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There are more than a half dozen dairy farms indicated along the FCN rail line, including this one that harkens back to his grandparent’s farm near Wautoma. Gunderson fabricated the tiny Ford tractors and Gehl chopper wagons and designed the barn quilt to depict colors of his Norwegian heritage.

The mane attraction
The mane attraction: Farmer brings miniature horse Rosie to cheer up hospital patients
Farmer brings miniature horse Rosie to cheer up hospital patients

GREEN BAY — Julie Brooks’ prognosis wasn’t promising.

For three days, the Green Bay woman was bedridden at Aurora BayCare Medical Center as doctors and nurses diligently worked to determine the source of her pain.

“It was a pretty tense situation,” she said. “I was in critical condition, very worried.”

And then, into the hospital room trotted Rosie, a white and brown miniature horse officially standing 26 inches tall.

“My mood totally changed,” Brooks said. “Seeing this tiny horse, it just floored me. She came up to the bed and stood there. What a sweet little horse she was.

“Up until that moment, emotionally I was in a really bad place, knowing there was something wrong with me. But now, as I talk about that day, I can still feel inside of me what a comfort it was to see Rosie. She warms my heart.”

Although that difficult time in Brooks’ life was eight years ago, she remembers Rosie’s visit like it was yesterday. Brooks spent two weeks in the hospital, including a period of time on life support, before undergoing surgery and recovering.

Brooks’ sentiments about Rosie are shared by hundreds of patients the miniature horse and her owner, Sue Binsfeld, a cash crop farmer from rural Brown County, have visited over the past 10 years as volunteers with the pet therapy program at Aurora BayCare Medical Center in Green Bay.

Rosie is the only non-dog in Aurora’s 23-pet program, and she’s believed to be the only miniature horse providing such visits to hospitals in Wisconsin. Rosie and Binsfeld also visit residents at about 10 nursing homes in the area.

“I try to think that our job is to make people feel peaceful for whatever time we’re with them,” Binsfeld said. “We see all kinds of patients. Some are terminal. So I’m not above going out in the hallway and crying. I’ve done that. But as long as we add some comfort in their lives and they can think about something else for 15 minutes, then I feel we’ve done our job.”

The visits

Binsfeld and Rosie typically visit Aurora once per week from early-May through late-October, arriving each time in a pink minivan with Rosie secured in the back. Binsfeld also brings a friend along each time as a helping hand.

The hospital usually schedules eight patient visits per day, encompassing about two hours, but Binsfeld said, “We’ll probably see at least double that amount going in other rooms as we walk past and people want us to stop in. And then there’s everyone in the hallways who stop to pet her. It ends up being dozens of people, but that’s fine. People love Rosie.”

On Halloween, Binsfeld and her friend, Karen Nelsen, dressed Rosie as a unicorn, complete with a cute horn adorning her head and colorful ribbons dangling from her mane and tail.

“Halloween is always fun because of the costumes,” Binsfeld said. “She’s been a princess, butterfly, devil, angel. I put a halo on her head for that one. The more stuff you put on Rosie, the prettier she thinks she is.”

As Binsfeld and Rosie entered Aurora on Halloween morning, a young girl stopped to pet Rosie and eagerly clutched a small plastic unicorn she was given to commemorate the chance meeting. Before Rosie could take another step, an older girl in a wheelchair and neck brace came around the corner and also spent time smiling at Rosie. Several more people stopped to visit in the 30 feet between the check-in desk and the elevator.

“Rosie adds another level of interest to our pet therapy program,” said Tracey Willems, Aurora’s pet therapy coordinator since the program’s inception in 2001. “I think a lot of people are surprised when they see we have a miniature horse.”

Several years ago, Willems added, an older patient received a visit from Rosie and later re-told the encounter to family members. The family was skeptical about the accuracy of their relative’s memory — “they thought the person was going crazy,” Binsfeld said with a chuckle.

That inspired production of baseball card-style handouts featuring Rosie’s picture on the front and bio on the back. “We’re still making those cards,” Willems said.

Before each hospital visit, Rosie is thoroughly bathed. Once in a patient’s room, Rosie’s level of interaction often coincides with the patient’s demeanor.

“With some people, she’ll just lay her head up on the bed and not move,” Binsfeld said, “and with others she’s more animated. She probably feeds off of them, and me, too, because everyone is different.”

Some visits are more emotionally challenging than others, Binsfeld said.

“I had a patient this summer who was terminal,” she said. “There were like 10 people in the room and the patient had horses, too, so he was happy to see Rosie. He wasn’t doing very well, but he could feel her breath on his hand and he tried so hard to open his hand and pet her.”

And there have been times she brought Rosie to the hospital on her “off day” to help fulfill a dying patient’s last request.

