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'The perfect place for us to be:' Farm Aid highlights family farmers in America's Dairyland

EAST TROY — As festival-goers made their way to Alpine Valley Music Theater for Farm Aid on Sept. 21, Wisconsin’s soybean fields were beginning to turn a yellow hue and its rows of corn were waving in the wind; black-and-white cows could also be spotted dotting the landscape of America’s Dairyland — the state serving as this year’s host of the festival that combines music and agriculture, shining a spotlight particularly on U.S. family farms.

“On the ride in, you may have noticed the farms you passed and when you’re up on the lawn, you might see a silo off to the side, and it’s a great reminder that we’re here in the middle of farm country and it’s exactly where Farm Aid should be,” said Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid communications director. “We don’t often get this opportunity to bring Farm Aid right to farm country, but this year, as farmers face the challenges they face, this is the perfect place for us to be.”

Due to a variety of factors, farmers across the country have been struggling for the past several years. In 2018, the number of farms fell to its lowest ever in the United States; in Wisconsin in particular, the state is losing three dairy farms each day.

However, highlighting these farmers stories and their perseverance through hard times gives Fahy, and other Farm Aid organizers, reasons for hope.

“These are the folks that feed us,” said Willie Nelson, musician and founder of Farm Aid. “We need them and we need to let them know how much we need them. And if we can help in any way, that’s why we’re here.”

The local efforts of Wisconsin Farmers Union members and their Dairy Together campaign, along with the impact of Green County’s Soil Sisters, an active group of women farmers, were highlighted during a video shown before the music began on Sept. 21. Sarah Lloyd, an agriculture advocate, dairy farmer and Dairy Together supporter, shared her story and what gives her hope, even during difficult times.

“The Dairy Together campaign is about pulling together and we’re building a farmer-led movement, but we need all hands on deck,” Lloyd said. “We need eaters, we need to demand fair prices for farmers, we need our cooperatives to come back and empower their farmer members, we need the retailers — we need everybody.

“When we can get a fair price for farmers, we will see communities thriving and we’ll know we’re moving the needle.”

“When you’re part of something bigger than yourself, things start to change,” added Lisa Kivirist, a Monroe-area farmer and founding member of Soil Sisters. “And when you know you’re on a bigger team and you know we have your back, you take risks and you show up. That’s what we’ve been doing.”

To Kriss Marion, a Blanchardville-area farmer and Soil Sisters member, having an open conversation about agriculture is important as it boils down to food security — if farmers can’t stay on the land growing food, consumers will have to get their food elsewhere and be at the mercy of someone else.

“I think it’s important that we don’t exclude anyone from the farming conversation (either),” Marion said. “We know from Soil Sisters that people at every scale are working hard to do the right thing and provide the right thing.”

Bert and Trish Paris, dairy farmers and grazers in Belleville, milked cows before they arrived at Farm Aid that morning and were featured in another video on regenerative agriculture. The video featured their operation and how they work together to care for the environment, the land and their animals, giving Farm Aid attendees a glimpse into how a family dairy operation in southern Wisconsin operates.

They are especially proud that their daughter, Megan, is returning to their farm. Knowing their daughter wants to come back to the farm and learn from her parents means a lot to the family. She is currently a participant in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program.

“To carry on this tradition, it’s hard to put it into words,” Bert Paris said. “It goes back to my own childhood where I grew up on a dairy farm. I wound up leaving the dairy farm but then I met my wife and we were able to start (farming again).”

The Parises’ hard work, along with the hard work of the hundreds of other farmers who attended the festival, did not go unnoticed by the musicians that travelled to America’s Dairyland to perform and support family farmers.

“I congratulate you for the way you feel about what you do and the harmony you’re living in with the earth because it’s coming forward and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Neil Young, musician and Farm Aid board member.

“I’ve learned a lot sitting here, listening to all of y’all speak. It’s making me more aware,” added Tanya Tucker, who hadn’t performed at Farm Aid since 1985. “I’m just glad to be back in the loop because I think it’s very important.

“Next time I get hungry, I’m going to think of y’all.”

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Annie's Project lends helping hand to women farmers

MENOMONIE — As the number of women who are listed as principal operators of farms in Wisconsin increases, Annie’s Project, a program designed to help strengthen the roles of women in modern agriculture, is coming to Dunn County this fall.

