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Ben Wideman / Photo by Benjamin Wideman/  

Spring Brook Tree Farm in the Shawano County town of Wittenberg began selling Christmas trees in 1995.

Christmas pyramid brings holiday history to life

Sometime in the 1930s, Virgil and Helen Johnson bought a handmade Christmas tree for their family from a Swedish carpenter’s union in Minneapolis. Through the years, the Johnson family decorated the unique Christmas pyramid, as it’s called, during their holiday festivities.

Almost nine decades later, the unique tree, which features several small shelves on which holiday ornaments and figurines could be placed, all topped by a wheel of fan blades, has become part of the collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. The shelves and fan blades all spin when the candles on the tree are lit, creating heat. However, MHS curators don’t plan to light the candles, for preservation reasons.

Rooted in German folk tradition, particularly that of the Ore Mountain region, and brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s, the tree is thought to be a precursor to the modern Christmas tree. Generally constructed of wood, Christmas pyramids typically include a decorated pyramidal outer frame with candle holders and a central carousel with a rotor on top that’s driven by rising warm air from the lit candles. It is decorated with nativity scenes and other Christmas figures.

With the discovery of kerosene in the 1830s, the tradition of the Christmas pyramid spread. People had been using expensive candles or rapeseed oil to light the tree, but kerosene made it much cheaper to light. The pyramids can still be found in numerous styles and sizes throughout Germany and parts of the U.S.

Sondra Reierson, 3D objects curator and interim head of collections management at the MHS in St. Paul, said the Johnson family’s tree and its decorations are great complements to the other holiday decor, folk art and union-made material in their collections.

“It’s being added to our collections to document this era and style of folk art,” said Lauren Peck, MHS public relations specialist. “There is no plan for it to be on display to visitors.”

The late Virgil Johnson, the tree’s owner, was a well-known Minnesota hockey player, suiting up for Twin Cities minor league teams including the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints, as well as playing for the 1938 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974. He also played for the Hershey Bears and the Cleveland Barons.

Along with the tree, the MHS acquired the Johnsons’ collection of more than 100 family photographs and slides chronicling three generations of family history in Minnesota, dating back to Virgil’s grandparents’ arrival from Sweden in 1881 and continuing up to their time in North Minneapolis. Virgil’s grandparents, Andrew and Malin Johnson, settled in Minneapolis, building a boarding house in 1900 that catered to lumber mill workers. Nine years later, the family moved to Ralph, S.D., to take up land claims, but their homesteading proved unsuccessful and they returned to Minneapolis in 1913.

Virgil was born in 1909 in Minneapolis and spent his early years on the family claim in South Dakota. He graduated from North High School in Minneapolis in 1930, after lettering in football and hockey. He and his wife, Helen, had three children.

Center of attention
Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center off to a solid start
Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center off to a solid start

NEWTON — Less than five months after its grand opening, Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center has welcomed dozens of school groups totaling more than 1,500 students.

And the rate at which people are buying memberships has surpassed expectations, officials said.

Those factors, combined with overwhelmingly positive reviews, indicate the state-of-the-art agricultural education facility is off to a solid start, said Kim Kowieski, director of operations.

“We’re such a unique place that we didn’t always know what to expect early on,” Kowieski said. “But I think things have gone really well. There’s no manual on how to do some of these things, like build and operate a birthing barn for the public. So we’ve just learned by experience, and I think things have gone pretty smooth.”

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, featuring 15,000 square feet of interactive, educational exhibits as well as the Land O’Lakes Birthing Barn, officially opened to the public July 28. To date, more than 125 calves have been born at the birthing barn — the 100th, fittingly named Boo, arrived on Halloween.

The $13 million facility in rural Manitowoc County also features the Country Store gift shop (including dairy products), Wisconsin Café presented by Sargento (with farm-to-table items), Ice Cream Acres sponsored by Cedar Crest Ice Cream and a conference center that can accommodate 300 people for an array of rental opportunities.

“We have a café on one end and a barn on the other end and a lot in between,” Kowieski said, “so we have a little bit of everything here. We’ve got a lot to offer.”

In keeping with the vision of the late Norval Dvorak, an agricultural pioneer who spearheaded the facility’s creation, Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center’s focus revolves around educating the public.