“Those are tough ones,” Binsfeld said.

One of Rosie’s visits earned a Spirit of Planetree Award, which Binsfeld noted is presented to caregivers who go above and beyond. The award was recognition for a rare house call made by Binsfeld and Rosie.

“We had seen a patient in a cancer center, and it was a while later that his daughter spent a day trying to find me,” Binsfeld recalled. “She said her dad was dying and he kept telling everyone he was dreaming of a little horse by his bed. She asked if I’d come over and see him. We went over to their house and into his bedroom and showed him the horse he was dreaming about.

“He passed away that night after sharing a beer with his wife and toasting to a good day.”

The farm and horses

Binsfeld and her husband, Joe, have lived on a 40-acre farm in the rural Brown County town of Glenmore since the mid-1990s.

The former dairy farm houses four miniature horses, a full-size Pony of the Americas and several Hereford cattle.

The couple cash-crop hay on 125 total acres, using a kick baler to stack small square bales. They utilize about 30 wagons “so we can keep on baling and push the loads in the shed without worrying about unloading them right away,” Binsfeld said. “It’s just Joe and me. Nobody else.”

Binsfeld was born and raised in Milwaukee, but as a child she had a horse that was kept at her grandparents’ residence in the Oconto County town of Gillett.

“My dad bought my first horse when I was 3 years old,” Binsfeld said. “He paid $10 for the horse (a Shetland Pony) and $50 for the saddle. And I still have the saddle.

“My mother told me that even when I was a baby, I always gravitated toward horses in the store. I think you’re born that way and it doesn’t go away.”

After eventually moving to Brown County and marrying Joe, her first exposure to miniature horses came via her sister-in-law (also named Sue Binsfeld), who bought a miniature horse. About a year later, one of Joe’s friends invited Binsfeld to take ownership of a miniature horse he owned. That horse, called Rossi, remained in the Binsfeld family for a decade before dying of equine leukemia in 2012.

At the encouragement of a friend, Binsfeld’s first foray into pet therapy was with one of her cats at a Green Bay nursing home in 2006. The following year, Sue left the cat at home and opted for her miniature horses, Rossi and Aladdin.

“The residents would come outside and see them, and they really loved it,” Binsfeld said. “I think people gravitate to (miniature horses) because they’re not threatening. A lot of people are intimidated by full-size horses, but little horses aren’t intimidating.”

Binsfeld began participating in Aurora’s pet therapy program in 2008, again starting with a cat. Binsfelt inquired about bringing a miniature horse, so she started with Aladdin.

“I made about three visits with Aladdin before I realized he was too tall,” Binsfeld said. “He was only 35½ inches tall, but I still had trouble maneuvering him in the rooms.”

Determined to keep bringing a miniature horse to pet therapy sessions, Binsfeld bought Rosie, in part because she was notably smaller (now standing 26 inches, as measured vertically from the ground to the last hairs of the mane). To date, Binsfeld has owned six miniature horses, with the now-12-year-old Rosie being the smallest of the bunch. Her current group of minis includes Rosie, Jewel, Max and Bunny.

Rosie’s first pet therapy visit was to a De Pere nursing home on Aug. 12, 2008, four days after Binsfeld bought her. Shortly thereafter, she was busy visiting residents at a Denmark nursing home. Rosie then began interacting with patients at Aurora on Sept. 4, 2008, and she has been visiting them every year since. Overall, Binsfeld and Rosie cheer up patients at medical facilities two to three days per week during the visiting season.

“Rosie’s personality is larger than life. She’s just like another person to me,” Binsfeld said, adding with a laugh, “And she loves peppermint candies.”

Binsfeld is a member of the American Miniature Horse Registry, Northeast Wisconsin Miniature Horse Club and the South East Wisconsin Miniature Equine Club. She also has a Facebook page called “Friends of Rosie.”

First-year hemp grower sees challenges, successes

MARSHFIELD — Despite the trials and tribulations of growing hemp, Taylor County farmer Misty Poehnelt says she’s happy she has taken advantage of the opportunity.

“The opportunity to grow (hemp) is something that we have waited for for a long time,” Poehnelt said Nov. 17 at the Central Wisconsin Hemp Expo in Marshfield. “Growing hemp was an opportunity we had thought about years ago when we first bought our hobby farm.”

When the chance to be a part of the Wisconsin hemp pilot program came, Poehnelt and her husband decided to try growing the historical crop on one acre of their land. She said her background in natural therapies and hemp’s connection to cannabidiol, or CBD, oil was the driving force behind their ultimate decision to become growers.

“We talk a lot about snake oils and natural therapies that cure all but are not really real. Well, CBD is the exception. This plant is truly exceptional,” Poehnelt said.

Although she was well-versed in the therapy side of hemp oil, Poehnelt said she didn’t know the first thing about growing the crop.

