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Alice in Dairyland: Innovation redefines agriculture
Kaitlyn Riley
Kaitlyn Riley, 2019 Alice in Dairyland

Whenever I step into classrooms as Alice, I ask the students to define agriculture for me. Often, they only define the second half of that word: culture. They say it is a part of our community. 

They are not wrong. Agriculture is a large part of our community, economy and future. We all become part of agriculture when we eat, dress or drive. It has a huge impact on our society as one in nine jobs in Wisconsin is related to agriculture and each of those jobs supports a nearly additional 1.5 jobs elsewhere in the state.

To help expand their answer, I ask what they picture when they think of agriculture. Students shout “farmers,” “cows” or “crops!” More correct answers, but not ones which fully complete the picture of modern agriculture. Of the nearly 413,500 agricultural jobs in the state of Wisconsin, on-farm production contributes 153,900 jobs. Processing contributes 259,600 jobs.

As farmers and processors continue to become more productive, the diversity of jobs in Wisconsin agriculture will also continue to grow. The industry needs engineers, software developers, technicians and more who can create more effective ways of producing food, fuel and fiber for the world.

QUEST industrial
Quest Industrial LLC

While preparing for the 72nd Alice in Dairyland Finals in Green County, I had the chance to visit some of the businesses who bring innovation into agriculture. Take Kuhn North America for example. In December 2002, Kuhn purchased Knight Manufacturing Company based in Brodhead. Today, that building is Kuhn North America’s headquarters, which employs more than 500 people. The business designs, manufactures and markets innovative agriculture equipment and services to meet the diverse needs of agriculture worldwide. 

One of my favorite stories from the tour was of Kuhn Knight’s first major challenge. A customer wanted a spreader that would not break down in frozen manure. From there, the company released its apron box spreader line. I often take for granted the highly advanced equipment found on farms today, but each machine required unprecedented thinking before entering the industry. Surely our farmers of the future will continuously need fresh minds entering this workforce to help reduce labor and create efficiencies. 

Kuhn North America
Kuhn North America

If we look at our food processors, we see similar innovations. Don Wickstrum’s company, Quest Industrial LLC, had humble beginnings. While visiting Quest, I learned he started building his first robot in a trailer. By the time he formally started the company in 2001, he was its only full-time employee. Like farms, food manufacturers come in all different types, sizes and production methods, and Quest works closely with clients to develop effective and creative solutions. Wickstrum’s goal was to help provide safe, wholesome and secure food supplies. 

Today, Quest has about 40 employees and is still seeking engineers, technicians and people with critical thinking skills to help meet the needs of the food industry. Quest representatives said their robots handled enough cheese in 2018 to circle the world five times if laid end-to-end. Additionally, Quest’s machines handle the packaging for 10,000 acres of lettuce each week for just one client. Machines vary from palletizers to pick and place machines, sealers, ultrasonic cutters and more.

When I look at students in classrooms, I know I am seeing our next leaders in agriculture, whether they become farmers, engineers, nutritionists or software developers. As our world continues to modernize and change, innovation will redefine our future in the industry. 

— Kaitlyn Riley is the 71st Alice in Dairyland, Wisconsin’s agriculture ambassador who works with media professionals to educate consumers about the importance of agriculture to Wisconsin’s economy and way of life.