Running six consecutive Tuesdays beginning Nov. 5 and ending Dec. 10 at the Dunn County Community Services building in Menomonie, Annie’s Project is targeted at farm women who have a passion for business and involvement. Regardless of what role they play on the farm or which stage they’re at in their business, all women involved in agriculture are invited to sign up to participate.

The program is designed to help women get their business lifted off the ground or go more in depth with their existing enterprise, said Katie Wantoch, agriculture agent at UW-Extension Dunn County and one of the Menomonie program’s three trained facilitators.

This course will help develop problem-solving, record-keeping and decision-making skills. Participants will learn to address five specific areas of risk: financial risk, human resource risk, legal risk, market risk and production risk. Community building will also be discussed as a course topic.

Participants will get lessons in estate planning, financial planning, personal and business budgeting, insurance products and more throughout the course.

Real Colors training, which demonstrates how your personality impacts the way you interact with others and can give participants insights on how they conduct their business, and a Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate workshop from the University of Minnesota are slated to be part of the course as well.

Including project facilitators, around a dozen speakers are expected to contribute their insight to the course, Wantoch said.

Another goal of Annie’s Project is for participants to be able to network with other farm women who are in similar situations or enterprises.

Women farmers tend to enjoy networking and seeing what other women in similar circumstances are doing, said Wantoch. Women often value the kind of “peer-to-peer education” being offered with Annie’s Project more than their male counterparts, she added.

Annie’s Project aims to provide a stress-free, open environment for women to learn in and share their life experiences with others.

The last session of the course is scheduled to be a “taking care of you” session, where they learn to ensure that they are caring for themselves in addition to their businesses, Wantoch said.

Wantoch added that they are aiming to make their course “a little different, a little unique, fun.”

As 2017 agriculture census indicates, the large number of women who are farming makes this program timely, Wantoch said.

Women also face certain challenges as they pursue what has traditionally been a male role, including sometimes having to work more to gain the respect of their peers in the industry, Wantoch said. Annie’s Project was created to help address these challenges and ensure that women in agriculture have the knowledge they need to succeed at farming.

Launched in 2003 by University of Illinois-Extension Educator Ruth Hambleton, Annie’s Project is a tribute to her mother, Annette Kohlhagen Fleck. The program honors Annie’s entrepreneurship and her goal of raising a family and being an active partner in the family farm operation.

The mission of Annie’s Project is “to empower farm and ranch women to be better business partners through networks and by managing and organizing critical information,” according to the project’s website. The nonprofit organization holds courses across the country.

Compeer Financial and Extension Dunn County are collaborating with Annie’s Project for the program in Menomonie. Two individuals from Compeer Financial will be facilitating the project along with Wantoch.

Wantoch said that both Compeer Financial and Extension “believe in helping out.”

Registration for the course is limited to 20, which serves to “emphasize networking and connection,” Wantoch said.

Interested parties are encouraged to register early, which can be done at compeer.com/annies-project or by calling 844-426-6733. Registration closes when the last space is filled; those who sign up following the close of registration may be put on a wait list. Wantoch added that there has already been “quite a bit of interest,” especially on social media.

Registration for Compeer Financial clients is $50 and for all others is $75, which covers costs of materials, speakers and lunch for all six sessions.

Participants are highly encouraged to attend all six sessions to get the most out of the program.

Questions about the program can be directed to Wantoch at 715-232-1636 or katie.wantoch@wisc.edu. More information about Annie’s Project can be found at www.anniesproject.org.

Brooke Bechen / Photo by Brooke Bechen  

Dustin and Bonnie Voegeli welcomed about 20 visitors to their farm for a field day. They discussed and answered questions about their dairy farm, the cattle lanes they recently installed and how they utilize rotational grazing.

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Caution key to grain bin safety

An adult can be fully engulfed in flowing grain in 20 seconds, but it’s several missteps leading up to that point that can turn that engulfment into a fatality.

“Everyone needs to be doing whatever they can, so they don’t have to go in to these bins,” said Cheryl Skjolaas, UW-Extension’s agricultural safety specialist at UW-Madison. “If you’ve hauled anything out of that bin and it’s crusted over, that means you have that void underneath it.

“The first thing on anybody’s mind has to be trying to find a way to break a crust without having to go in.”

