. “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
This, no doubt explains the excellent working relationship Haugen has enjoyed over the years with this newspaper’s staff. We’ll sure miss being able to call him up and chew the fat over any number of agricultural topics.
When asked if he thought county farmers would dive into growing hemp, now that the Wisconsin Legislature has legalized it, Haugen’s answer was a strong affirmative.
“Yes they will, and there has been a blistering stream of e-mails on this,” Haugen said. “Hemp is a great fiber crop.”
No doubt, seeing the fields of Crawford County once again covered in hemp fields will be one of the tasks and rewards for Haugen’s successor.
While many counties, in light of recent budget cuts to the Extension by the State, are reconsidering their need for a county-based agricultural extension agent, Crawford County plans to hire someone to replace Haugen. The job description has changed though - previously a master’s degree was a job requirement, now a bachelor’s degree is required and a master’s degree “preferred.’
“My mother told me that you never live long enough to complete all the things you want to get done in life,” Haugen said. “I completely agree with that sentiment.”
Cynthia Olmstead of KGI reports that they are hoping that Vance can continue as an advisor to their project after his retirement.
“He has been a great friend and mentor for all of my time in Wisconsin, and I wish him well in his new adventures,” Olmstead said.
Haugen reports that he has many interests that he has set to the side in order to pursue his career.
“I plan to continue to learn the Norwegian and Spanish languages, pursue my music, and spend time with my grandchildren,” Haugen said.
At the time of the interview, Haugen’s family had just welcomed a new granddaughter into the fold to round out the collection of little boys. Haugen seemed pretty excited to get home and meet the new arrival.