Rod Nilsestuen died almost two years ago, but his accomplishments have new life through a fund that was established to honor him.
When Rod Nilsestuen drowned in Lake Superior in July 2010, there was shock and an outpouring of affection.
Shortly afterward, a group of friends led by Tom Lyon of Cambridge decided to create a fund in Rod’s name. The goal was to perpetuate Rod’s legacy, which was marked by an ability to bring all voices to the table to find common ground on tough issues. He used that skill as a state and national cooperative leader and as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Wisconsin.
People and organizations gave generously, and the result was a nice nest egg to use for two of Rod’s favorite causes, cooperative development and working lands conservation. On March 30, the fund will go to work on those causes when the University of Wisconsin-River Falls hosts the first Rod Nilsestuen Legacy Event.
For those who worked closely with Rod on any number of projects, it will be a chance to reconnect, re-energize and perhaps re-establish some common goals. The daylong event is subtitled “Feeding the World, Sustaining the Land, Inspiring Cooperative Action,” and it promises to produce plenty of lively but respectful discussion.
Keynoters will be Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust (AFT), the nation’s major agricultural lands conservation group, and Martin Lowery, executive vice president of external affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Panelists include farmers, agricultural policy and cooperative experts, and business leaders.
Scholl is a Midwesterner with deep farm roots. He’ll likely have some insights on how a new farm bill might be shaped. AFT is one of the groups supporting strong conservation title in the document that will steer federal farm policy for the next five years.
Last week, AFT joined a growing call for stronger conservation compliance in the new farm bill, including making sure commodity payments and crop insurance are tied to farmland conservation, especially on highly erodible land. Some groups are trying to eliminate that basic requirement.
Lowery’s appearance coincides with the International Year of the Cooperative, and he has been spreading the word about the important role cooperatives play in a democracy, especially in tough economic times. Lowery says co-ops have a real opportunity to expand their presence in every sector of the economy during the next decade. The greatest barrier to expansion has been “a society where ‘it’s all about me,’” he suggested in a national forum last year. But today’s economy is a reminder that cooperatives are a great alternative to what Lowery has called the “go-it-alone” economic model.
Co-ops aren’t perfect, but they serve as democratic systems in which members ride out economic ups and downs together. They work in everything from health care and agriculture to renewable energy, local foods and, yes, successful credit unions across the country.
One panelist, Wayne Nilsestuen, Rod’s brother, will travel from Guatemala, where he works for USAID, a federal program that provides U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide. He has focused for 40 years on issues like land reform and rural poverty and trying to engage governments in the interests of their own people and economies, often during chaotic periods of political upheaval and civil unrest.
The Ralph K. Morris Foundation, a Minneapolis-based foundation that works to support leadership development among cooperatives, is overseeing the Nilsestuen Legacy Fund. It is expected to make an announcement at the River Falls gathering about future programs and activities to be supported by donations that came from folks around the country.
As it turns out, some things that seemed so final on the day of Rod’s death are alive and well after all.
March 15, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.