Bill Wilcke: NCR-SARE Hero

October 10, 2012
Bill Wilcke, photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Coordinated by the NCR-SARE Alumni Organization, the term "NCR-SARE Hero" recognizes the leadership, vision, contributions, and impact that certain people have made in the field of sustainable agriculture in the region. William (Bill) Wilcke brought great credit, visibility, and leadership to the NCR-SARE program in his long career of service to sustainable agriculture and its people and communities, and was selected as the first-ever recipient of this recognition.

Wilcke was born and raised on a small diversified crop and livestock farm in northwest Iowa. As with many farming families in the 1950s, hard work and perseverance were valued. After graduating from Battle Creek High School, Wilcke received all three of his post high school degrees in Agricultural Engineering from Iowa State University at Ames, Iowa in 1976, 1980 and 1985. He focused on grain drying and storage with a minor in energy engineering.

His first job after receiving his PhD at Iowa State was at Virginia Tech at Blacksburg, Virginia in Extension Crop Drying and Storage. After almost four years at Virginia Tech, Bill was hired by the University of Minnesota in an extension and research position in post harvest crop drying and storage. He researched the storability of grain under a variety of conditions and advised Minnesota farmers about their grain drying and storage systems.

Among a wide variety of activities to advance sustainable agriculture, Wilcke served as the Minnesota State SARE Coordinator from 1996-2004, and was also elected to the NCR-SARE Administrative Council.  He co-chaired the University of Minnesota’s Small Farm Task Force from 1997-1998, was a founding member of the Northwest Regional Development Partnerships Board, served on the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force, was a member of the SAN Steering Committee, and was a board member of Compatible Technology International. He served on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture from 1994-1999, and provided interim leadership as Acting Administrator from 2000-2002.  In 2002, he became the NCR-SARE Regional Coordinator and remained in that position until disability forced him to give up the position in 2010. He retired in fall 2011 and established a graduate fellowship to perpetuate his interest in sustainability and to guarantee the future professional work of the Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota. 

Many leaders in sustainable agriculture offered tributes as Wilcke was nominated and selected to receive this recognition:

  • “His calm, thorough and thoughtful manner served the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership board very well in its formative years. He was generous in tapping his networks of colleagues, making invitations, and clarifying the questions to be addressed. Bill's expertise in post harvest grain handling served the region well, starting long before the establishment of the Regional Partnerships, and particularly relevant in the wet years in late 1990's into 2000's.” - Linda Kingery, Executive Director at NW Regional Partnership.
  • “Dr. Wilcke's efforts have greatly supported the dialogue and interaction among key non-profits, farmers, and the university in serving the pressing needs of people and communities moving towards sustainability. His tenure and leadership supported the dramatic growth of SARE programing in research, education, and training region-wide. NCR-SARE modeled innovative programming in on-farm research grants, energy, youth research programs, key youth educator training, critically listening to diverse audiences, and serving minority and Native American interests in sustainability. These efforts, and more, have helped strengthen the NCR-SARE program and positioned it as an invaluable resource to the people and communities in the North Central Region.” - Jerry DeWitt, long-time sustainable agriculture leader and past Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
  • "For a number of years I co-served with Bill on the Northwest Regional Development Partnerships Board, and on numerous occasions I had the opportunity to travel long hours with him. "We shared 'bison burgers' at Big Chief over conversations about his upbringing in southwest Iowa and his love for the work he was devoted to. Throughout his career Bill has been a champion of the ideals of sustainable agriculture, long before it was fashionable." - Paul Porter, cropping systems agronomist at the University of Minnesota
  • "I loved working with Bill Wilcke, and interacted with him a lot when he served on the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force and pitched in year after year at the Minnesota Organic Conference. He had this low key, dry humor kind of approach to the world, but you could feel how absolutely committed he was to advancing sustainability in agriculture, especially for the benefits it offered farmers (self-determination) and the environment (resource conservation and protection.) He was an engineer by training, and I think his disciplined mind was able to see how the many approaches to sustainable agriculture can fit together to make elegant and beautiful systems. As an educator, he was committed to inquiry and to understanding and responding to people in relevant ways, and to helping his peers find opportunities to expand their perspectives and understanding as he had broadened his. As an administrator, he was committed to delivering programs equitably. As a friend, he was kind and adventurous, and a teller of wonderfully funny stories." - Meg Moynihan, Minnesota Department of Agriculture
  • "I’ve had the pleasure of working with Bill for over ten years. Bill was dedicated.  I first met Bill right after I started working at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in 2000.  With little to gain, Bill stepped in during a contentious time to serve as the “Acting Administrator” for MISA.  He kept the program on course while issues were sorted out. Later, with NCR-SARE he worked long hours to coordinate the R&E and Graduate Student grant programs, while administering the overall program and continuing his Extension and other departmental responsibilities.  And he still made time to help with conferences and to serve on boards of other organizations working in sustainable agriculture.  Bill was inclusive. That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, but Bill was truly gracious in the very personal way he went out of his way to welcome newcomers. The sustainable agriculture community can be a tight-knit group, which can be a little intimidating for newcomers.  Bill was always the one seeking out new board members and inviting them to join the group for dinner, or sitting down with people he didn’t know at a conference, and engaging them. Bill showed up.  Bill wasn’t just a member on many boards, but he attended all the meetings and stayed for the duration—and he was usually there early to help set up, and stayed to help clean up.  When task forces were formed to attack thorny problems, Bill was at all the meetings, taking copious notes—never the loudest voice in the room, but offering insightful comments.  He logged many hours on the road traveling to events, and in discussion and planning meetings. Bill stays connected. He works on national and global issues, but keeps his ties to his rural roots—subscribing to his hometown newspaper, the Ida County Journal, and following the accomplishments of his nieces’ and nephews’ sports teams as well as other hometown news. Bill is funny.   And he catches you off-guard with his low-key storytelling style—but he often has a group laughing so hard they’re crying in response to his tales of mishaps and botched hotel reservations." - Beth Nelson, NCR-SARE Regional Coordinator (Chapter 1) and Director of Research and Education Programs

The NCR-SARE Hero Recognition acknowledges individuals who 1) have provided service to NCR-SARE, sustainability, and/or national SARE, 2) have shown leadership in sustainable agriculture locally and regionally, and 3) have made lasting impacts to sustainability in the North Central region. 

NCR-SARE is one of four regional offices that run the SARE program, a nationwide grants and education program to advance sustainable innovation to American agriculture. Since 1988, NCR-SARE has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.

Related Locations: North Central