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A team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tests ice thickness on Feb. 17, 2016, on Lake Pepin, trying to get an estimate for when the first towboat might break through to St. Paul to open the season.

A star is born
Barron man who rose to fame on 'The Voice' values his rural roots

BARRON — Even as his star continues to rise following his runner-up finish on “The Voice” last month, singer/songwriter Chris Kroeze says his feet will remain firmly planted in his hometown of Barron.

“I don’t want to live anywhere else,” Kroeze, 27, told The Country Today in an interview at the Rolling Oaks Restaurant and Lounge on Barron’s west side. “This is where I want to be.”

Kroeze said he owes a debt of gratitude to his farming community, and small towns throughout Wisconsin and elsewhere, for their votes each week that helped propel him to the final four on “The Voice,” a vocal competition on NBC.

“The rural vote was huge,” he said, but “it goes both ways. It’s cool for the town and the community I grew up in to have someone on TV representing that, and for me, it was really cool.

“If you live in New York City and make it onto a team on ‘The Voice,’ it’s not a big deal. Around here, it gets around a lot quicker; people support each other a lot more.”

“The Voice” features five stages of competition, starting with the blind auditions and ending with live performances. Country music star Blake Shelton picked Kroeze in the blind auctions for Team Blake and mentored him throughout the competition.

“I got to know him and Kelly (Clarkson) well,” Kroeze said. “Both are very down-to-earth.”

Kroeze, who’s set to release an album in February, said Shelton, a “like-minded” country boy from a small town in Oklahoma, is “exactly what you see on TV,” and they keep in touch. Kroeze said he’ll also stay connected to other musicians he met on the show.

“The whole thing was super awesome,” he said. “It’s something I’ll always remember positively. It was a ton of fun. I’m glad It’s over, though.”

While Kroeze plans to continue living in Barron with his wife, Mara, and their two young children, he knows full well that his life will probably never be the same. Even running errands in his hometown is different.

“A lot of people come up and take pictures and say hi,” he said. “It’s all good, though.”

He said he’s still trying to navigate his newfound fame. Last week, he performed the National Anthem at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison one day, visited Kwik Trip headquarters the next and recorded lines for about 30 radio shows, among other tasks.

Ditching the city life

Raised about five miles west of Barron, Kroeze said his dad gave him his first guitar when he was 6. He started singing at about 13 years old. His dad drove truck for Indianhead Holsteins, owned by the Bob and Karyn Schauf family, and that’s how Kroeze got to know their sons, fellow musicians.

After high school, he started playing in local bars and continued with that through his college years in Minneapolis, where he studied audio production and engineering.

“I made enough money to pay my rent,” he said. “It kind of became something I could live off.”

Kroeze said he’s been a full-time musician since he was 20. He and his friend and manager, Zach Schauf of Indianhead Renewable Forest Products, have made numerous trips to the Middle East to perform for military troops. Kroeze hopes to take more of those gigs when he gets the chance.

Going on the road has meant a lot of time away from home, and launching a music career often is either “feast or famine” financially, he said.

Living for three years in Minneapolis revealed to him that city life wasn’t for him, and he returned to Barron. He got another taste of it during his participation in “The Voice,” as he lived in a hotel in Burbank, Calif., for about five months.

While Kroeze was happy to move on in the competition each week, it meant spending another week in Los Angeles for publicity events, rehearsals and wardrobe fittings. His family visited a couple of times.

By the end, he said, “I was ready to come home.”

Kroeze said he was invited to audition for “The Voice” after someone with the show saw a video of him. He was one of about 40,000 people who auditioned for this season and spent a month in L.A. preparing for the blind auditions. The competition is narrowed down to 48 singers chosen for the four teams.

“To end up in the top two spots was crazy,” he said. “The whole time you’re out there, you don’t know if you’re going to make the show, make a team.”

Kroeze said he was pleased that he could use his platform on “The Voice” to bring nationwide attention to the search for Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old Barron girl who disappeared last October.

“It’s something I could do,” he said. “It was just the right thing to do.”

Tuning in to watch Kroeze also provided a welcome diversion for the hurting Barron community. Almost three months after Jayme’s disappearance and the murder of her parents, the teen was found alive late last week near Gordon.

Kroeze said he hopes his appearance on “The Voice” will inspire other musicians from small towns in Wisconsin and other states to take a chance and pursue their dreams.

“It was definitely a crazy ride,” he said.

He plans to continue performing for small-town audiences, starting with several performances in late February in Barron. In early March, he’ll perform in Whitehall, with proceeds benefiting the Whitehall FFA Chapter.

Kroeze said he’s taking it one day at a time, and while he knows he may have to travel more as his music career takes off, he’s adamant about keeping his home base in Barron — and doing a little fishing as time allows.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s no reason I can’t drive to Minneapolis and fly where I want to go.”

