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Rod Nilsestuen
Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, drowned Wednesday while swimming in Lake Superior.

Rod Nilsestuen, who has led the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection as its secretary since 2003, drowned Wednesday evening while swimming in Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Police in Marquette, Mich., did not release his name, but department spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner confirmed Wednesday night that Nilsestuen died. He said Nilsestuen was on vacation, working for Habitat for Humanity in northern Michigan as he does every summer.

In a statement released late Wednesday, Gov. Jim Doyle called Nilsestuen “a warm, humorous and wonderful husband, father and friend.”

“Under his incredible leadership Wisconsin has seen the greatest and most beneficial transformation of agriculture in generations,” Doyle wrote.

Marquette police said they were called to the area of the city’s Picnic Rocks about 5:47 p.m. after it was reported that a man who was swimming was having difficulty in the water. After a search of about 50 minutes, two searchers in a boat found the man floating in the water about 300 yards south of Picnic Rocks.

Efforts to revive Nilsestuen began and he was taken to Marquette General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to police.

Nilsestuen, 62, was president and CEO of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives from 1978 until September 2002. He grew up on a dairy farm near Arcadia and earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology from UW-River Falls in 1970 and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1974.

In addition to 24 years with the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives, he helped establish the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board and the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board and was a founding chairman of the National Rural Cooperative Development Task Force.

“Among many other accomplishments,” Doyle said in the statement, “Rod’s legacy includes dramatic increases in milk and cheese production, dynamic growth in organic farming and grazing operations, protecting our state’s farmland through the working lands initiative, promoting the development of biofuels and bioenergy to generate homegrown renewable energy in Wisconsin, connecting consumers to local farmers through the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program and strong support for investments in America’s Dairyland.”

Nilsestuen leaves behind a wife and three sons.

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