When Gustav Wilke retired 18 years ago, his hobby became organizing farm tours in Wisconsin for German visitors.
“I have done this 51 times since I retired,” he said.
Among the stops during the most recent tour was Quantum Dairy in rural Weyauwega. There, the approximately 50 participants listened as Richard Wagner told them about his dairy that has 2,100 milk cows and 1,575 acres of farmland.
“I was a cheesemaker originally,” he said. “My great-grandfather came from Germany in 1872.”
Wagner talked about his family’s passion for maintaining open land, the dairy operation itself and about how consultants are used at the farm.
“We try to tell people that dairies help maintain beautiful and functional open space,” he said.
Greg Blonde, Waupaca County’s UW-Extension agriculture agent, said that while there are now fewer farms in the county, their economic impact is much greater today than it was 10 years ago.
For Wilke, his first trip to Wisconsin was in 1959.
“When I finished university, the Kellogg Foundation in Michigan at that time offered money for students to study agriculture here to improve the farm economy in Europe,” he said. “I stayed one year and earned a master’s degree in dairy science in 1960.”
During his year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wilke met David Wieckert, and they became friends.
Wieckert, professor emeritus of dairy science at UW-Madison, works with Wilke to plan the tours.
“Richard Wagner was very interested in having us come,” Wieckert said. “It’s the first time we brought a group here.”
After Wilke’s year in Wisconsin, he returned to Germany and eventually became the CEO of a regional breeders association.
“For business, I was often in Wisconsin,” he said.
He said Wisconsin is similar to Germany with its climate and family farms.
In addition, the state is progressive, Wilke said.
“It’s always a very interesting program – seeing interesting herds, getting the best speakers from the university,” he said of the tour. “We could always learn about breeding, feeding and building the farm. We could always learn here.”
About half of those who participated in this most recent tour were consultants, while the other half were farmers. They came from throughout Germany, with most of them being from Bavaria.
Their time in the state included two lectures at UW-Madison and visits to several farms before attending World Dairy Expo in Madison.
“It is very educational. We have been impressed by the programs, the university, the teachers, the farms. We’re always impressed by what we get to see and hear,” Wilke said.
Among those on the tour was Cord Lilie, who has a dairy farm in Germany with 250 cows.
In 1989, he received a scholarship to be an exchange student at a community college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Since he grew up on a dairy farm, he wanted to work on a dairy farm during his time here.
“In Iowa, they said, ‘If you want to see a dairy farm, you have to go to Wisconsin,'” Lilie said.
One of his professors was from Fond du Lac and made the connection for him to go to the Gary Boyke Family Farm in Fond du Lac County.
“I’ve been back to Wisconsin and Iowa about eight times since then,” Lilie said.
He said there is not as much land available in Germany for farming and that rules and regulations keep farms from becoming as large as some are in Wisconsin.
He has been in farming for 16 years, and this was the fourth time he was with Wilke on a tour in Wisconsin.
“There’s no better way to learn about dairy farming and about America, because he (Wilke) knows from his 30 to 40 years working with the dairy industry in Wisconsin,” Lilie said. “I fell in love with Wisconsin and Iowa many years ago, so I have to come back every two to three years. I like the people here.”
Wieckert said the group benefits in several ways from its Wisconsin visit.
“They see the innovative things being done here,” he said. “Secondly, I think one of the big advantages is, even though there are many things done here that can’t be directly applied to Germany because of different conditions, climate and regulations, these people are still away from home a week. They see new things, and they go home and look at their farm in a different light.”