In spite of the importance of animal agriculture, especially the dairy industry, until 1984 Wisconsin was the only state in the upper Midwest region without a school of veterinary medicine. The faculty at the Wisconsin State University River Falls boldly proposed that a school of veterinary medicine be established on the River Falls campus. The proposed facility would be located near the current laboratory farm near intersection of State Highway 65 and Cemetery Road. Dr. Richard Gray, a professor in the Animal Science Department, authored an ambitious proposal for a fully staffed program which would require an investment of 15 to 20 million dollars and an operating budget of about 2 million dollars annually, based on a veterinary faculty of 60 members with a support staff of 25.
At that time Wisconsin ranked fourth in the nation in the total value of livestock; it was considered the number one dairy state; it had a 40 million dollar mink industry; and a significant population of horses and companion animals.
Gray also worked with various constituencies within the agricultural community and, to some extent with the state legislature, to determine if there was support for a vet school at River Falls. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau and Wisconsin Farmer’s Union were strong supporters as was a young state representative by the name of Tommy Thompson. Gray greatly enjoyed working with Thompson whom he later described as his strongest supporter in the legislature. Of course Thompson went on to become a two-term Governor of Wisconsin and later became the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the cabinet of President George W. Bush during his first term.
Gray’s proposal estimated that when all four classes were enrolled, the veterinary student population would be somewhere between 500 and 600. The proposal commanded only limited attention at the state capitol, and no action was taken until 1978, seven years after the merger of the State University System with the University of Wisconsin System. During the UW Board of Regents meeting in December 1978 a proposal was approved recommending the construction of a College of Veterinary Medicine at UW-Madison including a clinic for examination and treatment of “large animals” to be located at UW-River Falls. A task force headed by Dr. Bernard Easterday, Acting Dean of the new College of Veterinary Medicine in Madison, prepared a final proposal as directed by the legislature. Five UW-River Falls faculty members served with Easterday and others on the task force.
The large animal satellite clinic at River Falls, was intended to provide practical, hands-on training for vet school students in the final year of training. The clinic was viewed as a necessary political compromise by a committee that was dominated by UW-Madison supporters. The compromise arrangement was doomed from the start, however. It never found favor on the Madison campus where the clinic was more likely viewed as an irritant, which had to be accepted in order to obtain legislative approval for the school.
Wisconsin Governor, Lee Dreyfus, signed into law the establishment of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in early 1979 with the understanding that the state and the university would obtain bonding authority to build the main school at Madison and a satellite food and animal facility at River Falls. The first class of 80 students was scheduled for enrollment in 1983. The following year $819,000 was appropriated by the legislature for the clinic at River Falls. The River Falls satellite facility was managed by Dr. Richard Bristol from Madison. Bristol was the Associate Dean for the new College. He traveled frequently to River Falls during construction and during the early years of the clinic’s operations. A budget for operations and staffing was also approved.
The Food Animal Clinic consisted of facilities for examining large animals that were to be brought in from area farms. The facility consisted of surgical rooms, animal holding rooms, diagnostic labs, and administrative offices. A mobile large animal vehicle equipped for veterinarians to visit area farms was also a feature of the clinic. In February 1986 the Student Voice reported the presence of 7 Bison in the holding facilities of the clinic. The animals had been sold to a Minnesota farmer by the J and R Ranch in in Hudson, and they required testing for anatalsmosis, brucellosis, and tuberculosis before they could be transported across state lines.
Dr. Larry Baumann was hired as director in 1985, and was located permanently on the River Falls campus. Baumann had his DVM and a PhD degree in Veterinary Science. Veterinarian, Dr. Dennis van Roeckel, joined Baumann at the clinic, and a trickle of senior vet students from the Madison campus began their residencies at River Falls the following year.
The food animal clinic became involved in controversy and political conflict soon after its doors were open. In 1984 the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) narrowly approved (by a vote of 4 to 3) a plan to close the veterinary diagnostic lab in Barron, WI, and to move the livestock pathology services to the newly developed facility in River Falls. It was pointed out that the Barron facility was rather old. Its crematorium had been unusable for at least two years, and it would be expensive to repair. The newly built facilities at River Falls were obviously enticing.
The populace of Barron County, however, would have none of this, and Mary Hubler, 75th District Assemblywoman from Rice Lake, led an aggressive campaign in the state legislature to retain the lab in Barron. She was quoted as saying that there was only one reason to move the lab to River Falls. “Gary Rohde, Dean of the Agricultural College at River Falls, has a building to fill”. Many government officials also opposed the move as being too costly to taxpayers. Many objected because it was believed that the move would take the lab services further away from an area of greater livestock density to a place with relatively fewer dairy cattle.
In the end University President O’Neil and the University administration in Madison sided with those opposing the move, and the Barron lab remained where it was.
Some of the difficulties resulting from the shared, two-campus program were revealed during a legislative audit in August of 1988 when it was reported that the facility at River Falls had been under-used since 1982 when the clinic was built. Furthermore, the audit found that only $581,000 of the approved $1.5 million intended for operation of the satellite facility had been spent on the program with the rest of the funds being reallocated to the UW-Madison veterinary school. Apparently the vet school officials had revised the curriculum and eliminated the requirement for residency at River Falls without informing the legislature.
