Feature Article: Full Circle: From Hughes Farms to Farmers on the Rock

by Garrett Hopkins


In April, a Rock County resident by the name of Wesley Hughes celebrated his 90th birthday. Those lucky enough to live for 90 years have witnessed some of the most monumental events in modern human history. Very few, though, can say they have lived through 90 years’ worth of their family’s business operations. Wesley Hughes, the eldest living member of a six-generation farming family, can boast just that. Hughes Farms was formalized in 1848, a year that may ring familiar for folks who know their Wisconsin history. And like our beloved state, they celebrated their 175th year of existence in 2023.

On his birthday, Wesley’s family gathered to celebrate his life, and to watch a slideshow that showcased the history of Hughes Farms. In addition to the agriculture company’s longevity, Hughes Farms has been recognized for their leadership in sustainable operations, which includes extensive cover cropping, automated irrigation water management, and the utilization of compost and biologicals to improve soil health. Willie Hughes, Wes’s great-grandson, was one of many individuals who watched the slideshow.  

“It was so cool to realize that my Uncle Wes has been around for over half of our story,” says Hughes, who proudly serves as the current Operations Manager for the Specialty Crop Division at Hughes Farms. “You think 175 years is this long, multigenerational thing, but in reality, all the generations overlap and he’s one guy who has been here for half of it. It kind of took it full circle for me.” As Operations Manager, Willie Hughes does just about everything their 5,000 acres of farmland requires, from maneuvering large field equipment and overseeing seed inventory, to handling certification paperwork for organic production and mapping their land on a specialized computer software.

Photo credit: Farm Progress (farmprogress.com)

The regional importance of his family’s trade is not lost on him. “Agriculture is a billion dollar industry in Rock County,” he explains. “When it comes to jobs and tax space and all those metrics we like to measure to define economic relevance, it’s one of the biggest players in the county, if not the state. From how land is used, to political issues, it influences all aspects of life here, for good or for bad.” In 2019, inspired by his family’s dedication to sustainability, Hughes expressed his innate desire to do good by helping create – and becoming President of – a producer-led group called Farmers on the Rock.


Producer-led groups, which are run by agricultural professionals, are organizations dedicated to practicing and promoting sustainable operations in their region. “I didn’t join Farmers on the Rock to stand on a soap box or radically change anybody’s perspective,” says Hughes. “I wanted to improve my own operation, and I felt there’s no better way to learn than by leading. I have a front row seat to the latest and greatest stewardship practices, and I’m given an opportunity to learn more and to network with other growers who are looking to do things a little differently.”

Rock County is a particularly critical region for watershed protection, as it contains some of the highest nitrate levels in the state. Ammonium nitrate, which is incredibly harmful to humans if ingested, is a common type of fertilizer used by farmers, and is regularly carried to water resources through agricultural runoff. The township of La Prairie, which is an Agricultural Exclusive Area (AEA), has the highest nitrate levels in the county. “We are at the center of the ground water quality issue,” says Hughes. Utilizing alternate fertilizer methods is one of the key topics Farmers on the Rock promotes.

Since its inception in 2019, Farmers on the Rock has grown considerably. Once a small group of loosely-affiliated producers who would casually gather at each other’s farms, they have grown into a 70-person, certified nonprofit organization with a five-seat Board of Directions. They facilitate educational community programs, pay for cover-crop cost share, fund nitrogen management modeling, and organize field days, networking events, and public forums. Recently, Governor Tony Evers attended a demonstration on sustainable practices that Farmers on the Rock hosted.

The group’s impressive growth was fueled by a ProducerLed Watershed Protection Grant, awarded by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in 2022. It has also been aided by a wealth of support throughout Rock County. “There’s a lot of different ways people help us,” says Hughes. “There’s a lot of opportunity to volunteer within the group. Some people share their farm or field. Others share their knowledge. We’re always looking for people brave enough to share their stories of innovation, of success or failure, to facilitate those discussions at events and field days.”

There are few categories of professionals, if any, that have more expertise in land maintenance than agricultural producers. Therefore, it is only logical that this population leads the way in conservation. The rise in producer-led groups is one of the most important conservation trends in recent history for both land and water, and Hughes is keen to leverage his organization’s influence. “Farmers on the Rock has great momentum. We’re going to continue pushing the envelope. We’re going to continue helping farmers in any way that we can to take conservation on their farms to the next level.”

Compared to Hughes Farms, Farmers on the Rock is a budding organization still very much pursuing their maximum impact in Rock County. But while Willie Hughes is a long way from celebrating his 90th birthday, his impact to date is already renowned. From his work on the farm, to his work in the community, Hughes has directly impacted thousands of acres of land and an even greater number of lives throughout Central Wisconsin. Rock River Coalition is proud to support Farmers on the Rock, and we look forward to someday seeing an updated slideshow featuring Willie’s impressive accomplishments.

The Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant that sustains Farmers on the Rock is a dollar-for-dollar match agreement. This means Farmers on the Rock is only awarded the amount of money they are able to match through fundraising. If you would like to make a financial contribution to their important work, visit farmersontherock.com. All donations are tax-deductible.