Remembering Rod

Rod Nilsestuen was more than just the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary; he was a leader that I looked up to. I had the honor of working at DATCP  for five years, all while he was the Secretary. Although I left to work for another state agency over a year ago, I still hold a special place in my heart for Rod.

Rod’s vision for agriculture in Wisconsin was to preserve that which we take for granted nowadays: the importance of us working the land to help it work for us. How often do we think about the farmers that grow the ingredients and produce that we buy at the supermarket, the milk that comes in a bottle, or the meat that we find in the butcher shop? But it’s not just the importance of agriculture, but making it matter to Wisconsin. Today, Wisconsin is America’s Dairyland because we produce the most artisan cheeses in the country (perhaps even the world). We had the first mandatory livestock premises registration law to protect animal health. It recently passed working lands initiatives to help preserve agricultural acreage. And we have some of the strongest consumer protection laws. All of these occurred under Rod’s leadership as the Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. I was happy to be a part of it.

So here is my personal story about Rod and me. I drove him to Kenosha once for an event with the Governor and cabinet secretaries. This event included visiting various businesses related to each agency’s functions. We visited bottling plant, a horse farm, a tree nursery, a grocery store headquarters, and a meat packing facility. Rod had me take notes, although those notes are now with the agency that I left last year. On the return to Madison, we encountered heavy rain starting in Milwaukee. I was driving as slow as 30 miles per hour at times. Rod turned on the radio to hear what the weather was going to be like on the way back. We hit a detour about 35 miles from Madison, which diverted us from the Interstate to the City of Lake Mills. As we drove along, the reporter on the radio mentioned that a tornado was spotted north of Madison, near DeForest. Rod lived in DeForest, so he was pretty concerned. He called home to let his wife know that he was heading home and that he would be there soon. We managed to make it back to the office without any serious incident (no getting swept off the roadway or getting spun by a funnel cloud). Ironically, although I spent the entire day with him, it was five minutes to the office when he said, “Okay, Brian, you have five minutes to tell me how to improve DATCP.” I don’t think I offered anything, but I told him that I appreciated his leadership of the department.

His untimely passing is a reminder to us all that our work is never done, but we should continue to work for what is most important to us. Kristen (who still works at DATCP) and I attended his memorial service yesterday. During the ceremony, I heard about how he was a visionary and a true leader, and that he was always thinking of how to improve agriculture in the state. He was truly an intelligent person, putting many plans onto paper, and he was also pragmatic in making those plans come to fruition. And he loved to poke fun at himself, just to lighten up the crowd with humor. But the one thing that I also believe was that Rod had integrity: he held to his beliefs and always put the farmer and the citizens of the state first. In fact, on the evening he drowned, he was in Superior working on a Habitat for Humanity project.

After the memorial service, I rode my bike with a group I normally ride with on Tuesdays. I chose to dedicate my ride to him, and I donned my Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board “Wisconsin Cheese” cycling jersey to commemorate Wisconsin’s agriculture in his name. Problem was my legs weren’t feeling it on such a hot and muggy day, and I was still feeling emotionally drained from the memorial. I told myself, “I’m riding for Rod. He died doing something he enjoyed: swimming. I’m riding because that’s what he would’ve wanted me to do.” I felt a bit stronger after telling myself that. When I encountered a tough climb or difficult wind, instead of backing off I told myself, “this is for Rod.” Admittedly, I’m not a very spiritual person, but I can’t help but wonder if he somehow managed to help me complete the ride at a really good pace. After the ride, I had a couple of people comment on how they thought I had a cool jersey; I told them I was wearing it on today’s ride for Rod.

I dedicate this entry to Rod, his family, and all of the lives that he touched, either directly or indirectly.

Bloomberg Businessweek, “Wis. ag secretary’s death leaves ‘glaring void'”

Statement from the Board of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Governor Doyle statement regarding Rod Nilsestuen

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