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Wis. ag. secretary's death leaves 'glaring void'
Rod Nilsestuen Died Wednesday
By Scott Bauer

Associated Press Writer

MADISON - Rod Nilsestuen, the head of Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture since 2003 who died while swimming in Lake Superior, was remembered Thursday as a consensus-building, bipartisan, visionary advocate for farmers.

Nilsestuen, who drowned Wednesday 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 cattleman. He understood there was room in the state for everyone."

Police said Nilsestuen went for a swim after dinner on Wednesday and was seen 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 told police.

He was pulled from the water less than an hour later and pronounced dead at a 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 for 24 years as leader of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, now known as the Cooperative Network.

He was also involved in creating the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and recently oversaw 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 U.S. state 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 who worked 10 years under Nilsestuen.
By Tere Dunlap

MONROE - The drowning death of Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary, is a big loss for Wisconsin agriculture, said Mark Mayer, Green County UW-Extension agriculture agent.

"Rod was recognized as a national leader in farm cooperatives," Mayer said. "And he was a great cooperator and partner with the UW-Extension program throughout the state. He will certainly be missed."

Nilsestuen visited Green County in April to present a grant of more than $100,000 to the Maple Leaf Cheese Co-op. The grant was to help create jobs and allow the factory to expand.

In February, Nilsestuen met with leading dairy and food producers and county officials to promote two tax credits and the Clean Energy Jobs Act. He chose to make the announcement in Green County, because "no place says food and cheese like Monroe and this area," he said.

"Southcentral Wisconsin, like no place else, has a cluster of food processing and distribution companies, which are the strength of the state. We'd like to have at least the business climate for Wisconsin that we have here," he said.

Nilsustuen said he wanted Wisconsin to remove barriers to agricultural growth, promoted unity in the dairy livestock industry, and set up rules for livestock sites to maintain environmental standards and provide a green light to more production.

Wisconsin Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, who was in Monroe Thursday for former Gov. Tommy Thompson's 16th annual Reunion Ride, remembered Nilsustuen as caring immensely for agriculture, the safety and the long-term security of the industry.

Dave Zien, former 23rd District Republican state senator, was also in Monroe for the reunion ride when he heard about the secretary's death.

"That will take the state of Wisconsin by shock," he said. "He was well respected among Democrats and Republicans. He went over and beyond reason to help constituents."