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Agriculture reacts to coronavirus: Farmers continue work as concerns linger

With cows needing to be milked, livestock needing to be fed and another growing season right around the corner, farmers are responding to the global coronavirus pandemic in much the same way they’ve attempted to weather five years of depressed commodity prices: by continuing to farm.

John Rosenow of Rosenholm Dairy and Cowsmo Compost near Cochrane milks 600 Holsteins and makes enough compost from the farm’s manure solids to sell to 17 states and four foreign countries, he said.

Rosenow has 17 employees between the dairy and Cowsmo Compost. He said he has notices up around the farm alerting workers to the dangers of the coronavirus and he had scheduled an interpreter to come to the farm to discuss with his employees the best practices for avoiding the illness. Otherwise, Rosenow said, business has continued pretty much as usual on the farm, with milk and compost shipments going out as scheduled and parts for equipment repairs being available and able to get to the farm in a timely manner.

“You can envision a whole lot worse,” Rosenow said. “But there’s still the concern about the milk price. It was coming along for a couple months where it actually looked pretty decent, but then this happened.”

Mark Stephenson, director of Dairy Policy Analysis and director of the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability, and John Shutske, Extension specialist in Biological Systems Engineering and director of the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, authored a March 16 paper identifying six possible impacts of COVID-19 on farming.

The potential impacts Stephenson and Shutske identified included an impact on markets and prices due to social-distancing recommendations possibly lessening demand for products and bottlenecks at ports in other countries as ships wait to be offloaded with U.S. dairy and other farm products; supply chains slowdowns and shortages; farmer health; farm workforce disruptions due to either illness or a need to stay home to care for children who are out of school; worker safety and potential shortages of personal protective equipment; and general disruptions to normal life, including school and church closures.

“There are few answers at this point, but we should at least be aware of what may unfold over the next several months,” Stephenson said. “Our own lives are disrupted by the pandemic, but this is insult on injury for our dairy producers.”

Rosenow said that for the time being he is in good shape at Rosenholm Dairy and Cowsmo Compost, but that some supplies could become difficult to restock if the pandemic continues for some time.

“We can’t buy dust masks. We can’t buy milking gloves. But we do have a good supply of toilet paper,” Rosenow said with a chuckle.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a March 17 news release that farmers continue to work to ensure the United States food supply chain remains strong in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“Food is essential all year round, but in the face of a pandemic it is critical the shelves remain stocked and supplies remain plentiful,” Perdue said. “America’s farmers and ranchers, and those on the front lines in the food service industry are doing their part.”

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski said DATCP would be meeting and would provide updates on issues including workforce challenges in order to make sure the food supply chain has the workers it needs to remain in action.

“I have heard from several farmers in my district who are concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on milk hauling, supply chains and food processors,” state Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said in a news release.

“As in any wide-scale crisis, there are rumors floating around the industry. The bottom line is that food supply security is one of the top priorities for our state at this time and we are doing all we can to protect, encourage and support farmers, processors, transportation and production.”

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation recommended in a March 18 news release that farmers consult DATCP’s COVID-19 Toolkit at https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/News_Media/Covid19.aspx. This toolkit includes a checklist that farmers should review for their own businesses.

“During this time of many unknowns we realize that farmers will face challenges. We ask farmers to be patient with businesses’ decisions to protect employees by modifying hours or protocols,” Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Joe Bragger said. “Be proactive to the best of your ability. Call the folks you work with to see how things are changing so that you can be prepared. I like to say, plan for the worst and hope for the best, and that’s exactly what we should be doing right now.”

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak and guidelines from Wisconsin Department of Health Services, UW-Madison, and federal agencies, UW-Extension offices may have limited availability and access for several weeks. UW-Extension Dunn County Agriculture Agent Katie Wantoch said UW-Extension educators are working remotely and many of Extension’s events have been postponed or canceled, including many 4-H club meetings and events.

“Educators are increasing our efforts to learn and teach over webinar platforms, such as Zoom,” said Wantoch, who started telecommuting on March 16. “Many of us have a list of activities that we hoped to get done on a rainy day. I guess that day is now.”

