Hilliards Sing Agriculture’s Tune to Nonfarm Public
BY JANE FYKSEN, CROPS EDITOR
Thursday, January 21, 2010 5:44 PM CST
Roger Hilliard is doing his part to “feed the world” with the corn and soybean crops he grows.
This central Wisconsin grower is also feeding a small-but-growing portion of the world that walks through the door of a rural café in Marquette County. Indeed, people literally from all over creation are showing up at Maggie Mae’s Country Café to meet Mrs. Hilliard in person. Better known as Maggie Mae, she’s been wowing country music lovers ever since she first picked up a guitar not quite eight years ago.
Agri-View recently slid into a booth at the Hilliards’ café on the outskirts of Oxford for a fantastic cup of coffee and some friendly conversation with this Wisconsin corn grower/leader and his wife, a rising star with a big down-home smile. In a relatively short time, she’s gone from never having stepped foot on a stage to becoming a regular on RFD-TV, filling opry houses to capacity and quickly filling the guestbook in the entryway of Maggie Mae’s Country Café with the signatures of her fans.
The Hilliards are both a little amazed and humbled by Maggie Mae’s booming singing career, seeing as how she’s gone to singing while working in the kitchen of their local café to looking forward to her own Christmas show in Branson, Mo. later this year. It doesn’t bother this cash-cropper any to be upstaged by his wife. In fact, Roger good-naturedly refers to himself as “Mr. Maggie Mae.”
At 53, he operates about 500 non-irrigated acres of corn, soybeans and cash-crop hay. The Hilliards’ 250-acre farm, four miles southwest of Oxford, straddles the Marquette/Adams county line. Roger also does custom work on another 500 some acres (planting, tillage and combining). The farm where they’re living has been in his family over 130 years; they purchased it three years ago from family. Roger still also has the farm where he grew up (four miles from where he and Maggie Mae live). His mother, Wilma Hilliard, lives there. Roger’s dad, Herbert, is deceased.
Roger is a veteran no-tiller; he’s practiced it for close to 20 years now. His newest experiment is subsoiling (i.e. deep tilling).The soils he farm range from “peat to sand,” he says. In addition to the corn and beans, he bales roughly 30 acres of hay a year into big rounds, small squares and big squares, which he sells locally. In terms of fieldwork, Roger is basically a one-man show (unlike his wife who has her own band).
He plants triple-stack corn hybrids and RR beans. The last two years have been tough n with either too much or not enough rain. “I didn’t get that 2/10ths when I needed it,” he remarks, noting though that three years ago, his corn ran 177 bushels on average across the operation and beans made 55 bushels. He’s satisfied with those yields; he’s into “the bottom line” versus gross yield.
Friends help him, he says, getting their “farm fix in on weekends.” Roger should talk. He admits he, too, “got farm fever” as a young man. “It’s in my blood now. It’s what I enjoy doing. I’m not afraid of work. I like working outdoors, and taking care of the land.” He says his mission is to be a “steward of the land, leaving it better then when I came to it.”
His folks were dairy farmers, as were Maggie Mae’s. After college, Roger spent 10 years working in tool and die as well as dairy farming with his folks and then raising beef, and finally cash-cropping. In 1987, he finally decided to return to his farming roots full-time. His cash-grain operation used to be much larger than it is now; he’s scaled back some to help steer his wife’s singing career.
Maggie Mae, who’s given name is Mary Beth, grew up on a farm near Tomah, which her parents, Hugh and Irene Kenworthy, sold five years ago. They’ve moved to the Kendell/Ontario area of southeast Monroe County. The ninth of 10 kids, Maggie Mae says her father, not originally a farmer, to Wisconsin from Massachusetts. She says her dad “had a lot of kids” and “didn’t like how the world was changing in the city.” Growing up on a farm “taught us all a very good work ethic,” she notes.
Maggie Mae, by the way, was a childhood nickname given to her by her brothers. Virtually nobody even knows Maggie Mae by her given name.
With admiration creeping into her voice, she tells how, after the kids were grown, her folks (in their late 50s) decided to join the Peace Corps. They spent almost three years in Ecuador, helping farmers in that developing country preserve stored feed for their cattle. Her dad had a hand in 17 silos going up in a country unfamiliar with the concept. Several years ago, Hugh Kenworthy and one of Maggie Mae’s sisters made a return trip to Ecuador and were pleasantly surprised to learn that the work he’d done there “made a difference,” she notes.
The Hilliards are looking forward to celebrating their fifth anniversary this year, although they’ve known each other much longer. Maggie Mae used to work at a soybean processing plant Roger helped establish. Between them, they have seven children, two in high school, the rest grown. They also have four grandkids.
Roger has long been active off the farm. He’s currently president of the corn growers’ association for Juneau, Adams and Marquette counties (known as “JAM”). He’s a past president of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, and was in that state-level leadership role when the corn industry saw hard-fought ethanol incentive legislation signed by then-Governor Tommy Thompson.
Roger also sat on a citizens’ panel in the 1990s for rewriting Wisconsin’s nonpoint pollution law.
As noted, he was also president of one of the first cooperatively owned soybean processing facilities in the state, which was since sold and no longer operating. Soy-Co opened its doors in 1997 in the “twin” communities of Adams/Friendship. The plant processed soybeans into meal and oil and sold dairy and horse supplements.
This producer’s long-time involvement in Wisconsin’s corn and soybean industries earned him the Agri-Communicator Award last year during the Corn/Soy Expo in Wisconsin Dells. True to form, this avid proMOTER OF AGRICULTURE TOOK THE OPPORTUNITY TO ENCOURAGE HIS FELLOW PRODUCERS TO DO LIKEWISE. IF EVERY FARMER PROMOTED AGRICULTURE AND HIS COMMODITIES, “WHAT A POWERFUL VOICE WE’D HAVE,” SAYS ROGER, WHO ROUTINELY USES HIS VOICE TO LOBBY ON IMPORTANT ISSUES FACING FARMERS AT THE STATE’S CAPITOL. HE’S ALSO GONE TO BAT FOR GROWERS IN WASHINGTON, D.C., LOBBYING CONGRESS.
As noted, along with farming, Roger helps his wife manage their café (and laundry mat next door). They purchased their restaurant in 2001 around the time of the “9/11” Trade Center disaster. They admit to being pretty “nervous” about the new venture. Originally, the little café on Highway 82 west of Oxford (a town of 536 people) only seated 35 local folks. They’ve since expanded, but the flavor is still very much “local” and “folksy,” with its rooster motif.
These days, fans of Maggie Mae’s lovely voice sit down with the locals to hearty home-cooked meals and hope, to be treated to a song or two by the café’s owner. Roger built his wife a little stage in one corner of the café. However, as readers will learn this week on the “Farmlife” page, her career goes far beyond her impromptu café performances.
Roger, meanwhile, taps into both the café and his wife’s notoriety as a singer to talk to non-farmers about agriculture. He targets prospective candidates for his rural-urban chats and quips that he uses the code words,” fresh meat on the grill.” He feels it’s important to correct misperceptions about an industry of which he’s proud to be a part, and wishes more producers would get involved in the Wisconsin Soybean Association and Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.