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Drowning claims state ag secretary, UWRF grad Rod Nilsestuen

Rod Nilsestuen, Wisconsin's Secretary of Agriculture, died Wednesday evening while swimming in an area known as Picnic Rocks in Michigan's upper pennisula.

Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture Rod Nilsestuen drowned in Lake Superior late Wednesday while taking a swim following a day volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity project in the Upper Pennisula.

His body was reportedly recovered about 6:10 p.m. some 300 feet offshore.

Governor Jim Doyle released a statement calling the man "one of the most important agriculture leaders in Wisconsin history."

A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Nilsestuen held a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was appointed by Doyle in 2003 to head the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Nilsestuen had been expected in River Falls Tuesday for the opening of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days but he instead sent Deputy Secretary Randy Romanski, also a UW-RF graduate.

Under Nilsestuen's leadership, state government has tackled livestock siting, manure management, land use, renewable energy, and revitalizing the state's dairy industry.

Recognized as a visionary, Nilsestuen has received numerous awards for excellence, most recently:

"Policy Maker of the Year" award 2007 for land conservation leadership, Gathering Waters Conservancy

Best of Madison Business Award, Madison Magazine, 2007;

"Ten of the Best" award for extraordinary effort to establish effective policies to promote agriculture in Wisconsin,1000 Friends of Wisconsin, 2007;

Induction into the National Cooperative Hall of Fame, National Federation of Cooperatives, 2003;

Elected president of a new North Central Bio-Economy Consortium 2007, a 12-state organization designed to help guide the region's transition to greater use of bio-based fuels and products.

Prior to serving as state agriculture secretary, Nilsestuen served as president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives for 24 years, building it into one of the most respected cooperative trade associations in the nation. Under Nilsestuen's leadership the WFC grew to represent about 860 co-ops with 1.8 million members in endeavors ranging from finance and insurance to rural development and agriculture.

He was the founding chair of the National Rural Cooperative Development Task Force, resulting in a major federal investment in cooperative development and creation of hundreds of co-op development projects across the nation. He also chaired the National Cooperative Business Association, and held leadership posts on many national and regional cooperative, government and university bodies.

Nilsestuen's efforts brought Wisconsin co-op sectors together to produce a strong, unified voice, and created a two-state alliance with the Minnesota Association of Cooperatives. He also strengthened the Midwest co-op community by spearheading the unification of WFC and the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, and by helping to create the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Cooperative Development Services, and the Midwest Dairy Marketing Initiative.