“I am kind of a serial killer when it comes to plants; I can’t even keep a house plant alive,” she said. “I went to the growers’ conference last spring, and without going to that conference, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to move forward with this crop, especially with the political upheaval that comes along with it.”

Through the growers conference, Poehnelt also was able to find where to buy seed, where to get it processed and network with other growers. She then did a lot of research on how to plant the seeds, using “The Cannabis Grow Bible” as a resource. She found that 280-cell trays would work to start her seeds and, along with her husband, they planted about 1,800 seeds.

“The seed cells are really small, but it allows you to save space when you are growing and starting a lot of seeds. Transplanting was very labor-intensive, too, cutting each plant out of those cells without damaging it and trying to transplant it,” she said.

Of the 1,800 seeds that were planted, Poehnelt said that 50 percent of them will be male and will eventually have to be pulled from the fields in order to prevent the female plants from going to seed. She then got a call from her seed distributor, who said the seed had a low germination rate.

“Now you are looking at there were 1,800 plants seeded and you are only going to get 450 plants if you are lucky,” she said.

Some of their seeds were started in a greenhouse, while others grew in the trays outside. Poehnelt said the big thing about growing hemp seeds in a greenhouse is they don’t like a lot of sun and heat — things that they found hard to control in their greenhouses.

Finally, in August, the family was able to use a water wheel to get their plants into the ground, much later than they would have liked but something that ultimately worked in their favor.

“A lot of people lost their entire crops to the rain we got in June, so us not planting until August I think saved us. Our plants looked really healthy,” she said.

Their hemp was grown on soil that had been chemical-free for more than a decade, something that was really important to the Poehnelts.

“I have chemical sensitivities and so being chemical-free was really important to us. Hemp is also a sustainable crop that requires little to no herbicides and pesticides, uses less water and can be used for soil remediation. It was really important to us as a family to deliver a high-quality product that matched these values,” she said.

In October, Poehnelt, her husband and a few family and friends started harvesting the hemp by hand and hanging them to dry.

“We didn’t realize how much space these plants take when we harvest, so we had to create drying rooms and had to do them in several batches,” she said.

They used dehumidifiers to help dry the plants down, working hard to manage the humidity to avoid having the plants succumb to mold. Once the plants are dried down significantly, which can take anywhere from five days to two weeks, Poehnelt said, they are placed in totes to cure.

“You want an airtight container to cure them in, and you have to check your humidity levels the whole time. The ideal is 62 percent. You can also use these neat humidity bags that will add or take away humidity to keep the plants at the right level,” she said.

The plants were cured for several weeks and then placed in a small, heated press that extracted the terpenes and phytocannabinoids without the use of solvents. Despite the late start getting their fields planted, Poehnelt said they had plenty of hemp oil to use personally, to share with those who helped them and to sell. They currently use the oil to make flour-based foods and skin salves, among other things, but hope to install a commercial kitchen soon so they can make other products.

Poehnelt said that although the whole process is labor-intensive and costly, one of the major costs to remember is the testing required at each step of the process.

“It is $250 to test each variety that you grow. Then, you have to have your products tested because you need to know your CBD content if you want to sell at market. That is what everyone wants to know,” she said.

While they faced many challenges the first year, the Poehnelts said they are glad they jumped into the industry, and they encourage others thinking about it to do the same.

The family, whose business is called Black River Hemp Company, hopes to expand production this next year and renovate their barn haymow into a drying room. Their plan is to continue to build this business and someday be able to pass it on to their two young children.

“If you don’t know what you are doing, just start. We didn’t know what we are doing, but we did it,” she said. “There were multiple times throughout the whole process that we almost threw in the towel because it is time-consuming and it costs a lot of money, but we stuck it out and it turns out we didn’t do too bad.”

Ben Wideman / By Benjamin Wideman  

A Hereford calf cautiously peeked out of a barn on the farm of Joe and Sue Binsfeld in the eastern Wisconsin town of Glenmore.

The Country Today website changes coming

Online readers of The Country Today will notice some changes in the digital version of the newspaper in the coming weeks.

Starting Dec. 3, visitors to our website will be asked to register to be able to read articles at The registration is part of the transition of our website that, starting later this winter, will require an online subscription in order for readers to have full access to every story.

Readers will still have free access to several stories, but for full access to every story, a digital subscription will be required. Subscribers to the print edition and e-edition will have digital access to all website content included with their subscription. Digital-only subscriptions also will be available.

“We understand that news consumers’ habits are changing, with more readers opting to get their news from laptops, tablets and smart phones,” said The Country Today Editor Heidi Clausen. “Paid subscriptions, both print and digital, will allow The Country Today to continue our award-winning journalism as we work diligently to provide information important to the agriculture industry and rural communities throughout the state.”