UW-Extension sent out a mailing in early March with information for farms and ag businesses to provide resources and information regarding coronavirus that can be found at https://dunn.extension.wisc.edu/files/2020/03/COVID-19onFarm.pdf.

Wantoch said she recently recorded a presentation that she taught during the Cultivating Your Farm Future workshop, “Top Ten Things to Consider during Farm Succession.” She said the 10 short videos will be available soon on the Dunn County Extension social media pages and the Extension Farm Management Topic Hub site, https://farms.extension.wisc.edu.

“Educators are looking for ways like this to continue to deliver our programming to clientele,” she said.

As coronavirus concerns were taking off in early March, the 2020 Farm Technology Days Executive Committee met several times to discuss any potential impact on the July 21-23 show at Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire County. John Leary, Executive Committee chairman with Wisconsin Farm Technology Days 2020 in Eau Claire County, said the Executive Committee is working closely with the Eau Claire County Health Department to monitor the situation and make any adjustments deemed necessary for a safe and healthy show in July.

“The health and safety of all our attendees, volunteers, and exhibitors from across Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota is our primary concern,” Leary said. “Based on everything we know right now we are moving forward with planning for a great show for our exhibitors and attendees at Huntsinger Farms in Eau Claire.”

The Executive Committee will update exhibitors by May 1 of their plans, he said.

Rosenow said he has had presentations at several meetings canceled due to concerns about the size of gatherings. But, he said, for most farmers, he didn’t expect social-distancing recommendations to become much of an issue.

“When you live in a rural area, you can go for a walk and not see anybody,” he said. “On the farm, you can keep yourself busy.”

PDPW keynote: There's never been a better time to be an innovator

MADISON — When organizers began their work on the 2020 PDPW Business Conference, they had a much different vision in mind for how they’d deliver their conference experience. Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, PDPW staff quickly adapted, opting to take their anticipated business conference virtual, inviting registered attendees to click a link to watch presenters speak on a variety of topics during their scheduled two-day event March 18 and 19 at the Alliant Energy Center.

Doug Hall was this year’s keynote speaker for the first day of the business conference, energizing listeners with ways to capitalize on recent downtime and focus on building resilient and groundbreaking cash-producing ventures. Hall is the founder and chairman of Eureka! Ranch International, a think-tank that delivers a complete system of innovation from creation to commercialization; he also dabbles in other business ventures and is a chemical engineer by education, a lecturer, best-selling author and TV and radio host.

He started his presentation by telling attendees that there are no magic solutions, guarantees or gambles involved when breaking down his seven pathways for igniting profitability; however, he hoped his session would give those listening “the spark” they need to ignite new ideas.

“None of these are baby steps. They are transformative thoughts,” Hall said. “But there has never been a better time to be an innovator.”

He explained his first pathway for igniting profitability is to focus on a product that is “meaningfully unique,” which can be pretty easily measured by assessing what the potential customer will pay for the product and asking them how likely they are to buy that product.

Hall used the example of Brain Brew Custom Whiskey, a company he also founded. He acknowledged the whiskey industry is one built on traditions and the natural way of doing things, much like the dairy industry, but stressed the importance of creating whiskey that had that meaningfully unique factor.

At Brain Brew Custom Whiskey, they found that 70% of the flavor of barrel aged whiskeys comes from the wood used to flavor the beverage, so Hall started thinking of ways they could add value to the whiskey through the use of different wood flavors. Four thousand experiments later, he said the company started winning major awards, even catching the eye of a competitor that reached out for a collaboration project.

“It’s so meaningfully unique that it’s radically different than others that are doing it,” he said.

There are a lot of beliefs out there on how dairy producers should dairy, but they need to assess which beliefs they can break and create something totally new, a transformation, he added.

Hall’s second profit pathway included looking at system innovation. Ninety-four percent of failures are due to the system, while 6% are due to the worker, he said, so taking a look at how all the elements of your system work is a good idea. Become smarter by starting a plan and looking closely at your offerings, your finances, research and development, sales, marketing, legal, leadership, human resources and manufacturing, if applicable.

