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Show time
Final prep underway for Farm Technology Days

JOHNSON CREEK — Visitors approaching Walter Grain Farms recently have been quick to spot several large tents that have been erected in the days before Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, hosted this year by the Walter family in Jefferson County. Semi-loads of equipment continue to be delivered daily with crews also working diligently to install temporary fencing, wire electricity and construct buildings on the 65-acre site that will soon welcome an estimated 40,000 people.

Brad Walter said traffic has really picked up a lot within the last week at the farm, with event organizers coming and going daily to check on the progress within their areas of the show and members of the Walter family staying busy preparing their operation for an influx of people. Pole barns have been going up and many of the tents have also been raised, and as of last week, the installation of two miles of bright orange perimeter fencing around Tent City was nearly complete.

“That was a lot of fence posts to dig,” Walter said with a smile.

In the days before the outdoor show, the grounds crew, in which Walter is a part, will be the busiest. Deliveries are expected to pick up significantly, and everything needs to be checked in at the Farm Technology Days site headquarters before it moves into the fields for setup.

“The guys have been mowing the alfalfa every day since the tents went up,” Walter said, adding that the fields have also dried out nicely and will be ready for numerous demonstrations during the show.

One of the demonstrations at this year’s show will be a first-ever tiling and drainage demo, in which the Walter family will be helping as they also run their own draining business from the farm.

“I think a lot of people will be curious about it and how the water is managed below the ground,” he said.

Walter was born two years after his parents first hosted Farm Progress Days in 1984, but recalled what he has heard from family about the big event. He believes the biggest change has to do with the way electricity is brought to the site; what is now run with generators used to require a lot more planning, including placement of new power poles and lines. Although installation of electrical is still a huge task taking an estimated four to five weeks, it is less complicated than it used to be.

While it takes three years to plan each Wisconsin Farm Technology Days event, the family is also prepared to help tear down the massive show after it concludes. The week after is just as busy as the month before, Walter said.

“The family is excited and ready for the show to be put together and to see how many people show up,” he added. “I have four kids between the ages of 5 and 9 and they are thrilled to have this in their own backyard.”

Wisconsin Farm Technology Days is July 23-25 at Walter Grain Farms, W5340 French Road, Johnson Creek. Hours on Tuesday and Thursday run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with extended hours of 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

For more information on Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, see our inside pages on this event.

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Raising crops to raise a glass
Raising crops to raise a glass: Distillery partners with organic farmers to craft spirits
Distillery partners with organic farmers to craft spirits

ONALASKA — The mission behind the launch of La Crosse Distilling Co. is right there as the first tagline in their logo: “Farmer Forward, Driftless Pure.”

“We all have the highest regard for farmers in our company,” according to Chad Staehly, who founded the distillery in 2018 with Nick Weber and Mitchell Parr. “Where it all starts for us is in the field.”

Staehly said much of the reasoning behind the decision to found the distillery came from being able to take advantage of the organic farming and other resources in western Wisconsin.

“We thought it would be awesome to capture that in the form of spirits,” he said July 10 at an Organic Grain Resource and Information Network field day at McHugh Farms.

La Crosse Distilling Co. was founded with a goal of partnering with area farmers to create organic spirits, which led them to McHugh Farms in Onalaska. Patrick McHugh of McHugh Farms connected with La Crosse Distilling Co. in 2017. That connection has led to McHugh Farms now growing about 100 acres of rye, wheat and corn exclusively for the distillery.

McHugh took over his family’s farm in 2010. He started transitioning to organic several years ago in an effort to diversify. He currently farms both traditionally and organically. He added hemp on 35 acres he is transitioning to organic this year and another acre and a half on land that is already certified organic.

“I grew up with hybrids and GMO crops, so it’s been quite a venture to learn and go back and learn more of the history of how we started to farm now that we’re starting to grow pollinated crops,” McHugh said.

“It’s interesting how you get a different frame of mind of what you think of soil health and crop health.”

For the distillery, McHugh is growing about 35 acres of an open-pollinated 90-day variety of Wapsie Valley corn and about 30 acres of Abruzzi rye with genetics similar to a variety that was available pre-Prohibition, McHugh said.

“It comes down to flavor. That’s the main key for the distillery,” he said. “Today’s newer genetics, and even some of the varieties that are organic, don’t quite offer the flavor the old ones do. The newer corns are bred for energy and feed value, so it’s hard to get the quality flavors you are looking for in a whiskey in those types of grains.

“That’s why we opened it up to go with a quality grain we know has good flavor.”

McHugh’s willingness to work with the distillery on bringing in the varieties that work for them is a big benefit for the company, according to Parr, the company’s distiller.

“With vodka, where you are going for neutrality, things like heirloom varieties of rye or wheat aren’t that appealing, because you’re not trying to have a taste signature,” Parr said. “But when we go into things like the whiskey, the Abruzzi makes more sense for us. Those old, ancient heirloom varieties that are open pollinated have such interesting characteristics to them, and it really does come through in the process.”

Parr said he has been making bourbon for several weeks and that he can tell when they are using yellow corn versus the variety called Wapsie Valley.

“When that Wapsie is added, it starts to smell like berries,” Parr said. “You can smell the fruitiness popping out. It’s a very intriguing thing, and it’s kind of fun to use them.”

Parr said working directly with organic farmers allows him to ensure he will be getting enough of the grains he needs to create his products. La Crosse Distilling Co. currently makes two batches of spirits a week, each using about 1,500 pounds of grain. Staehly said they hope to quadruple that in the next year.

