Editor’s note: For this installment of “Country Matters,” The Country Today reporters take a look at the state of several small-town libraries and what libraries mean to their communities.
COLBY — Libraries are a thing of the past in some people’s minds, but for those living in rural communities especially, they can be the lifeblood of the community. For the Colby community, that is exactly what the new 10,600-square-foot library has become — a mecca for books, movies and other media along with a treasure trove of resources and events to stimulate the community.
Colby Community Library Director Vicky Calmes said she found out shortly after starting the job in 2006 that the current library was not nearly big enough to create the library she thought the community needed.
“About a week into the new position, the mayor visited and asked if the library needed more space, as that was a topic on the city of Colby’s five-year plan. As I was just getting acquainted with the job, I responded no. About a month later as I was struggling to find space for things, I sincerely regretted my previous answer,” she said. “The 2,400-square-foot space was indeed too small to hold my ideas for what a library should be.”
Since 2006, the library has seen a constant increase in circulation of materials, from just more than 30,000 circulations in 2006 to more than 87,000 items circulated in 2018. Realizing they needed more space to meet the community’s needs, Calmes said the Colby Public Library Board of Trustees began looking for ways they could expand the library, with the city also looking at options. After several failed ideas, a pair of anonymous donors met with library and city officials to discuss expansion plans. They pledged $50,000 to conduct an assessment study and cost analysis for a freestanding, new library building with the promise of $450,000 in building funds.
“A space-needs assessment was done. For the size of our community, a 13,000-square-foot building was recommended,” she said.
Land was purchased from the Colby School District for $100 and the current building on that land, which had lead paint and asbestos that needed to be taken care of, was demolished. An income survey was successfully completed for the writing of a Community Development Block Grant, which resulted in receiving a $500,000 grant. This along with $500,000 pledged by the city council and the anonymous donors increasing their funding to $1 million helped fund the project.
“The donors did come forward at our Open House on Feb. 17, 2018. They turned out to be the children of Pearl Vorland — son, Jim and Pam Vorland and daughter, Mary and Allen Singstock. They decided to carry on Pearl’s philanthropic nature to the community of Colby where Pearl had lived through her 100th year,” Calmes said.
Although circulation numbers and the space assessment said there was need for a new library, some people were still skeptical of building a new library, saying books would be obsolete someday. Calmes said the community support was overwhelming however, with over 200 individuals, businesses and families monetarily supported the project.
“Colby, population 1,817, does not have a YMCA or a senior center or a place youth can gather. The Colby Community Library is a place where people of all ages can gather for educational and social interaction,” she said.
The library has two study rooms that are available for students to use to study or social services organizations to meet with clients. It also has a history room, which Calmes said is the focal point of the building.
“Dedicated to Pearl Vorland, it offers the opportunity to step back in time to the Carnegie Library years. The room is filled with CHS yearbooks, newspapers on microfilm from the mid-1800s and a myriad of Wisconsin and local history tomes,” she said.
In addition to the resources available, the library hosts education organizations, story times, a summer reading program, book clubs and community service days that all aim to enrich the community. The facility also has a S.T.E.A.M. playroom available as an educational and social space for children.
The library officially opened in December 2017 and Calmes said the first year saw the library busier than ever.
“If you build it, they will come,” she said. “This adage proved to be 100 percent accurate. (We had) 100 new family library cards added. People that had strayed away from the library came to see what it was like and now have come back. People seem to like our ample space, friendly atmosphere and good selection of materials.”
The library is still not done growing, Calmes said, with plans to build a gazebo in the backyard this summer in memory of Denis Woik, a community member who died of cancer in 2018. There also will be a backdrop of rusty steel, sculptures and plantings added to the outdoor amphitheater to create a more stage environment.
“When we were doing our library construction project, we seemed like the Lone Ranger. There were very few new libraries to tour. But now, there seems to be a revival of library projects,” she said, adding several area communities have since renovated or built libraries.
EAGLE RIVER — Connor Beissel feels right at home in the driver’s seat.
