Farm Progress

Retired Ag Secretary Ben Brancel to receive top honor at World Dairy Expo.

Fran O'Leary, Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

August 17, 2017

5 Min Read
LIKE GRANDPA, LIKE GRANDSON: Ben Brancel enjoys doing chores on his family’s cow-calf operation in Marquette County with his 5-year-old grandson Bryce.

Ben Brancel started his career on the farm and now plans to finish his career on the farm. In between, he spent 31 years in government. His last day as Wisconsin secretary of agriculture was Aug. 13.

Brancel graduated from University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science. After graduation, he returned to the home farm near Endeavor in Marquette County and started milking cows, becoming the fourth generation of his family to farm there.

Brancel, his wife, Gail, and their three children milked registered Holsteins until he began his career in state government when he was elected to serve in the Assembly’s 42nd District in 1986. They sold the dairy herd in 1997, and Brancel and his son Dr. Tod Brancel, DVM, began raising registered Angus and registered Hereford cattle. Tod and his wife, Sondra, purchased the farm in 2012. Today, the Brancels raise 70 cows and calves on their 290-acre farm. They also rent an additional 40 acres.

Brancel’s career in government spanned 31 years. He served in the Assembly and rose to the office of Assembly speaker in 1997 before being asked to be ag secretary under Gov. Tommy Thompson. Brancel served as head of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection until 2001.

He also was Wisconsin Farm Service Agency director from 2001 through 2009. From 2009 to 2011, Brancel served as state relations liaison for the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. In January 2011, Gov. Scott Walker appointed him to head DATCP once again, where he worked until retiring Aug.13, the last day of the Wisconsin State Fair.


GONE FARMING: After 31 years in government, Ag Secretary Ben Brancel decided to retire and go back to the farm where he began his career.

Why did Brancel choose to retire now?

“I knew last year that this year would be the year I would retire,” Brancel explains. “My son and my daughter-in-law Sondra are having a production sale this fall with her cousin Steve Merry. Sondra and Tod are hosting the sale at our farm. I wanted to help them get ready for the sale. Earlier this year, I evaluated the activities I was involved in and had committed to, and I decided to make the last day of state fair my last day on the job. The production sale is Oct. 15, so that still gives me two months to help get ready for the sale. We’re only going to have 15 lots in the sale. Steve will have about 45 lots.”

The 67-year-old says he enjoyed the opportunity to serve as state ag secretary twice. He believes his farm background helped him understand agriculture and relate to the challenges Wisconsin farmers face.

Since 2011, Brancel has led trade delegations from Wisconsin to China, Mexico and Vietnam, helping boost agriculture exports from Wisconsin to record levels. He also closely monitored the avian influenza outbreak on turkey and egg farms in Wisconsin in the spring of 2015.

One of the biggest challenges Brancel took on was helping the displaced Grassland Dairy Products dairy farmers find new homes for their milk this past spring. In April, Brancel and his staff worked tirelessly to help 58 displaced dairy farms after Grassland Dairy told them they would have to find new milk processors because a customer in Canada terminated a contract that allowed Grassland to sell 1 million pounds of ultrafiltered milk daily. Brancel says he is grateful milk processors like Dairy Farmers of America and Mullins Cheese, as well as others, stepped up to the plate and agreed to pick up milk from all but two of the farms.

He says he loves to attend county fairs, state fair and dairy breakfasts.

“People think I go to fairs because I enjoy them, and I do,” he says. “Others think it’s so I get out of work. But mostly I go to fairs to see people. I can talk to them. It’s valuable to see what young people who are going to be producing our food in the future are doing.

“I like to attend dairy breakfasts because you get an overall feel for what is going on,” he explains. “Dairy breakfasts bring out the farm people and the urban people. It’s a nice time to see and talk to a lot of people.”

Brancel says he also scheduled time to visit farms and agribusinesses across the state. “When we were scheduled to go to a specific event, then we tried to schedule some stop-bys at farms and businesses that invited us to visit.”

On the farm
Now that he has retired, Brancel says he enjoys doing day-to-day chores, feeding cattle and replacing line fences — during the day. He used to do those things after work and on weekends.

“Instead of having to work late into the night or on weekends, now I will be able to go watch my grandchildren in their activities,” he says. “When I was working [off the farm], I missed a lot of them.”

MOVING ON: Ben and Gail Brancel will remodel the house on their farm where Ben’s parents lived and move into that house. Their son and daughter-in-law and family will then move into the main house on the farm.

In addition to their son Tod, Brancel and his wife have a daughter Micheleen and a son Brandon. Micheleen and her husband, Steve, have four children: Maiselee, 18; Christopher, 11; Kyler, 9; and Ben, 6. Tod and Sondra have a daughter, Blake, 9; and a son, Bryce, 5.

“Bryce says he wants to farm,” Brancel says. “He really likes driving the Mule [ATV] and helping me replace fencing.”

After the production sale, Brancel says he has another project that will take a lot of his time. “We’re remodeling the home that was my parents [on the farm] so we can live there,” he explains. “Tod and Sondra will move into the main house on the farm.”

Expo honor
Brancel says he is honored to be selected as the 2017 World Dairy Expo Industry Person of the Year.

“I’m very humbled to win this award,” he says. “I’m very surprised. I had no idea I was nominated.”

He will receive the award during a dinner on Oct. 4 at World Dairy Expo.

About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Editor

Even though Fran was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Fran has 25 years of experience writing, editing and taking pictures. Before becoming editor of the Wisconsin Agriculturist in 2003, she worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

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