Officials said visitors run the gamut from babies to senior citizens, ranging from people with no agricultural background to farmers coming in jeans and boots.

Melissa Bender, director of education and programming, has been impressed with not only the number of students who have visited, but their enthusiasm, as well. School groups primarily have traveled from within a 90-minute radius. Bender tailors tours to accommodate grade levels.

“We have scavenger hunts for the kids — that helps them understand more about agriculture and really gets them into those exhibits,” Bender said.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center also developed a Little Sprout Storytime for preschoolers, held the third Tuesday of each month. Bender said the center is always on the lookout for new and interesting methods to inform people about agriculture. One such event was Fall at the Farm in late October.

“We’re looking for any agricultural groups, organizations, businesses that want to partner with us and offer programs,” Bender said. “It’s all about educating the public. If we can utilize those resources, we can make this a very successful and productive place.”

In keeping with the season, Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center recently embraced the holidays with a Celebrate the Season event. Among the day’s many activities was Milk and Cookies with Santa, which was presented by the Manitowoc County Dairy Promotion Committee.

Two weeks before that, the center debuted Breakfast at the Barn, an event that, moving forward, will continue to include breakfast followed by a presentation from a person with ties to agriculture. Officials are finalizing the next six presenters for the 2019 lineup.

Angel Johanek, director of marketing and development, said she was pleasantly surprised to see people waiting in line at 6:30 a.m. to hear the inaugural presenter, Channel 2 news anchor Bill Jartz, whose rural roots stretch back to his upbringing in Clintonville.

“It all goes back to educating people on our mission,” Johanek said. “We want to educate visitors about Wisconsin agriculture and let them know how farmers produce fiber, fuel and food and how they do it sustainably, humanely and safely.

“We have different ways to do that — the birthing barn, the farm tour, all the exhibits upstairs, the programs. We’re bringing all those pieces together and educating people through those pieces.”

Tours of nearby Grotegut Dairy Farm are held four times daily and last about 35 minutes. Visitors board a coach bus (or a school bus) and travel to the farm, where they learn about the operation while listening to an on-bus video presentation or a speaker. Pregnant cows in the Land O’Lakes Birthing Barn are transported from Grotegut Dairy Farm.

“It’s really neat because the tour video is narrated by the farm family members, so it gives it that farm family touch,” Bender said.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center recently began seeking an executive director. Lauren Hofland stepped down from that role last month to resume her consulting business.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, at 7001 Gass Lake Road, Newton, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit

Opportunities remain in 2019 for industrial hemp growers

WISCONSIN DELLS — Just more than a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2017, Wisconsin Act 100 was signed into law, allowing for the first time in decades farmers in the state to grow industrial hemp under a pilot program. Legislators then turned to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to write emergency rules for the bill, giving them 90 days to assign staff, put together a team and get the rules organized.

“In a word, it was messy,” said Melody Walker, pest survey and control section chief in the Plant Industry Bureau at DATCP. “You don’t do things like this in a neat and tidy way.”

But the department was able to write rules with a narrow focus for the first year of the program, with some arguing that Wisconsin’s launch was the most successful one of any state.

Rob Richard, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation senior director of governmental relations, called the resurgence of the state’s industrial hemp industry “a classic tale of what’s old is new again.” He served as a moderator of a panel discussion at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting and conference on Dec. 2, inviting six industry experts to share their thoughts on the first year of the program and what farmers can expect in 2019 when it comes to industrial hemp.

“I was always excited about year one but I’m even more excited about years two and three,” Richard said.

A successful launch

“If you would have told me I’d be the lead author on an industrial hemp bill before I came into office, I would have told you no way,” said state Sen. Patrick Testin, who represents the 24th Senate District.

Like many others, Testin was skeptical about industrial hemp, but he did his research, immersed himself in the history and said “the light bulb went off” for him. Since 2014, all of Wisconsin’s neighboring states have instituted a pilot program for industrial hemp, with Testin asking himself why Wisconsin didn’t have its own pilot program.

He found the momentum was there, although he never dreamed that the legislation would pass with unanimous support from state government.