Mattons prepare for 65th state OYF event

Farmers don’t often ask for recognition, but Cindy Matton knows how meaningful it can be when they do receive recognition for their hard work.

Giving that recognition is why Cindy and her husband, Harold, have remained heavily involved in organizing the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer Program for the past 15 years.

“Especially as of late, we’ve seen the numbers dwindling of young farmers, and farmers in general, not being able to hang onto their farms due to the economy,” Cindy said. “I think that they should be appreciated and at least awarded thanks for what they do in hopes that that might keep them active in their farming.”

The 2019 Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer Awards Weekend will be Jan. 25-27 at the Comfort Suites of Johnson Creek. This is the 65th anniversary of the event in Wisconsin.

This year, there are eight finalists for the award: Evan Hillan, a dairy farmer from Ladysmith in Rusk County; Scott Laeser and Chelsea Chandler, organic vegetable farmers from Argyle in Lafayette County; Tony and Katie Mellenthin, corn and soybean farmers from Eau Galle in Pepin County; Ryan and Tasha Schleis, dairy and steer farmers from Kewaunee in Kewaunee County; Adam and Christina Seibel, organic dairy farmers from Bloomer in Chippewa County; Brody and Carolyn Stapel, dairy farmers from Cedar Grove in Sheboygan County; Mark and Cari Stoltz, dairy farmers from Muscoda in Richland County; and Jon and Holly White, dairy farmers from Edgar in Marathon County.

The Mattons have been involved with the Outstanding Young Farmer program for 13 of the past 15 years, Cindy said. The Eau Claire couple do not farm themselves, but they understand the work that goes into the profession.

“I did grow up on a farm, so I have a little bit of experience and know the kind of work it takes to farm,” Cindy said.

The Mattons got started with the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer Program in the early 2000s, when the Wisconsin Jaycees organized the event. The couple stuck with the program even after the Wisconsin Jaycees stepped away from organizing the event.

“A couple of us decided to do what we could do to continue the program so that these farmers could be recognized,” Cindy said.

Daphne Holterman of Rosylane Holsteins in Watertown credits the Mattons with keeping the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer program viable for the past nearly two decades.

“Harold and Cindy are the glue that holds the program together, year after year. It is only because of them that our state OYF program has continued through the years,” Holterman said. “They just stepped up — no one had to ask them, no one had to recruit them. They are the kind of people that see a great program, take pride and ownership of it — even though they have no direct ties to farming — and just run with it.

“They just clicked with the program and see how it helps young farmers gain confidence and connect with each other.”

Holterman and her husband, Lloyd, were named Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer winners in 1993 and went on to win the National Outstanding Young Farmer award in 1994.

“We met some fantastic farmers who were previous participants and state winners. We learned from them, and they often mentored us early on in our careers,” Holterman said. “The group tends to share openly with each other about challenges faced and how they were overcome. This is invaluable and with an open mind, gives you as a young farmer, ideas to improve your farm business and better your family, too.”

Holterman stayed involved with OYF as a state program manager with the Jaycees, a position that showed her the importance the role OYF played in participants’ lives.

“I remember reading some of the comments on the surveys we did to help us improve the program. As I read some of them, tears were streaming down my face, as some couples had heartfelt comments about what this one weekend event did for them. And the people they met made an impact on them, and they realized they weren’t alone,” Holterman said.

The OYF award is based on 50 percent progress in agriculture, 25 percent soil and water conservation and 25 percent contributions to community, state or nation. The purpose of the OYF program, according to organizers, is to foster better urban-rural relations through the understanding of farmers’ challenges, as well as the appreciation of their contributions and achievements; to bring about a greater interest in farmers/ranchers; to help build an urban awareness of the farmers’ importance and impact on America’s economy.

The OYF candidates are sponsored to the state event by local agricultural groups and businesses. The awards weekend allows the candidates to network on farm and family issues at the two-day event and they will participate in an “Agricultural Forum.” The group will also tour McFarlandale Dairy and Berres Brothers Coffee.

“One really good thing with this program is participants are able to meet up with other farmers who might be in the same boat, or maybe they’ve gone through some of the experiences they’re bumping up against now,” Cindy said. “Maybe they can give each other a little bit of support and help or ideas how to get out of the problems they might be seeing.

“It’s really nice for that networking for them. And it also gets them away from their farm for the weekend. Farmers don’t take time off, because there’s nobody to do the work for them.”

The 2019 state OYF winner will be named Saturday evening at the finale banquet. Also recognized will be a first runner-up, second runner-up and a “Speak up for Ag” winner, which is sponsored by The Country Today.

The state winner will be nominated to attend the February 2020 national OYF Awards Congress.

