PRAIRIE DU SAC — When George and Ruth Culver opened their first restaurant in 1961 — and 23 years later when they opened their first Culver’s restaurant with their son, Craig — the Culver family didn’t have to be told how important farmers were to their business.

It was a simple concept — the food they were serving their customers was possible because of the hard work of farmers.

The Culver’s restaurant chain, which started with humble beginnings in Sauk City, now numbers 700 restaurants in 25 states. The 700th restaurant opened earlier this week.

During the past six years, as the number of restaurants has grown exponentially, the company has made an extra effort to thank farmers for the role they play in the food served at Culver’s. A “Thank You Farmers” campaign was kicked off in 2013 and continues to gain strength in 2019.

Perhaps the most visible signs of the project are the four blue barns adorned with a “Thank You Farmers” message near Beaver Dam, Mineral Point, Greenfield, Ind., and Argenta, Ill. The barns are complemented by programs at individual restaurants that support FFA chapters and agriculture-education programs and fundraising projects that have raised more than $2 million over the past six years.

Jessie Kreke, Culver’s senior marketing manager, said individual restaurants had implemented programs to support local FFA chapters and other agriculture programs long before 2013, but it was six years ago that the program was solidified company-wide.

“We really wanted to bring together a program that all of our restaurants could be part of,” Kreke said. “We have done various fundraisers with the Red Cross and other organizations, but it wasn’t something that really connected back to the roots of our brand. That’s what the Thank You Farmers program evolved into. We know how much we depend on farmers for our food supply, as does everyone else. It really starts with a thank you message of gratitude.”

Kreke said local restaurants within the Culver’s chain build relationships with FFA chapters and other agriculture groups to help them educate guests about where their food comes from and what FFA is all about.

For example, the fourth annual “Scoops of Thanks Day” will be held on May 2, when Culver’s will sell dollar scoops of custard at all of its restaurants with the dollars staying local to support agriculture education programs. Last year about $110,000 was raised during the special day.

An essay contest is held each year to encourage young people to express their thoughts about an agriculture issue; this year $15,000 will be awarded as part of the contest. (The entry deadline is April 8).

A button on the Culver’s website encourages people to donate directly to the National FFA, and during a “Farming Friday” feature, various careers in agriculture have been profiled.

Alison Wedig, a Culver’s marketing specialist, was Wisconsin FFA president in 2014-15. She met Kreke through the Thank You Farmers program when she was a state officer and joined the Culver’s team last summer.

“It’s kind of fun to be able to think about it holistically, with my career now working for someone I was participating with as an FFA member,” Wedig said. “FFA members can use their connections with the people they meet to lead to future jobs.”

Wedig said she and Kreke participate in the Wisconsin and national FFA conventions to connect with FFA members and let them know what Culver’s is doing to support FFA at the local, state and national levels.

Most FFA chapters know about what Culver’s does for FFA chapters, but Wedig said some chapters still haven’t made the connection with a restaurant in their area.

“We always encourage FFA chapters to reach out to a local restaurant to build the relationship,” she said.

Kreke said one of her favorite stories about a Culver’s-FFA connection was when Emily Bowe, a Culver’s franchisee in Onalaska, collected change in a canister on her restaurant’s counter a few years ago, but didn’t really have a connection with an FFA chapter. She compiled the coins and sent a check for $1,530 to the Bangor FFA Chapter.

“Emily got a call from the (Bangor) adviser who said the check literally saved the chapter,” she said. “There were no funds in the treasury and it was going to close. Now that connection between the restaurant and the chapter has grown into something the restaurant and the FFA chapter are really proud of.”

Kreke and Wedig try to get all Culver’s employees in the spirit of supporting FFA in a variety of ways. Wedig recently organized daily activities during National FFA Week at the Culver’s headquarters in Prairie du Sac, where the 90 employees participated in bingo, penny wars and enjoyed a beef pot roast lunch.

Culver’s officials are actively looking for more barns to paint blue and include the Thank You Farmers message, Kreke said.

“We would love to see that program grow, but it’s harder and harder to find barns that have the great visibility we are looking for,” Kreke said. “Some of the old wooden barns are being taken down and being replaced by metal pole sheds. In the case of the Beaver Dam barn, we helped the owner with a new roof and patching some holes. We light it up during the holiday season — it has been a great location for us.”

Kreke said she expects the number of Culver’s restaurants to continue to grow but there is no end goal by the company’s owners.

“It’s never been about a specific number of restaurants — it’s always about wanting to make sure we have quality restaurants,” she said. “We don’t advertise for restaurants. The only way people learn about opening a restaurant is going to our website and talking to someone in our development department. It truly happens organically.”