Ken Anderson, founder and president of Legacy Hemp Holdings, a parent company to Legacy Hemp Seed Company LLC, said, hands down, the reason the legislation passed unanimously was because of the work completed by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

“That really woke a lot of other states up,” Anderson said. “That’s a really exiting part — to see how fast this is being accepted.”

Anderson admitted when Richard reached out to him in regards to educating government officials and persuading them to support a pilot program for industrial hemp in Wisconsin, he wasn’t at all interested. But after seeing the support and the opportunity, he decided to help bring industrial hemp back to Wisconsin.

He said Testin is the perfect example of someone who was able to filter out the noise associated with industrial hemp, become educated and reach the final conclusion of ‘why not?’ in Wisconsin.

Seeing the opportunity

Dr. Johnathan Vaught, CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences, is relatively new to agriculture. He has worked in a number of other industries, with all those experiences pushing him into making an investment in the agriculture industry. His company, which focuses on bringing the best of modern agriculture to high-value cannabis, hemp and coffee crops through improvements in reliability, safety and efficiency, has been operational for two years, with facilities in California, Colorado and now Wisconsin with the establishment of a Clean Stock hemp nursery in Appleton.

“There’s an incredible opportunity in Wisconsin with its deep history in agriculture,” Vaught said. “And DATCP has made a good effort to put a good foot forward, allowing us to grow this industry together.”

To him, there is a huge amount of potential for a plant with over 130 known cannabinoids and compounds, with opportunities in pharmaceuticals, bio-fuel, food, fiber and grain. CBD is the hottest area with the highest margin for profit at the moment, but Vaught foresees prices eventually going down and other markets for industrial hemp rising to the top.

“As the infrastructure is put in place, I can see it competing with soybeans and corn,” he said. “There’s huge potential if we can use it in animal feed.”

“The grain market could explode in Wisconsin with the opportunity in the animal feed industry,” Anderson said. “What I’m excited about is the product innovation. What we’re doing with hemp right now is not nearly reaching what we could do; we have not touched what we could really do. Product development could be an area where Wisconsin could really shine.”

While Legacy Hemp Seed Company is currently focused on bringing certified genetics of industrial hemp to farmers, they are moving into providing markets and infrastructure for farmers growing the crop as well.

Farm bill implications

There are four main components of the proposed Farm Bill that address industrial hemp. If passed, industrial hemp would be removed from the Controlled Substance Act, essentially legalizing the crop. Industrial hemp would also be eligible for crop insurance coverage and the USDA would have the ability to award research grants to study industrial hemp. A fourth component would allow each state to set a regulatory system for industrial hemp, with the approval of the USDA.

“We’re hopeful the Farm Bill will pass and some of these (stipulations) will go away,” said Kurt Mansavage, a representative of Rural Mutual Insurance Company. “If the bill passes and hemp is taken off, we can now cover that commodity.”

Scott Birrenkott, assistant director of legal with Wisconsin Bankers Association, also hopes for more clarification if and when the farm bill is passed. WBA has been interested in the movements of Wisconsin’s industrial hemp program since the beginning, seeing opportunity to provide information to others about this new, emerging business.

However, “there is still gray area in this matter,” he said. “But as we move through this, we hope this gray area will clear up.”

At this time, he encourages open communication between farmers and lenders when it comes to an industrial hemp business, adding that it’s important for growers to understand how heavily regulated banks are.

But “if President Trump signs the Farm Bill, it will significantly change the way financial institutions view this,” Birrenkott said. “If there is a specific and clear carve-out for hemp, that would be significant.”

Changes to support industry

Now that Wisconsin has endured the first year of the industrial hemp pilot program, officials at DATCP are revisiting their rules and finding there are some areas that can be improved. Walker said that the department heard from growers that there needed to be a change in the application deadline date, so that was already extended to March 1, 2019, so growers can find seed and organize other aspects of the business. The department is also planning a spring meeting for all licensees to review requirements of the industrial hemp pilot program.

The department also wants to increase compliance and has already prohibited one variety of hemp, C4, that was testing too high of a delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol concentration to comply with the program.

“Law enforcement is starting to take a more active interest in our program,” Walker said, encouraging growers to “do some good neighbor work” and talk to the community about what they are doing.