Grain entrapments most often occur when an individual enters a bin during the unloading process and is drawn into a flowing column of grain. Entrapment can also happen when an individual enters a bin in which the surface of the grain has become caked because of spoilage creating either a crust or a wall of freestanding grain or in a grain transport vehicle, according to Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program, which has been documenting and investigating incidents involving grain storage and handling facilities at both commercial and on-farm locations since the 1970s.

In a grain entrapment, a victim becomes buried in grain beyond the point of self-extrication. Engulfment is an incident where the victim is completely buried or submerged beneath the surface of the grain. Approximately half of grain entrapments lead to engulfment, which in turn are almost always fatal.

Purdue University’s Agricultural Safety and Health Program’s 2018 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space-Related Injuries and Fatalities reported that 15 of the 30 victims entrapped in grain last year resulted in a fatality. The 30 fatal and non-fatal grain entrapment cases documented in 2018 represented a 30% increase from 2017, when 23 were recorded.

In 2018, the state with the most documented grain entrapments, fatal and non-fatal, was Iowa with five cases total. This was followed by Wisconsin and Kansas with three, and Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska with two cases each.

On Sept. 19 in the town of Rusk, a Glen Flora man died after being trapped in a corn bin.

Kevin Wiemer, 58, was recovered from the corn bin at the Sheldon Co-op, said Rusk County Sheriff Jeffery Wallace, but life-saving attempts were not successful, and he died at the scene.

Three days earlier, on Sept. 16 in Dallas, a man was trapped in a grain bin up to his mouth in soybeans and was barely breathing when he was rescued.

The Barron County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call at 4:45 p.m. Emergency crews surrounded him with grain bin rescue panels and extricated him from the bin, a rescue that took 20 minutes. He was then flown to a regional trauma center in stable condition.

“This time of year, we’re moving last season’s grain around, getting ready for this season’s grain,” Skjolaas said. “The No. 1 thing with grain storage is maintaining that grain in good condition. As it stays in storage, you can get molding and the potential for crusting, and then we’re using equipment that maybe hasn’t been run in a while.”

Approximately 75% of all documented victims of grain entrapment and engulfment have been farmers, farm employees, and farm family members. More recently, there has been a slightly growing percentage of victims who are employees of commercial grain storage and handling facilities.

The U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has several requirements that must be followed before a worker enters a grain silo: Employers must turn off all power equipment, particularly loaders and augers; any worker entering a bin must be provided a safety harness or a supporting chair; there must be an observer monitoring the bin worker at all times; no one should enter a bin when grain is bridged overhead or built up on the sides; and air must be tested for the presence of combustible or toxic gases.

However, farmers are not required to comply with federal confined space safety regulations.

Skjolaas said some newer storage bins have removable panels that allow farmers to break up the grain from outside the bin.

“If you can’t get that situation resolved from the outside, then you’re making an entry into a confined space,” Skjolaas said. “You’re best to look at it, even in a farm setting, as entering a confined space and take precautions.”

Rescues in grain bin entrapments or engulfments are difficult and can put rescuers at risk. Rescues can involve cutting or punching holes in the side walls of the storage structure, constructing grain retaining walls to extricate partially entrapped victims, and the use of grain vacuums to clear grain from around a victim after a retaining wall or rescue tube has been put in place.

“These are really hard rescue situations, because of the poor lighting and having to come in with ropes,” Skjolaas said. “Any prevention we can do helps not put rescuers in bad situations too.”

Entrapments aren’t the only concern when working inside grain bins, Skjolaas said. Heavy moisture during the growing season can increase the risk of grain dusts and molds for producers and workers during harvest and as the crop is in storage.

“Just working around that grain can lead to respiratory illnesses and feeling sick,” she said. “Watch for dust and mold and put on respirators when cleaning those facilities. If you haven’t got the air circulation, you can be going into an environment high in carbon dioxide.”

Total farmer grain storage reached a record 13.5 billion bushels last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and much of this year’s crop is expected to go into storage as growers wait for prices to improve.

This year’s wet growing season has the potential to create future grain-storage problems too, Skjolaas said.

“When we get those wetter crops that don’t dry down as well as they should, we get in that potential,” she said. “Getting it dried right makes a big difference down the road. Then we don’t have to put a person into it.”

Photo by Steve Kinderman  

Osseo area dairy farmer Ralph Myhre stood surrounded by debris of a collapsed shed Feb. 25 on his Trempealeau County town of Sumner farm.