JOHNSON CREEK — Thirty-five years ago, Bernard and Beverly Walter hosted Wisconsin Farm Progress Days, welcoming thousands of visitors to their farm to learn more about agriculture and to marvel at new technologies introduced into the agricultural world.
In just a few short weeks, the Walters, along with their children and their families, will once again welcome visitors to their farm, this time for the 66th annual Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, the state’s largest outdoor celebration of agriculture, hosted this year by Jefferson County. The theme for this year’s event will encompass “Generations of Farm Pride,” which is fitting for the 62-year-old family operation.
Bernard and Beverly Walter purchased 50 acres in Jefferson County in 1957, with their son, Mike, farming with them. Mike Walter and his wife, Sarah, took over the operation in 1992, and soon their family grew, along with the farm.
What started with 80 cows transitioned into more than 800 head of veal calves, feeder steers and heifers. There was even a time when Mike and Sarah were farrowing 350 sows and selling feeder pigs.
Today, Mike, Brad and Adam Walter work together to cash crop 6,000 acres of owned and rented land, along with operating a custom land tiling business. They are the second and third generations that continue the farming tradition started by Bernard and Beverly Walter, with the fourth generation observing their family and eager to keep agriculture thriving on their farm and in Jefferson County.
“The Walters are our biggest cheerleaders and we’re so fortunate to have a host family that’s so involved,” said Scott Schneider, co-chairman of the Jefferson County Farm Technology Days Executive Committee.
Last Tuesday, June 25, the Walters, along with Farm Technology Days event organizers, were on the grounds of Walter Grain Farms to answer questions from media representatives and watch as elements of the show continued to come together, with June 25 seeing the installation of “street signs” and the arrival of the tents to be raised in Tent City.
“We’re looking forward to a world-class show and putting the county’s best foot forward,” said LaVern Georgson, Jefferson County agriculture agent and Jefferson County Farm Technology Days executive director.
“The site is easily accessible and a prime location in Wisconsin for an event of this importance,” added Jim Schroeder, a Jefferson County board chairman.
Organizers are hopeful the location of this year’s event, nestled between the urban centers of Madison and Milwaukee, will draw a big crowd. They are also throwing a “Block Party” Wednesday evening during the show, which includes extended hours, reduced admission prices after 3 p.m., a beer and wine sampling event, local foods available for purchase and the appearance of well-known Wisconsin comedian Charlie Berens of the Manitowoc Minute, in hopes of drawing in more visitors from urban areas.
The Block Party will be held inside Innovation Square from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24. This is the first time the state has allowed extended hours for Farm Technology Days.
“It’s a great way for non-farming people to come out and see what’s going on and enjoy a nice night outdoors in Wisconsin,” said Greg Sambs of the Innovation Square Committee. “It’s also a great way to enjoy the fruits of Wisconsin agriculture.”
Another first at Jefferson County Farm Technology Days will be an Ag Career Day for area students interested in careers in agriculture. Held on Tuesday, July 23, students will participate in a scavenger hunt to explore career ideas from labor to technology to animals and hear from agriculture advocate Kim Bremmer of AgInspirations on how students can celebrate ag. Peter Curran, who has helped organize the inaugural Ag Career Day, hopes students in FFA, SkillsUSA and 4-H, along with other student organizations, take part in this fun activity.
New field demonstrations are also sure to draw interest from visitors, showcasing the latest in agricultural technology. For the first time in Farm Technology Days history, the Walters will be demonstrating tiling and drainage in one of their fields; another demonstration will show how the family combines for a wheat harvest, a demonstration that hasn’t been done for several years at a Farm Technology Days event.
A self-propelled round baler is another piece of equipment that will be used in a demonstration and should garner special interest from visitors with farming experience.
Jefferson County Farm Technology Days will be held July 23-25 at Walter Grain Farms, W5340 French Road, Johnson Creek. For more information, visit www.wifarmtechnologydays.com/jefferson.
DODGEVILLE — When the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released its final version of the 2019-23 Wisconsin Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, also known as SCORP, it detailed that the No. 1 demand for Wisconsin residents who enjoy being outdoors was more good, quality trails to walk on in their home counties.