In its 64-year history, the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer program has had 18 national winners. Wisconsin has had national winners the past two years. Last year’s state winner, Andy Fisher of Reedsville in Manitowoc County, is a finalist this year, and the Mattons plan to make the trip to Iowa to watch the Feb. 7-10 event.

“It’s very rewarding to get to meet the farmers personally one-on-one and get to know them,” Cindy said. “We have created many lifelong friends just from this program. It’s pretty amazing.”

Brown County Fair's Buechel crowned Fairest

WISCONSIN DELLS — According to Isabella Haen, 2018 Wisconsin Fairest of the Fairs, the word “fair” is so much more than its definition in the dictionary. To Haen, the fair means food, faith and farming; it means learning and spreading the word about agriculture. Fairs also inspire those who attend and those who volunteer; and fairs are an opportunity to tell the real stories of those in the agricultural field.

“Go out and find your definition of ‘fair’ and share your real story,” she said Jan. 9 in her farewell address at the Wisconsin Association of Fairs’ Awards Banquet and Fairest of the Fairs Finals.

But as Haen’s Fairest of the Fairs story ended that evening, a new fair story began with the crowning of Meghan Buechel of the Brown County Fair, who will serve as a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Association of Fairs in 2019, representing all 76 Wisconsin county and district fairs.

“I’m so honored and excited to serve as 2019’s Wisconsin Fairest of the Fairs,” she said. “It’s crazy to have won but crazy exciting.

“To be representing Wisconsin’s fair industry leaves me speechless.”

Buechel’s passion for the fair began 13 years ago as a young girl in the show ring exhibiting sheep and swine at the Brown County Fair. She has exhibited 13 different project types through her years of involvement in 4-H and FFA, adding that her participation in the fair has always been one of the highlights of her years growing up.

“These projects have taken me down a road of learning responsibility, shown me the fruitful products of hard work and the importance of learning something new to become better each year,” she said.

Upon graduating from Wrightstown High School, Buechel began attending UW-La Crosse, where she is currently a junior studying microbiology and pre-occupational therapy. She has ambitions to graduate from UW-La Crosse in 2020 and be admitted into graduate school for occupational therapy.

She is currently employed in the UW-La Crosse microbiology lab as a lab assistant and also works at Gundersen Health System as a rehabilitation technician.

She is the daughter of Bill and Jen Buechel of Wrightstown.

In her opening speech at the awards banquet, Buechel spoke of her connection to her clients, who have taught her the only limitation one can have is a poor attitude.

“Working in therapy settings, especially those involving persons with varying abilities, has brought me so much joy in the past and continues to do so today,” she said. “This passion of mine is rooted deep within me, which is why I dream of becoming an occupational therapist.”

Just this past year, Buechel participated in volunteer work as a physical activity mentor for people with disabilities, volunteering to assist at a special needs group called “Picky Eaters Anonymous” and assisted children receiving horse therapy at an equine center.

As this year’s Brown County Fairest, Buechel was even able to cross her career with her role as Fairest, escorting a group of clients from a local adult day service facility — her personal VIP guests — around the fair on an outing of theirs.

“It was the most heartwarming, personal thing that I have done as Fairest, and a memory I will hold dear to my heart forever,” she said.

While becoming an occupational therapist is a goal of Buechel’s, another goal of hers is to remain involved at her local fair. And while becoming Fairest was a great first step toward that goal, Buechel has other ideas too.

“I would love to stay involved by promoting the fact that ‘fairs are for all,’” she said. “Part of this goal includes working with fair board members to create a ‘Special Abilities’ division at the Brown County Fair.”

As Brown County’s Fairest, she logged more than 1,000 miles and attended nearly 30 events for a total of 166 hours. She said she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to spread her own fair story and loved having the chance to tell others why they should love telling their own stories too.

In her new role as Fairest of the Fairs, Buechel is looking forward to meeting a whole score of new people from all around Wisconsin.

“This state is pretty great and I can’t wait to see what it all has to offer, especially the people,” she said.

She wanted to thank her family, friends and boyfriend for their support and help as she prepared for the competition, as well as Brown County representatives Kevin Ress and Nicole Nohl.

“It has been an honor to work with Meghan and see the world through her eyes,” said Nohl, who serves as the Brown County Fairest of the Fair program coordinator. “I’m thrilled for the journey she will embrace this coming year as she connects with people throughout the state.”

Sharla Boehlke of the Ozaukee County Fair was named this year’s runner-up. Boehlke is a junior at UW-Madison, studying nutritional sciences with an emphasis on dietetics. She was active in her 4-H club as a youth and continues to give back by serving in various capacities, including as a 4-H youth summer camp counselor and adult volunteer.

Following Boehlke as second runner-up was Northern Wisconsin State Fair’s Molly McIlquham, a senior at UW-River Falls studying soil science. She has ambitions to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and to share her passion for soil health with others in the future.