She also suggested talking directly to local law enforcement about what they are growing so there is an understanding amongst all entities.

“This is challenging for them,” Walker said. “Things are more complicated.”

Work is also continuing at the state level pertaining to product labeling, food safety and standards for laboratories interested in testing industrial hemp. DATCP is also considering year-round registration, allowing for more flexibility for farmers, and aims to make licensing and reporting more automated on their end.

Currently, information reported to DATCP, including the names and locations of processors and growers, is kept confidential. Walker would like to see an option for those processors and growers to release some of their information to better connect them with each other.

Reflecting on first year

The pilot year came with some disappointment as the weather grossly impacted the yield. As soon as the crop was planted, many areas of Wisconsin were plagued with historic rainfall, causing the crop to not emerge from the soil well and accelerating weed pressure.

“The successes definitely weren’t yield,” Anderson said. “If we were basing the success of the program off this year, we wouldn’t be here. Yields just weren’t where they should be.”

However, the seed company proclaimed success in the areas of industrial hemp grain marketability, and discovered that a lot of farmers couldn’t clean store their grain, leading the company to commit to the establishment a hemp grain processing facility in Prescott, Wisconsin.

With markets expanding and a processing facility in the plans, Legacy Hemp continues to seek farmers willing to grow the crop under contract — both conventional and organic.

“In Wisconsin, our farmers are problem solvers,” Anderson said. “You guys figure it out and make it work — and that’s what we’re excited about.”

“One thing we know for sure is that this is a new crop and it hasn’t been farmed for a long time,” Vaught added. “There’s really a lot of work to do and it’ll take innovation, good years and bad years to really get a feel for it.”

Testin argued that there still is a need to better educate the public about the benefits of industrial hemp.

“I see it as economic development for our rural communities,” he said. “It’s clear we’ve lead the nation in production in the past and we’re poised to do it again.”

”God bless the American farmer”
Photographer shares stories from his journey across rural America


WISCONSIN DELLS — Nationally known photographer Paul Mobley has photographed hundreds of famous faces, completed work for Fortune 500 companies and had several books published showcasing his photographs. A confessed “city boy,” he recently had the unique opportunity to travel across rural America, sharing his story and the profound impact the project had on him with attendees of the 99th Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting and conference on Dec. 2.

“My ‘American Farmer’ book was a life-changing accident,” Mobley said, explaining how he had decided to put his dog in the backseat of his car, drive to Michigan where he grew up and not take one photograph for an entire summer.

However, “that summer, I photographed every farmer in the county,” he said.

Mobley had arrived in Michigan and entered a coffee shop where he saw four farmers sitting at a table. He had made that promise to himself to not take any photos, but he knew in his heart that he just had to photograph these farmers. So he did.

After photographing them, Mobley decided to photograph the rest of the farmers in the county — all 30 of them. He showed his publisher the photos, and they both agreed the compilation would be an amazing book. So Mobley began his journey, as a New Yorker who had never before set foot on a farm.

Mobley spent four years traveling across the U.S., putting 100,000 miles on his vehicle and snapping 40,000 photographs in 37 different states. Not a day goes by where Mobley doesn’t think about those four years and all the lessons he learned along the way.

“I was in search of an artistic evolution,” he said, “but instead, I found a kinder and gentler America. Those were the best times of my life.

“Our agricultural communities are the secret of our country.”

The doors were always open to Mobley, something he couldn’t necessarily relate to as a resident of New York City. He met with farmers at their homes, listening to stories of the good times and the bad times. Then, they went outside, where Mobley found just the right locations to snap photograph after photograph.

He shared that one farm family he visited even offered him a place to stay, leading him to an immaculate bedroom where a bed was perfectly made, a plate of cookies with a glass of milk sitting by the bedside and a name tag reading “Paul” delicately placed on a pillow.

“I had a story like that every place I went,” he said.

Mobley began to notice emerging themes after visiting farms across the country — themes of friendship and of family. He shared the story of Texan row-crop farmers Carl Ray Sellers and Benn Arnold Gleason, who serve as just one example of the incredible friendships that can be found in ag communities across the country.