Of the more than 20,000 residents surveyed for SCORP, 68 percent indicated they had hiked, walked or ran on trails in the past 12 months, the highest percentage of several outdoor activities that were listed. Walking and hiking is also one of the top five nature-based outdoor activities enjoyed by Wisconsin residents and one that has the most frequent participation by Wisconsin residents as well.
Fortunately, for those who live and enjoy recreation in southwest Wisconsin, a new hiking trail is in the works thanks to the work of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, the land trust for southwest Wisconsin, and its partners.
The proposed Driftless Trail is an approximately 50-mile-long foot-only trail that will connect Tower Hill, Governor Dodge and Blue Mound state parks. Most of the trail would cross privately owned land and potentially connect to other areas of interest in the future.
David Clutter, executive director of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, said the idea for the trail was “a drive home at night idea,” one he thought would be neat to explore as he has three children who also like to hike with him. At that time in late 2015, the conservancy was also working with individuals in the Lowery Creek Watershed to develop a group and with the Department of Natural Resources on ways to connect blocks of land for wildlife and vegetative movement in the Driftless Area.
The trail also fell in line with the conservancy’s mission to connect people to the land and to one another, along with an ambassador landscape policy that allowed for community conservation projects to engage area communities, especially youth.
“We found that the Driftless Trail is an extension of our community conservation work,” Clutter said. “And we really started pitching it around after that.”
Clutter then applied and secured a grant from the National Park Service, which allowed funding assistance during the planning process. Committees were formed and a project coordinator was hired to help schedule meetings and continue to move the project forward.
While the Driftless Area Land Conservancy has taken on ambassador landscape projects before, like the 220-acre Erickson Conservation Area in Argyle, this project is “a little different,” Clutter said.
“This is a big recreation project but also a conservation project to link and provide an amenity for communities,” he said. “Hopefully it can also have an economic benefit for communities as well.”
The conservancy has been working with the Ice Age Trail Alliance to help design and develop a good, quality trail; they’ve also tapped into another resource: a National Park Service employee who lives in the area and helped design and build the North Country Trail, one of the largest trails in the country.
Currently, two conservation easements have already been signed by landowners, allowing the affirmative right to develop a public walking trail on their property. Whether the agreement details a path or a property easement is completely up the landowners, with about 50 different properties being considered for the trail.
“Landowners will be key to the success of the project,” Clutter said. “They are our partners in this.”
The state of Wisconsin will also be another key partner, along with other organizations and individuals with interests in the proposed trail. In the future, Clutter hopes communities and local organizations like FFA, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts will help build interpretive displays and adopt sections of the trail to maintain.
Funding for the proposed trail will be sought from individuals and foundations, as well as state and federal opportunities. Clutter hopes to keep the momentum rolling with the project and get municipalities on board as well, showing them how the trail could build economic benefits for their towns and cities.
In the future, there is hope to link the Driftless Trail with historic and cultural sites, like Cave of the Mounds and Brigham County Park. There has also been discussion about incorporating smaller loops within the larger 50-mile loop so shorter trails could also be explored by hikers.
A number of public information sessions have been held over the years, and outreach continues to landowners, stakeholders and those who enjoy recreation, including residents in Dane County who may use the proposed trail for training purposes or a weekend hike.
“It’s all been positive. We haven’t received negative feedback,” Clutter said. “It’s a private venture with private capital and it ultimately depends on landowners.
“Everyone has said it’s a good idea and a good idea for the community.”
He added that a Driftless Trail section will soon be added to the conservancy website so people can keep up with the project as it progresses. Until then, Clutter recommended anyone with questions about the trail contact him or project coordinator Barb Barzen for more information.
Clutter can be reached at email@example.com and Barzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Both can be reached at the Driftless Area Land Conservancy office by calling 608-930-3252.
Across the country, winter 2018-19 proved difficult for honeybees and beekeepers.
Beekeepers across the U.S. saw 37.7 percent winter loss of their honeybee colonies, according to preliminary results of the latest annual nationwide survey of beekeepers conducted by the University of Maryland-led nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership.