This time of year, that means bundling up and hopping on his Ski-Doo MXZ RS 600 cc snowmobile as a member of the Ski-Doo X-Team Racers.
Connor, 16, of the village of Winter, was among several dozen national and international snowmobile racers who recently traveled here to the northwoods of Vilas County for the 56th annual World Snowmobile Championships.
Throughout spring, summer and fall, he shifts gears and swaps the snowmobile seat for a spot atop a tractor or in one of the two combines at Beissel Farms, a cash crop operation owned by his parents, Dale and Missy.
Last year, the Beissels grew about 700 acres of corn, 700 acres of soybeans, 100 acres of oats and 100 acres of wheat. This year marks their 20th year of farming in Sawyer County.
Connor enjoys balancing his love for farming, snowmobile racing and tractor pulls.
“When it’s really cold out in the winter, sometimes I wish it was warmer like when I’m out in the fields,” Connor said. “But at the same time, when it’s blistering heat out there in the summer I wish it was winter time. I guess I’ve got stuff to keep me busy all year long, whether it’s farming or racing. So I really like that.”
These days, Connor’s focus is on attacking the snocross tracks, which means zipping alongside competitors around an oval course and launching off jumps — sometimes soaring 10 to 15 feet above the snow-packed surface.
“I love flying through the air,” he said. “If I get a rhythm section down really smooth, that makes me happy just knowing I’m improving more, getting faster. Every time I try something new and accomplish it, that makes me feel good. If I beat a guy who used to beat me, I know I’m getting better.”
Competing in the Junior 16-17 and Sport Lite classes, Connor kicks off the race season in November and wraps it up in March. He rides in two circuits, the Great Northern Sno-X Series and the International Series of Champions.
Connor began riding snowmobiles at the age of 3, following in the footsteps of his father, Dale, who began competing in the 1970s and still enjoys riding on a regular basis.
“Without my parents, there’s no way I’d be where I am with racing,” Connor said. “From my dad raising me up riding to helping me out financially with the sled and getting me ready and helping fix things … I’d never be here without him. And my mom is great too. She packs everything for my races, cleans all my race clothes, she puts up with a lot and is really supportive.”
Ski-Doo race director Carey Daku also has provided much-appreciated guidance, said Connor, who last year earned a Most Improved Racer honor.
Dale said his son’s physical and mental fitness are keys to his success.
“He’s in shape, which helps a lot, and he’s a farm kid,” Dale said. “When you have a farm kid, they work hard. And he works very hard.”
Dale started riding at about the age of 12, also following in the footsteps of his father, who took up the sport in the 1960s.
Dale remembers the rigors of competing in the 1977 International 500 snowmobile race from Winnipeg, Canada, to St. Paul, Minn.
“It was unbelievable — 500 miles of riding on snowmobiles back then that didn’t have suspensions and you didn’t know where you were going,” he said. “We did about 150 miles a day. It was a bumpy ride.
Seeing Connor compete, albeit in a different race format, “brings back memories of when I was younger,” Dale added.
The Beissels moved from Minnesota to Winter in 1999 when they bought the farm. Snowmobiling vacations in previous years often included trips to Sawyer County, so the family was familiar with the region.
Connor is a junior at Winter High School, where he also plays on the baseball team in spring. During summer, that competitive nature transfers to tractor pulls, as he powers down the track in a 1974 International 1066.
When he’s not competing in snowmobile races, tractor pulls or baseball games, Connor can be found handling various responsibilities on the farm.
“I do anything from picking rocks to planting corn to harvesting. I can do pretty much anything on the farm,” he said. “I like running the combine mainly, especially when it gets late at night. That’s one of my favorite things, having the lights going and being out there working. Harvest is probably my favorite time … assuming nothing breaks down.”
Connor intends to pursue a degree in agriculture and someday take over the family farm. He wants to keep cash cropping, thus keeping winters open for snowmobiling.
“I want to keep farming, and I want to keep riding,” he said. “If everything goes well I’ll keep doing both.”
