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Ernest Haugen milks one of the last cows at the Haugen brother's Coon Valley Farm. Ernest milks the cows everyday at 5 p.m. and has missed one milking in the past 47 years. (Rory O'Driscoll/La Crosse Tribune)

COON VALLEY, Wis. — Ernest Haugen, a farmer and champion of land conservation, died Thursday at age 90, just five weeks after milking his last cow.

He was known well beyond Coon Valley, where he worked a farm that had been in the family since 1890 and was one of the first in the nation to join a pilot soil conservation program in the early 1930s when erosion had nearly devastated the watershed.

Ernest is survived by his 86-year-old brother, Joseph, who was his lifelong housemate and farming partner. The brothers were the subject of numerous news stories over the years, including an August profile in the Tribune.

“They’re such icons for our community,” said Jon Lee, a Coon Valley photographer who spent time documenting the Haugens’ life on the farm.

In September the Haugens signed a conservation easement that will forever prevent development on the 160-acre farm on the hillside above Coon Valley and preserve the erosion controls built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Leading a guest through his fields last summer, Ernest recalled being a boy and watching men from the camp survey and landscape the pasture, noting proudly that it was one of the first modern terraces built in the United States.

Pat Leavenworth is the state conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. She said she met Ernest shortly after coming to Wisconsin.

“He would write me letters periodically — long letters talking about conservation,” she said. “He was just a wonderful, dedicated conservationist…. He was a leader by example.”

District conservationist Sam Skemp said the Haugens would stop in his office half a dozen times a year to talk about farming and their concerns about new practices.

“Ernest was — and Joseph is — a true environmentalist,” Skemp said. “They saw the worst of it and they saw the positive results of what came out of the conservation work that began in the 1930s.”

Born in 1921, Ernest Haugen attended Erickson school through eighth grade. He said he had high marks and his teacher wanted him to go on to high school, but he was needed on the farm where he spent the rest of his life milking cows, cutting hay and chopping wood.

“They were so particular about their tobacco crops,” said Marjorie Haugen, who married Ernest’s cousin Elnor Haugen and farmed on the other side of town. “They really took pride in raising nice tobacco.”

The Haugens sold their herd in 2002, but Ernest continued milking three cows by hand until Oct. 4. They bragged that they never bought a fence post, and at age 70 Ernest was still using a hatched to sharpen timbers cut on the farm.

Joseph said his brother, who learned in September he had cancer, was splitting and hauling firewood until shortly before a fall sent him to the hospital Tuesday afternoon.

“You won’t find guys like this anymore,” Lee said, “because they were used to doing things the hard way.”

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