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Extension is a Great Fit for Otto Wiegand

Extension is a Great Fit for Otto Wiegand

County Extension agriculture agent is a world traveler, student of history.

By Harley Buchholz

Dr. Richard Otto Wiegand ("Richard" to his parents, "Otto" to the rest of the world) is a man of many talents and hobbies. Professionally, he's the University of Wisconsin Extension agriculture agent for Burnett, Sawyer and Washburn counties. He's also a world traveler, student of history and genealogy and a pretty good photographer. He has 400 photo albums at his home and 50 more at his office, located at UW's Spooner Ag Experiment Station.

A FARMER AT HEART: Otto Wiegand, Extension agriculture agent in Burnett, Sawyer and Washburn counties, says he enjoys working with farmers, helping them solve problems and connecting people with solutions, with other farmers.

"I love being in Extension," he says. "I still feel like I'm a farmer. I like working with them. I like solving problems, connecting people - with solutions, with other farmers. Farmers are great; they share things. We've done a lot of good connecting. I connect people with ideas, with experts. I can always find somebody who knows more than I do. I'm proud of our state specialists. If I don't know an answer, I'll connect them with that person. I don't want farmers to make mistakes."

At one time a farmer himself on his parents' Jersey dairy farm near Cleveland in Manitowoc County, Wiegand's early experience in the Peace Corps was his first venture outside the U.S. Now he and his wife, Sherrie, take time out each year to travel outside the country.

"We try to leave the country at least once a year to see new places and get a different perspective," he says. Recently back from a vacation trip to the Dominican Republic, Wiegand is hoping to arrange a work project in China next.

His interest in travel stems from an experience as a young boy in grade school when he saw a slide show featuring an Antarctic explorer. So, after earning a degree in dairy science in 1970 from UW-Madison, he joined the Peace Corps and worked with an Extension program in Kenya. He followed that with another stint, this time in Paraguay in an agronomy school laboratory. Next he studied for a master's degree in African studies at Ohio University, operated his home farm for six years and then returned to UW in 1988 to complete master's and doctorate's degrees in dairy science nutrition. Still the traveler, he did his field work in Ethiopia where he fed tree leaves to sheep. He's taught at a technical college, worked for dairy industry firms in Wisconsin and for African Development Bank in Ivory Coast, done other projects in Holland, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Cuba and Kosovo, and worked in Farmer-to-Farmer projects in Honduras, Guyana, Nicaragua, Mozambique and Kenya.

But "I was 47 when I got my PhD (in 1995) and looking for a job," he says. He wanted to work for Extension but there were no immediate job openings, so he went into private industry. It was 10 years ago when he found an opening in Extension in the three-county territory.

There are about 1,300 farms in that sparsely populated area. "Dairy is still big," he says, "then crop farms. There are a couple of farms in each county with 450 or more cows. The others are smaller." There are some 250 beef operations.

"I spend a lot of time with grazing," Wiegand goes on. "It's changed the whole focus of my career. I'm still learning about grazing and beef and forages." He points out that he's written applications that returned $250,000 in grazing grants.

"Ag has been good to me," he declares, but he thinks, "I should have been a history major. I love history." He is a co-founder of a historical preservation group and an oral history group in the Town of Centerville in Manitowoc County. But when he was considering job opportunities in the field, he notes, "history majors were all driving taxis." In another life he would be a forester, pointing out that half of the three counties he serves is covered with trees.

His huge collection of photo albums chronicles his family, life story and his travels. The albums in his office cover his field work as an Extension agent.

"I spend $2,000 to $3,000 a year on albums," he says, adding that he doesn't spend money on things like boats or guns. "I have two vices: My albums and international travel." The costs come out of his own pocket. He notes with pride that he's never charged Extension for a motel room while on business in Madison and anywhere near Manitowoc, always finding a bed with friends and relatives.

Wiegand is a few years away from retirement but is looking ahead to "five books I need to write:" an autobiography, a fictional history of his home Town of Centerville (which he dreams of turning into a movie script) and factual histories of the township and of his own family which began farming there in 1845.

Oh, he's also climbed Kilimanjaro and taken a cross-country bicycle trip.

"I try to keep life interesting," he says.

Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.

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