MADISON — Brad Pfaff’s family has been farming in northern La Crosse County since the mid-1800s, when they first came to this country. As a youth, he watched the farm provide for his family, both financially and through the ways it was able to shape him into the person he is today; it also gave him strong values and a deep appreciation for rural communities.
“My story is very similar to many of yours,” he told attendees at the Dairy Strong conference last week during his legislative address.
Pfaff has been working as the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for just about three weeks now, putting together his leadership team at what we called “the people’s agency.” He is a strong believer in communication and collaboration, and shared that he believes representatives can work together to find solutions to challenges in the agriculture industry, particularly the dairy industry.
“While we can, and should, debate the policies and contemplate solutions, I believe we can all agree that there’s more that unites us than what divides us,” he said.
Wisconsin is a world leader in dairy, but dairy farmers in the state also contribute just as much locally. The average dairy cow in Wisconsin generates $34,000 each year, supporting local businesses, schools and providing opportunity for those in rural communities across the state. Pfaff assured dairy farmers and industry professionals in attendance that this $43 billion industry will not go unnoticed by himself and his team.
He recognized the dedication of Dairy Task Force 2.0, a group of 31 dairy farmers, industry professionals and stakeholders that have been working on recommendations to maintain viability and profitability as a dairy state. Nine sub-committees have been meeting regularly to discuss research and innovation, regulations, dairy and rural community vitality, a skilled workforce, access to capital, price volatility, food safety and the next generation of dairy farmers.
Task force members are finding areas that can be improved, such as bettering communication across all agencies and between processors and farmers to determine how much milk is needed, keeping people informed about policy and regulatory changes, furthering the study of the impact farms have on rural communities, communicating the tremendous work opportunities in agriculture, assessing the critical need for access to capital for rural processors, and providing the next generation with the right tools during a farm transition.
“There are some major challenges facing our industry,” Pfaff said. “However, I believe the Wisconsin dairy industry is strong. And we become stronger when we come together, when we can communicate, when we can share ideas and when we can try to find opportunities.”
Wisconsin’s dairy industry is highly developed, with no other state offering the concentration of dairy resources and the support network that Wisconsin has, he added. He will continue to advocate for the dairy industry wherever he goes, fueled by the connections among all of those in it — regardless of management types and sizes.
“We need to remember that in dairy, we are one industry,” he said. “One type of agriculture doesn’t have to fail for another structure or type to succeed. We are on the same team, and we have more to gain by building each other up than by taking each other down.”
To Pfaff, Wisconsin agriculture is more than just the volume of raw milk that we produce or the pounds of cheese that are produced, he said, drawing attention to the farm families that milk cows, plant and harvest crops; the rural communities that support them and the rural businesses that service those farms and families.
“To me, connecting the dots is the heart and soul of Wisconsin agriculture,” he said. “It’s the connection between farmers, producers, processors, rural communities — bringing it all together.”
He concluded by asking those in attendance to think about what unites us and what brings us together.
“It is a passion,” he said. “For dairy, for agriculture, for our neighbors and for our rural communities.”
MENOMONIE — If the production agriculture business cycle holds true to past form, the industry is on the edge of recovery and a return to relative stability ahead of the next boom, sometime in the future.
So, where are we in that cycle?
“I don’t know,” David Widmar of Agricultural Economic Insights told farmers attending a Jan. 22 conference hosted by Ag Risk Managers in Menomonie. “We’re all kind of holding our breath; the markets are holding their breath, too. … Will we start recovery in 2019, or are we going to resume the margin squeeze?”
Despite the current uncertainty, Widmar said there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of agriculture.
Widmar said agriculture is in a holding pattern as critical trade negotiations with China, Mexico and other countries continue into this year. Chinese demand for soybeans since increased nine-fold since 2000, and they buy six out of 10 beans globally. Historically, much of that has come from the U.S., but as the trade war lingers, Brazil and other nations are responding to market signals to plant more soybeans.