When photographing Sellers at his farm, a man showed up, curious about what was going on. That man was Gleason, a friend of Sellers’ for 80 years. Mobley asked them to take a photograph together — the final photo making it into “American Farmer” of the two men, standing proudly in plaid shirts, Sellers’ arm around his friend of 80 years.

Mobley met many families on the farms he visited, stopping to snap photographs of the entire family as many of them said they’d never had time to have their own family photo. They were always busy working and could never get everyone together. These photographs seemed to mean the most, with Mobley sharing the story of one photograph he took of a farmer and his three sons.

Mobley sent a copy of the photograph to the father and a week after he sent it, received a phone call from the father. He heard him sobbing on the other end of the line — the photograph of him and his sons meant so much to him that he had to call and thank him for taking it.

“To hear a grown man brought to tears over something I did,” he said. “The joy is being able to move someone so much with a photo I took — that’s the greatest gift.”

Mobley also encountered the dedicated women, wives and daughters on farms, the “unsung heroes” of those operations, he said. After meeting several farm wives, he approached his publisher about featuring them in the book, too. He also featured several fathers and daughters in his photographs, another bond he was happy to capture in “American Farmer.”

Mobley also noticed on many farms there seemed to be an older person working just as hard as anyone else on the farm and asked his publisher if it was possible to feature them, too. He felt like he was on to something important — farming must be the key to a long life.

His publisher was able to arrange a meeting with Edna Parker, a 115-year-old farmer’s wife who once held the record of the oldest living person in the world. She told Mobley she gave all the credit for her longevity to being on the farm.

Before Mobley left her side that day, Parker motioned him to come close, holding his hands in hers and providing this piece of parting advice: “If you ever need anything, call one of those farmers you photographed.”

“Farmers are the greatest people in the world and some don’t even know it,” Mobley said.

That could certainly be said of Bob Hanson, a rancher in Montana. Along with caring for horses and cattle, Hanson also loves photography, with he and Mobley bonding over their joint interests. While interviewing Hanson, his father, Elmer Hanson, came to the door carrying a load of logs in his arms. Mobley knew he had to take the elder Hanson’s photograph, too.

As they headed outside to take the photo, Bob pointed to a small building that looked like an outhouse on the property. It wasn’t an outhouse but the building where Elmer had been born. The family moved it to the property to remind them every day where they started and to keep them humble.

When the session ended, Mobley and Bob Hanson exchanged phone numbers, just in case Bob needed a few tips on his photography. To Mobley’s surprise, Hanson began calling him every Friday around 9 a.m. to just say hello, ask about the family and see how he was doing. Mobley couldn’t believe a man who worked 15-plus hours a day still made time for a phone call to friend half-way across the country.

A few Fridays passed where Mobley hadn’t heard from Hanson, with Hanson finally calling to share with him some sad news. His father, Elmer, had passed away in a farm accident and the family was hoping Mobley would be able to make a photograph of him for the casket. And he did.

“Every Friday, I still talk to Bob,” he said. “And not once has he ever asked for a photography tip.”

The book was nearing completion after four years, but Mobley wanted to find one more farmer to feature. He called his publisher and asked her to find him a farmer who had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina; however, she pointed him in the direction of Grand Chenier, La., where Hurricane Rita had destroyed every farm in that community. Only one farmer had stayed and rebuilt after the storm — Billy Dolan.

After the hurricane, Dolan found his house five miles inland; all of his animals were gone, but farmers from all over the country had volunteered to help him rebuild his farm. He told Mobley, “I was born on this land and I will die on this land,” something Mobley said he’ll never forget.

“Sometimes we wonder where all the good people have gone,” Mobley said. “Well, they are all in this room.”

“This journey has been one of the best ones of my life,” he continued, before ending his presentation with the following words: “God bless the American farmer.”

Submitted photos/  

Burlington artist Richard Arfsten is shown with two of his sculptures, “Lady Sphinx from Another Planet,” at left, and “Future Homer Simpson,” at right.

Photo by Brooke Bechen  

Kris Paape and her husband, Dan, operate BeefnBeaks Farm in Waterloo, and although running the farm is a team effort, Kris considers herself the ideas person. An elementary art teacher, she tries to incorporate education and her artistic touch on the farm.