Douglas Sjostrom of Honey Hill Apiary in Maiden Rock said he lost between 40 and 45 percent of his colonies last winter. Sjostrom has about 200 hives scattered around Pierce County with Honey Hill Apiary.
“Each of the last several winters, losses have been high,” Sjostrom said. “It takes all of the profits, just replacing lost bees.”
Final results of the survey, including a state-by-state breakdown, will be released at a later date, but 156 Wisconsin beekeepers representing 18,597 colonies reported a winter loss of 21 percent in winter 2017-18. Minnesota beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies that winter, when nationwide losses came in at just more than 30 percent.
The winter losses in 2018-19 were the highest reported since the survey began 13 years ago and 8.9 percentage points higher than the survey average.
“These results are very concerning, as high winter losses hit an industry already suffering from a decade of high winter losses,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and president for the Bee Informed Partnership, said in a news release.
Honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of food crops in the U.S. each year. Insect pollination is responsible for a third of all the foods we eat with 80 percent of those foods dependent on honeybees.
According to the survey, which has been conducted since 2006, beekeepers lost 40.7 percent of their honeybee colonies from April 2018 to April 2019, numbers that represent a slight increase over the annual average of 38.7 percent.
Since beekeepers began noticing dramatic losses in their colonies, state and federal agricultural agencies, university researchers, and the beekeeping industry have been working together to understand the cause and develop best management practices to reduce losses.
“Just looking at the overall picture and the 10-year trends, it’s disconcerting that we’re still seeing elevated losses after over a decade of survey and quite intense work to try to understand and reduce colony loss,” said Geoffrey Williams, assistant professor of entomology at Auburn University and co-author of the survey. “We don’t seem to be making particularly great progress to reduce overall losses.”
The survey asks commercial and backyard beekeeping operations to track the survival rates of their honeybee colonies. Nearly 4,700 beekeepers managing 319,787 colonies from all 50 states and the District of Columbia responded to this year’s survey, representing about 12 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.69 million managed colonies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Multiple factors are likely responsible for persistently high annual loss rates and this year’s jump in winter losses, the Bee Informed Partnership team said in a news release. A multi-pronged approach — research, extension services and education, and best management practices — is needed to combat the problem, the team said.
“Changes in farming practices have really hurt us a lot,” Sjostrom said. “There’s just not the nutrition out there for the bees. It’s all row crops and no pastures and flowers. They’re not getting the nutrition they need.”
Varroa mites, lethal parasites that spread from colony to colony, are among beekeepers’ main concerns and a leading contributor to winter colony losses, the study’s authors said. Other concerns include land use and environmental factors that may be significant in bee colony loss, including increases in extreme weather.
“We are increasingly concerned about varroa mites and the viruses they spread,” vanEngelsdorp said. “But mites are not the only problem. Land use changes have led to a lack of nutrition-rich pollen sources for bees, causing poor nutrition. Pesticide exposures, environmental factors, and beekeeping practices all play some role as well.”
“The tools that used to work for beekeepers seem to be failing, and that may be evident in this year’s high losses,” said Karen Rennich, executive director for the Bee Informed Partnership and senior faculty specialist at the University of Maryland. “A persistent worry among beekeepers nationwide is that there are fewer and fewer favorable places for bees to land, and that is putting increased pressure on beekeepers who are already stretched to their limits to keep their bees alive.
“We also think that extreme weather conditions we have seen this past year demand investigation, such as wildfires that ravage the landscape and remove already limited forage, and floods that destroy crops causing losses for the farmer, for the beekeeper, and for the public.”
Sjostrom said it’s important for beekeepers to have varroa mites under control going into winter, but even that is no guarantee the colony will survive the winter.
“We try to get the mites under control and make sure the bees have plenty of food to get through, but it goes back to the summer and how stressed they are,” he said. “If the summer was good and productive, they tend to do better in the winter.”
Beekeepers in northern states bring in replacement bees from southern states, where the bees are active all year. But, Sjostrom said, the replacement bees are smaller and weaker and can take a year to get established. That can cut into the year’s honey production, which is ramping up in July.
“Right now, our bees are healthy,” Sjostrom said. “But a lot will depend in the next few weeks what Mother Nature throws our way.”