“It’s concerning, and it leaves the U.S. on a big pile of beans of our own,” Widmar said.
Widmar said beef could be the next big market opportunity in China, as the country’s consumption has recently surpassed their own production. China, now the world’s third biggest beef consumer, is on a trajectory to becoming the biggest in 10 years. Ethanol also will likely be part of the trade negotiations.
Agriculture spends most of its time in stable periods, he said. Over the past 90 years, there have been only three boom eras — just after World War II, in the 1970s with the wheat exports to Russia and about 2013. Wisconsin farm income for 2016 and 2017 was 50 percent lower than during the most recent boom, Widmar said.
“We have spent 2014-18 in an oversupply situation, textbook oversupply,” he said, and demand concerns remain in 2019 and beyond. Although the industry has been working through the oversupply, he said, “the best-case scenario is we return to a stable period. We’re not going back to a boom, in my crystal ball.”
Farm booms are rare and always come to an end, Widmar said, and the industry had a road map for getting through this margin squeeze. That is, until the trade situation emerged last year. Acreage and yields will be key to whether farm income bounces back this year or not until 2020.
While the situation in agriculture, as measured by real net farm income, isn’t as dire as it was in the 1980s, as “we went into this downturn with solid financial footing,” he said, there’s still plenty of cause for concern as there continues to be significant financial erosion.
Widmar said a long stable period likely lies ahead for U.S. agriculture. While stable eras aren’t great, they are “survivable.”
He encourages farmers to know, track and monitor their business’ working capital, calling this the “original risk management tool.” Working capital is how much financial “breathing room” an operation has.
Producers also should have a handle on how much of their income goes into servicing debt. According to his 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the debt service ratio on U.S. farms was 28 percent and the operating expense ratio (such things as feed, seed and fuel) was 71 percent, for a concerning total of 99 percent, which doesn’t leave much for family living expenses, property taxes and depreciation costs.
“There’s not enough revenue at the end of expenses,” Widmar said. “Right now, farms are living off depreciation.”
While agriculture isn’t in a financial “tsunami” as in the 1980s farm crisis, since there’s more of a concentration of debt this time, it’s definitely a steady “drip, drip, drip” and continued erosion, he said.
Of real concern in the farm economy is liquidity, or the ability to service debt and pay bills. Farms with liquidity issues are urged to take immediate action before it becomes a full-blown solvency problem.
Widmar’s five management tips for 2019 include knowing the economics of a farm business. Top farm managers know their cost of production and overall financial situation.
“We have to get better at this,” he said, adding that cost management will be key. “We have to find $1.50 per bushel in the soybean budget; corn looks more favorable but not that much more.”
Producers also must recognize the role of skill vs. luck and not confuse outcomes with the quality of decisions made. Think critically about uncertainties, Widmar suggests. Start with good forecast questions, avoid bias and continually calibrate.
Farmers should think about their business strategically — what investments are needed, when to make them and how to deploy profits — and execute that plan. Avoid stupid mistakes, he said.
“This is a time to focus on not being stupid. Don’t overthink yourself,” he said. “If there’s an opportunity to lock in a profit, this is probably the year to do it. Don’t try to outsmart the market.”
Also during the conference, Fran Felber of Barron-based ARM Services offered his rules for becoming a better grain marketer: Don’t let emotions cloud judgment, be willing to sell cash grain, develop a marketing plan, consider options, use self-discipline and money management, track basis and don’t lift hedges until selling the cash.
He also touted the benefits of the new farm bill for milk producers, as it finally makes milk an insurable commodity.
“The dairy program is wonderful for farmers with under a few hundred cows,” Felber said. “For larger farmers, it depends on how big you get, but it never goes too bad.”
The new Dairy Margin Coverage program, he said, is the Margin Protection Program “on steroids.” On top of that, producers also can use the Dairy Revenue Protection program through Michigan Farm Bureau and LGM-Dairy.
“Which one is better depends on your size and what you’re trying to manage,” Felber said.