The third and fourth runners-up were Morgan Rynish of the Outagamie County Fair and Emily Ranke of the Fond du Lac County Fair. Other Fairests who made the top 10, in no particular order, included Kaylie Schnelinske, Sheboygan County Fair; Emily Matzke, Lodi Ag Fair; Avonlea Odling, Walworth County Fair; Tori Timme, Marquette County Fair; and Kellie Kjeseth, Polk County Fair.

Signs of the times
Retired milk hauler enjoys collecting dairy, seed signs

MEEME — Richard Schwartz spent his entire career working in agriculture-related jobs.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that even in retirement much of his free time is devoted to agricultural endeavors.

Schwartz, 73, worked as a milk hauler for 55 years until hanging up the keys for good last August. But he hasn’t stopped collecting old dairy and seed signs, a hobby he took up in 1987.

“I started getting interested in signs when I was picking up milk down by Silver Creek west of Random Lake (in Sheboygan County), and the fellow there had quite a bit of milk,” Schwartz said.

“In those days the pumps didn’t pump very fast. So while I was waiting I walked up the hill and looked in the shed and saw this nice Golden Guernsey sign. That’s what got everything going.”

That gold-colored sign now hangs in Schwartz’s storage building, alongside about 180 other dairy-related signs and another 30 or so seed signs.

The signs completely cover the walls in two large rooms inside the building and have spilled over into floor space. Perusing the walls reveals an array of colors, fonts and illustrations, ranging from well-known to not-so-well-known businesses.

There’s AMPI, Darigold, Lake to Lake, Dean Foods, Land O’Lakes, Swiss Valley, Branch Cheese, Western Cheese, Potts Blue Star Cheese, Tolibia Cheese, Schneider’s Cheese, Alto, Baker Cheese, Auricchio Cheese, White Clover, Trega. Arla and Borden’s.

And that’s just a portion of one wall. The list goes on and on.

Most of the signs originated in eastern Wisconsin, with perhaps 15 to 20 percent coming from places he knew from his decades-long milk routes. Some signs were bought, while others were given to him.

“I like picking them up because they’re part of the history of the area,” Schwartz said. “You look around and half of the plants are out of business and other ones are merged into another company. It’s the evolution of the dairy industry I guess. I’m just trying to keep alive some of that history from the way things used to be.”

Schwartz was born in Manitowoc and lived in the Manitowoc County towns of Liberty and Schleswig before buying his current town of Meeme home in 1982. Previous property owners restored horse-drawn wagons and operated a pony farm, while earlier owners used the land for dairy farming.

Schwartz was initiated into milk hauling as a teenager in 1963 while working on a dairy farm north of the nearby town of Osman.

“The farm I was working on, their son wasn’t married at the time,” Schwartz said. “He had a neighbor girl he was dating and he also drove milk truck. On weekends he’d take his girlfriend back to Milwaukee for nursing school, and that’s how I got into milk hauling ... because they needed somebody to pick up milk at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

For the next 55 years, Schwartz hauled milk either on a part-time or full-time basis until retiring for good this past August. During his years hauling part-time, he simultaneously maintained full-time employment at various jobs relating to agriculture in some fashion.

“The hauling was nice income to have, and I liked the camaraderie with the farmers and plant personnel I met,” he said. “I think I ended up picking up milk in 17 different counties and probably hauling milk to about that many dairy plants too.”

Over the years, Schwartz received an occasional helping hand from his sister, Linda Scholten, in acquiring old signs.

“I like signs too, so I figured why not help him if he needed a little help getting some,” she said.

Schwartz said he encounters three types of people when hunting for signs.

“Some can’t get the sign out of the shed fast enough for you,” he said. “And then some, because you ask them about it, they feel it has a lot of value. And then some people want to keep them for sentimental value.

“I went out looking (recently) for Lake to Lake signs, and the first guy I met wanted to keep all of his signs. And one time a guy had an auction selling most of the stuff on his farm but he kept his sign to put in his rec room. So you never know what you’ll find or if you’ll even be able to get it or not.”

Schwartz said he understands when someone is nostalgic and reluctant to part with their signs. Schwartz said he’s just like them in many respects, considering his lifelong association with the dairy industry feeds his interest in dairy and seed signs. He’ll occasionally sell one of his signs, but it’s certainly not an everyday occurrence.

“I’ll take pretty much any signs I can find now,” he said. “But for me I think it’s getting harder to find them because I have a lot already picked up from my area. Now I have to venture farther away from home, and then I don’t know where to go looking for them. But I’ll keep trying to find those signs because I like them.”

Submitted photo/  

Dr. Margaret Meier Jones of the Animal Wellness Center of Buffalo Valley provides chiropractic, acupuncture therapies and traditional veterinary medicine to pets, horses and other large animals.