Former Senator James Harsdorf (Republican Beldenville), who called for the audit, said in a press release, “The audit of the UW-River Falls satellite food and animal clinic is a scathing indictment of the university’s failure to fulfill the legislative intent of the veterinary school.” The UW-Madison Dean of Veterinary Medicine, Bernard Easterday, responded by noting that between the time the program was proposed in 1977 and the time the building was constructed in 1982, both the number of private veterinarians in the River Falls area and the needs of the area itself changed. After further study, officials at Madison decided to fund three River Falls positions instead of the 10.5 that had originally been allocated. The role of the clinic would also be scaled back to provide dairy herd consultations rather than direct treatment for animals.
There were differing opinions regarding the apparently sinister role of the Madison campus and its allies that resulted in the eventual demise of the River Falls large animal facility. It was apparent that there was local opposition to the clinic among some veterinarians in the River Falls area. Therefore the revised purpose of the clinic to provide consultation services only was viewed as a welcome development by some of the faculty and administrators on the River Falls campus.
The inevitable decision for final closure of the River Falls facility was made in the late 1980’s, and the program died with very few mourners. Funds for remodeling the building were obtained.
UW-River Falls was granted three new Extension positions filled by Larry Baumann (Dairy Science), Mark Stevenson (Agricultural Economics), and Larry Swain (Agricultural Business). These three formed the core faculty of a new entity called the Rural Development Institute (RDI). Dean Gary Rohde served as the Center’s original Director.
The Rural Development Institute (RDI)
On July 1, 1989, following approval by the State Legislature, the UW-Board of Regents officially transferred the River Falls vet school facility from UW-Madison to UW-River Falls. The former clinic was officially converted to the Rural Development Institute (RDI). Dean Gary Rohde explained to the public that the RDI was designed as a regional center for hosting programs and examining issues which impact the future development of rural western and northern Wisconsin. An integral part of the RDI was the establishment of an Agriculture Resource Center (ARC) as a working partner with the College of Agriculture.
Rohde further explained that the RDI/ARC would be staffed with by UW-Extension specialists in animal health, cooperative financial management, marketing, cooperatives, community economic development, and sustainable agriculture. The statewide specialists were expected to develop and participate in workshops, meetings, demonstrations and seminars relating to food, agriculture and resource management. Many of the programs were expected to be directly focused on small businesses and area farms.
Three specialists were hired in the fall of 1990. Mark Stephenson, was known for expertise in milk pricing and marketing. Larry Swain, with 20 years of business experience, would be working in the area of rural development. David Trechter joined the faculty in December as a cooperative marketing specialist. Larry Baumann remained on the faculty as a resource for animal health. All of these were appointed to positions requiring 80 percent involvement in extension and 20 percent in undergraduate teaching with the view of effectively integrating the new extension faculty members with faculty and students in the College.
In spite of a somewhat stormy beginning in which the local news media picked up and picked on what were probably nothing more than off-the-cuff remarks by Stevenson and Swain about the recent years of “windfall profits” for Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, the four specialists worked well together, and cooperated effectively with their colleagues and students in the College. After a few years Stephenson resigned to take a position at Cornell University.
In 1994 the RDI/ARC received a four-year grant totaling nearly $300,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to provide community training and seed money for cooperative initiatives by local communities with shared revitalization needs. Dr. David Trechter explained that the grant would provide full funding for two weeks of training for community leaders who were involved with projects requiring expertise in legal, financial, and technical matters.
Dr. Trechter was joined by Linda Jacobson, a former extension specialist from Minnesota, in working with the Kellogg grant. They set out to accomplish two goals: (1) to apply the cooperative model to non-traditional situations in rural areas, and (2) to expand the capacity of rural universities to perform outreach for the formation of cooperatives. Their project used the classical cooperative model to promote cost sharing, to broaden public school curricula, to promote tourism through chambers of commerce, and to encourage nonprofit organizations to share expenses.
Dr. Swain became something of a champion for value-added agriculture. Speaking at a conference in April of 1994 hosted by former U.S. Representative Steve Gunderson, Swain said that rural communities could capture a larger amount of the consumer dollar and create more local jobs if ways were found to produce value-added agricultural products as opposed to simply marketing raw commodities. He cited the development of community supported agriculture (CSAs) as a good example. Later on Swain led an initiative entitled “Maximizing the Human Resources of Wisconsin’s New Immigrants for the Dairy Industry”, which focused on work and labor issues of recent Hmong and Hispanic populations in the region.
At some point in time, the name “Rural Development Institute” was changed to “Regional Development Institute” to reflect a broader university outreach emphasis. In the mid 1990s the RDI launched the “UW-RF Survey Research Center” (SRC) which provided low cost survey assessments and information gathering services for local units of government and organizations. Larry Swain was the first Director, and was succeeded in 2005 by David Trechter. Data collected by the SRC have been used to help school districts with short and long term planning and to appraise regional policy makers of citizen opinion on issues such as land use, tourism, parking, library usage, and quality-of-life issues. Some of the survey results help with planning in the area of regional economic development. The SRC employed 10-12 students to help conduct the surveys and also to work with focus groups to manage campus concerns such as alcohol consumption.