Trade agreement with China would be 'really big deal' for U.S. dairy

Economist Dan Basse already is hopeful that 2019 will be a better year for the dairy industry, with the potential for a Class III milk price over $17 per hundredweight by late-summer and perhaps $18 by the fourth quarter. But a Trump administration trade deal with China would make the outlook even better.

Renewed trade with China is needed to start the next agricultural demand bull market, according to Basse, president of AgResource Company in Chicago, who addressed a Nov. 21 dairy market outlook webinar hosted by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

Basse said the best the dairy industry likely can hope for out of this week’s trade talks between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping is that negotiations would continue and potentially lead to a trade deal early next year.

“The Trump administration won’t want to head into the 2020 elections with China trade still on its back,” he said.

Basse said U.S. dairy herds remain in liquidation mode, and Wisconsin could lose as many 750 farms this year, but the downside is limited. Milk production is falling more slowly, even amid rising yields per cow. The dairy cow inventory is in retreat, with a bottom of 9.3 million head expected for 2019.

“There’s still more liquidation to work through, but this is part of the process to getting the market to turn around,” he said.

A resolution of issues related to trade and tariffs is needed in order to “brighten the landscape” for dairy producers, he said. “A new demand driver is needed to fuel a lasting bull market.”

The resumption of trade with China is top of mind, especially for industries such as walnuts and cotton, which send almost 80 percent of their production overseas, according to Basse. The U.S. dairy industry ships 15 percent of its production overseas, and as a whole, U.S. farmers export more than a fifth of what they produce.

A China trade deal is even more critical than passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which has about a 25 percent chance of being voted down by Congress, according to Basse. The new farm bill is first on the docket, he said, and there’s hope that it will get passed during the lame-duck session.

The USMCA faces some issues if it’s delayed into next year, Basse said. The old North American Free Trade Agreement remains in place and could be reenacted, but it’s important that Mexico and Canada drop their import duties.

“If Congress doesn’t vote for the USMCA and the Trump administration blows up NAFTA ... it would be very unsettling for markets,” Basse said.

Class III milk prices have been “trapped in a range” of $13.50 to $17 per cwt. for the past three years, he said, but they could finally “break out” of that in 2019. While New Zealand milk production is going strong, Basse said a decline in European Union production and milk powder stocks could bode well for U.S. dairy.

“To turn the milk markets, we need to turn the powder market,” he said. Butterfat demand and prices have been good, but “powder needs to turn,” and it could rise going into the first quarter of 2019.

“This should give us a possibility of milk prices moving slowly higher initially and gaining speed as we head into the summer,” Basse said.

U.S. dairy exports have been growing by about 7 percent this past year, helping absorb some of the record-large supply, he said. This has occurred despite the turmoil with trade and tariffs.

“To have a dairy export market in 2018 that wasn’t down is really relatively exciting,” he said. “I’m bullish on butter and cheese in 2019.”

Other concerns likely to linger into 2019 include the world political and economic “disorder,” including U.S. trade issues, Brexit and “uncertain politicians” such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he said. Agricultural markets likely will be volatile the rest of this year and well into 2019.

“Dynamic politics and economics produce heightened ag market volatility,” Basse said. “These are dynamic political times.”

He also expects changing weather patterns, with increased frequency of flooding and drought, to be of concern in the new year. Climate change is real, he said, and scientists have a better understanding of it. Climate change will produce a globally favorable or unfavorable environment for agriculture, and 2018 was mostly unfavorable, he said.

“Don’t fall back and let feed prices that are cheap, historically speaking, get away from you,” he said.

Dairy producers who buy feed will want to keep a close on feed prices next year, and U.S. corn stocks are down, presenting new margin risk for end users.

“We just don’t see U.S. corn stocks getting back to where they were in ‘16 or ‘17 unless we have a tremendous yield,” Basse said, adding that more U.S. corn acreage is likely to be planted next year, but that doesn’t change the overall landscape of the corn market. He said $3.50-$3.55 per bushel would be a good purchase point to keep in mind.

World meat production is predicted to be at record levels into 2020, and there are no indications that pork, poultry or beef producers are considering ending their expansion plans, according to Basse.

U.S. interest rates are rising on the strong economy, he said, and that economic strength could push the Fed to raise interest rates another one or two times in 2019. The U.S. dollar should peak in the first quarter of next year. The growing global debt is another cause for concern, he said, as it gives the market some anxiety.

“Where will the new stimulus come from?” he said.

Ben Wideman / Photo by Benjamin Wideman  

Aissen Tree Farm grows about 50,000 trees on 70 acres in Kewaunee County. Some of the trees are painted for holiday sales.

salted caramel coconut thumbprint cookies