Alan Koepke ’63 thought he was saying goodbye to farming when he left his family’s home in Waukesha County in the 1960s to pursue an agricultural engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
A few years into his education, he reconsidered.
“There is a challenge in running your own business, and that appealed to me,” he says. “My adviser was against the idea. He said there would be better options,” Koepke says. “And I’ve spent the rest of my career proving him wrong.”
As he returned to Waukesha County to take over his father’s farm, Koepke took with him a data-intensive, analytical approach.
“Engineering is often about trying to get the most out of the least, and that often applied to farming, too,” he says. With the cooperation of the county UW Extension agent and faculty at UW–Madison, Koepke collected and analyzed everything he could about his operation. Early on, it involved sending data via one of the first modems to collaborating researchers who had computer time to crunch numbers on crop yields.
“Our decisions have always been based on not just what we wanted to accomplish and how we wanted to live, but an analysis of data and what was profitable, because banks always think they need their money back,” Koepke says.
We’ve learned a lot from the university, and they’ve been able to learn a lot from us.
As for what he wanted to accomplish and how he wanted to live — those answers are in the land.
Koepke’s great-grandfather started farming in 1873 on a spread he bought about four miles south, near Oconomowoc. Koepke says his great-grandfather bought the land in winter. When the snow melted, he was distraught to see the soil was a maze of ditches caused by erosion.
That heartbreaking tale of lost soil stayed with Alan. The Koepke family, Alan and his brothers, Jim and David, became leaders in no till farming and other soil conservation methods. The farming operation grew, and recently they obtained the land that was once his grandfather’s. They sold the development rights to that land, to a conservation trust, ensuring its future in agriculture, and in 2011 Koepke Farms won the Aldo Leopold Conservation Award.
Despite the advice he got as a student not to go back to the farm, Koepke says that he has worked closely with UW–Madison faculty throughout his career.
“We’ve learned a lot from the university, and they’ve been able to learn a lot from us,” he says. “That’s the Wisconsin Idea I know — you never stop learning. And being a graduate is one of the proudest accomplishments of my life.”