He argued in his is third profit pathway that producers need to focus, focus, focus. Perhaps the producers look at a specific highly targeted audience and offer a product to them; if the product is meaningfully unique, that audience will begin to tell others about that product.

Using his experience in the whiskey business as an example, Hall referenced Macallan Whisky, marketed heavily to a wealthy audience only. Because the business has something unique to offer a very specific audience, it tends to sell relatively well.

For his fourth pathway, Hall explained how transforming the cost and benefit to the customer can advance profitability.

“The secret is a double shift, driving the cost and the benefit. Do it at the same time,” he said.

Doing this allows a restart and reboot to the innovation curve, he added.

He used the lobster industry in the northeastern U.S. as an example. Lobster is already really expensive and at the whims of the market, but those in the industry found that adding anything to lobster, or adding lobster to anything, such as quiches, soups, etc., profitability on that product increased. The same can be said for Planters peanuts, Hall said, as the company adds chocolate, more types of nuts and snack mixes to their line of products.

His fifth profitability pathway focused on “turning a valve into a pump,” asking listeners to think of their path to end users as a system of valves. In the prescription drug industry, those valves may include doctors, nurses and insurance companies; if the drug inventor can get even just one of those “valves” to support their product, they will talk to others about the benefits.

In the bourbon business, this means connecting with bartenders and bars, thought leaders and customers, engaging them enough so they become a “pump” and pull the product through the system. In addition, Hall said there could be opportunities to add value with those valves and pumps as each one may have a unique problem that could be solved through innovation with your product.

It’s important to grow new customers or occasions, as outlined in Hall’s sixth profitability pathway. Profitability is much greater when businesses seek new customers as opposed to focusing only on growing demand for existing customers as “new customers drive interest.”

And finally, for his seventh profitability pathway, Hall said producers must look at their business model and make changes if things aren’t working.

“The business model is how you earn your revenue,” he said. “Figure out ways to change the model.”

For Hall in the bourbon business, this meant creating a Bourbon Wizard app that helps customers blend their whiskeys, which are then sold directly to the customer. He is also looking at franchising his business as opposed to building craft distilleries.

It will come down to changing the way things have been done, which can be hard for producers and business owners alike. But Hall said even in a crazy world, he’s optimistic as there’s never been a better time to be an innovator, ending his presentation with this quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Up sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.”

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Shut down: Rural schools react to mandated closures

When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced all public and private K-12 schools would be mandated to close Wednesday, March 18, through Monday, April 6, amid COVID-19 news, school staff across the state immediately began to prepare for what was ahead. They couldn’t have predicted this — or that Evers would announce just four days later that all schools will remain closed indefinitely.

“Kids and families across Wisconsin often depend on our schools to access food and care,” Evers said in a press release. “We are going to continue working to do everything we can to ensure kids and families have the resources and support they need while schools are closed.”

Many resources are available online through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for schools as they navigate through this unprecedented time. School districts have also been providing information to parents and students on this “new normal,” with some relief coming to administrators in the form of a waiver to the state mandated hour requirement while schools are closed.

“The DPI is taking action to remove barriers that may be in the way of our schools and students during these trying times,” said State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. “I am proud of our schools and communities, who remain focused on providing continuity of learning, and providing meals and other resources to students who may need them.”

Before the waiver was announced, districts began plans to use “distance learning” as much as possible to meet those hour requirements outlined by state statute.

In the Barneveld School District, which services 438 students in a K4-12 setting in south-central Wisconsin, a survey was being circulated to better understand how many students had access to the internet as the district prepared to use digital learning. Questions included if the household had internet; how they connected to the internet, whether dial-up, DSL, cable, satellite or a cellular hotspot; and how strong the internet connection is at their home.

The district anticipated “digital learning days” to begin March 30 and asked parents to continue checking their email for updates. Barneveld School District already uses learning management systems to engage students and their families, with teachers adding assignments to an online portal accessible by others in that particular classroom. They’ve also been building a one-to-one technology program in the district for the past several years, with each student assigned an iPad to complete school work and enhance learning opportunities in the classroom.