“It makes so much sense that we’re here,” he said. “I know where the resource is at. I know Patrick is growing this corn. I don’t have to try to talk a farmer across the country into selling me his stuff, and I’m not having to scamper around trying to find it. It’s grown right down the road, and I know where to find it.”

In addition to the grains they source from McHugh Farms, the La Crosse Distilling Co. also works with Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway and they are looking to expand and add to the number of organic farmers they are working with, Staehly said.

“We have a vision to grow this company to a national, and hopefully international, spirits company,” he said. “And we’ve really set out to work directly to family farmers.”

Staehly said the distillery has plans to add pollinator habitat and introduce beehives to some farms they work with in the coming years.

La Crosse Distilling Co. mills the grains on site in downtown La Crosse and does their distilling in-house as well. McHugh is able to take the spent grain, which has been tested and is able to be fed to livestock, back from the distillery.

“We’re trying to have a closed loop and full-circle system within the distillery,” Staehly said.

Staehly said the decision for the distillery to go 100-percent organic was made pretty late in the process of creating the business. They are certified organic by MOSA, the Midwest Organic Services Association, out of Viroqua.

“Amazingly enough, given our backyard and the nearby resources, we’re able to procure these ingredients for a comparable price to conventionally grown grains,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for us to go for it and try to operate within that box.”

When Staehly, Weber and Parr decided to start a distillery in La Crosse, there were about 800 craft distilleries operating in the country. In the four years since they started working on the idea, that number has more than doubled, Staehly said.

“The growth in craft is taking a chunk out of the big dogs,” he said. “It’s part of this whole movement that’s happening of people wanting to support local and wanting to know what’s in their products.

“For us, a big piece of it was to try to keep dollars as local as possible and support as many local businesses and farmers as possible.”

Photos by Brooke Bechen  

Signs designating where each area within Tent City is located have now been installed, and another building can be seen being erected in a field at Walter Grain Farms.

Photo by Dan Reiland  

A mirrored bar from the 19th century reflects the circus art featured in the Orton Room.

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Tent serves as short-term fix, with hopes of new building coming

CHIPPEWA FALLS — The coliseum at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair has always been a special place in Pete Lehmann’s family.

“My uncle and aunt met up here,” Lehmann said. “They both showed Holsteins, and they stayed at the coliseum. Now that (the coliseum) is not here, it’s quite a change. It’s obviously a landmark you didn’t want to see go.”

The 100-year-old coliseum used to show animals was torn down April 10 after the entire roof shifted and moved. The walls immediately began to show signs of buckling. The decision was made to raze it before it became a hazard to people and adjacent buildings.

Lehmann, a Lake Hallie Village Board member and Chippewa Falls school board member, said his three children have shown animals in the coliseum over the past 15 years. This year, his daughter was among the hundreds of youths showing animals in a tent on the site of the coliseum.

“We make do with what we have,” Lehmann said. “We have nice weather now, so it’s working well as can be planned.”

It is unclear when the building will be replaced. Lehmann said the fair leadership needs to look at other fairgrounds around the state to see what they are building.

“We need to benchmark what has been successful in different counties,” Lehmann said. “Our community has shown they want a multi-functional building.”

Don Schesel of Stanley said he has attended the animal shows and auctions at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair for the past 35 years.

“My kids all showed in the coliseum, and now my kids’ kids are showing animals in the tent,” Schesel said. “I think it’s a huge thing for the young children, who don’t have farm backgrounds, to see the animals.”

Schesel said the tent is a decent temporary fix. He said more seating is needed, particularly bleachers, before the auction on Thursday night.

“Weather conditions are great today, but I’ve been here when it’s poured all day,” Schesel said. “If we had a storm, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Like Lehmann, Schesel pointed out that Clark County is looking at constructing a new animal building for its fairground, and so is the Wisconsin Valley Fair in Wausau.

“I hope (a new building) happens soon,” he said.

Schesel said that animals are a key part of any fair.

“It’s the idea of knowing how to take care of an animal, and show off what they’ve done,” Schesel said.

Jerry Clark, Chippewa County UW-Extension agriculture agent, said the tent is a good quick fix, but it is a smaller layout than what was in the coliseum.

“The community has done a great job for what they had to do for a contingency plan,” Clark said. “We had to change the showmanship, having to run two or three heats, rather than running them all at once.”

Clark agreed that the sooner a new building can be in place, the better.

“We’d like to see a new facility; that’s the goal of everyone, to have a new, well-ventilated building,” Clark said.

Overall, the 4-H and animal exhibits are on par with past years, Clark said.

“Where we’re down is dairy, and that’s reflective of the whole market,” he said.

Clark said it is startling to walk onto the grounds and not see the coliseum.

“It’s hard to get your orientation,” Clark said. “You look for that red, iconic building, and it’s not there.”

Natalie Schueller, 14, will be a freshman this fall at Chippewa Falls High School. She has shown animals at the fair for the past five years, including two hogs she entered for competition this year. She gave the tent a glowing review as a replacement.

“It was a little sad at first (to see the coliseum gone), but we have air flowing through here, and you can see everything well. It’s also easier to hear,” she said.

Fair director Rusty Volk couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, July 9. When the coliseum was demolished in April, Volk said he would begin working on fundraising and design plans.

In December 2014, Volk unveiled a proposal to construct a 65,000-square-foot multi-use community center that would be used for animal exhibits during the fair. However, the plan carried an estimated $6 million price tag. Volk has obtained drawings from local engineering firm CBS-Squared for the proposed event center, which would include a show ring with seating for 700, and a main floor room that can used for a variety of events throughout the year. The walls would be perhaps 24 feet tall, allowing large farm equipment to be displayed inside.