Similar to other districts around the state, families were also encouraged to pick up materials prepared by staff at the school early last week. Only one person per family was allowed to enter the building to pick up the materials and had to adhere to scrub in and scrub out sanitation policy.

“We really appreciate your patience and understandings as we work through these planning stages,” said Erin Eslinger, K-12 principal at Barneveld School.

Staff and administration in the Mineral Point Unified School District, home to 763 students K4-12 in southwest Wisconsin, held a Virtual Learning Day for middle and high school students on March 3 in the event distance learning was needed due to inclement weather days. They had no way of knowing their “test run” of the technology would give them a “leg up of sorts” during this situation.

“We had left for the day on Friday, March 13, with no idea (Gov. Evers’) announcement was coming. I got home and heard it on TV — my superintendent was just as taken aback as I was,” said Joelle Doye, communications director for the Mineral Point Unified School District.

Their initial plan, like many rural districts across the state, was to bring students in on Monday and Tuesday, with the school closure going into effect on Wednesday at 5 p.m. However, after holding emergency administrative and school board meetings and meeting with local physicians, it was their recommendation to not bring students back to school at all the week of March 15.

Doye has been using multiple modes of communication with students and parents, including a mass alert notification system which can send phone calls, emails and text messages. Updates are also posted regularly on Facebook and Twitter, sent to the local newspaper as warranted and a designated webpage has been created to serve as a hub for all COVID-19 information and announcements impacting the school district.

“I actually think we have some amazing opportunities in a small, rural district,” said Doye.

An investment in one-to-one technology over the last several years had paid off, with each high school student taking home a district-provided MacBook and each middle school student taking home a district-provided Chromebook. Elementary students were also given the opportunity to check out an electronic device if they needed one; however, the district does not have enough to provide one to every elementary student.

Students without reliable internet access at home could also check out a mobile hotspot called a Kajeet.

Charter Communications also announced it would be offering free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a broadband subscription through the company. If available in your area, interested parents and students can call 1-844-488-8395 to enroll, with installation fees waived for new student households.

“One thing we take great pride in is building relationships with our students and families,” Doye added. “We truly have a family feeling and we have no doubt that our staff will do whatever it takes to not only keep the e-learning going but also the e-loving for all students while we are apart.”

This family-oriented feeling of a rural community extends further than the school, which often serves as the hub of a small town. While the Mineral Point Unified School District will make available brown bag grab-and-go lunches and breakfasts each weekday until April 3 for any child 18 years or younger, regardless of whether they attend school in the district or not, churches and local non-profit organizations like the Pointer Pantry have also stepped up to fill the meal need for students and families.

“I have had countless parents and community members reach out to me, asking what they can do to help,” Doye said. “I have no doubt our community will continue to be supported throughout these uncertain times.”

Additionally, the Mineral Point Unified School District board unanimously supported the administration’s recommendation to continue to pay the district’s hourly employees through the April 5 shutdown, with plans to re-evaluate if the closure goes longer for a possible extension. It’s just another way the district is showing support for its students, staff and the community at large, Doye said.

For parents who may be off of work and at home with their children during this time, public libraries and local organizations like Family Connections of Southwest Wisconsin have been sharing ideas on their social media pages for engaging learning opportunities that can be explored at home. Public school teachers, who are also now home from work during the mandated closure, have been offering tips on social media as well.

Sarah Fox, a family doctor at the Mineral Point Medical Center, has also been providing updates to those living in rural southwest Wisconsin via Facebook.

“Schools closing will slow down the infection rate, but only if people follow the recommendations to limit social gatherings while those closings are in effect,” she said. “If we separate large groups of children for a prolonged period, the initial infection rate will slow and will allow for time to ramp up testing and catch up with the data of what works and doesn’t work in treatment of this new virus.

“Stay at home — outside time is a good idea, but if there are other people outside with you and your kids, keep a safe distance.”

A record number of bald eagle nests were found statewide in 2018.