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Bankrolling progress: Private-public ag partnerships drive dairy innovation

In the modern American economy, just about every drop of milk is the product of years of public and private sector cooperation. Judging by the advent of Dairy Industry Impact Grants, these partnerships only look to grow stronger, more prevalent and more productive.

The Dairy Business Innovation Alliance, a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research and Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, has selected four companies and cooperative to receive Dairy Industry Impact Grants totaling more than $600,000.

Unveiled for the first time this year, the impact grants represent a concerted push to create and promote high quality dairy products through innovations developed by private partners, said Tom Guerin, the research program manager at the Center for Dairy Research.

It also represents a strategy by which government entities can spur positive change by investing public funds into worthy private operations with proven track records of success.

“In the last few years, you can see more of an involvement between state or federal entities and industry working together to see what they can do,” Guerin said. “We’re very cognizant of the fact that the money we’re receiving is a huge amount of money. We’re using all of our existing resources to make sure that this money goes out to where it’s needed.”

Guerin said grant programs are looking for operations tackling industry issues, creating new opportunities, finding new markets and selling new products on bigger scales with wider industry footprints.

“It really was in order to help farmers get more money for diversifying new product development, innovation, innovative marketing — whatever it’s going to be how, do you help them?” Guerin said. “So, we figured we need to help as many of those as possible. But also how do we how do we affect as much change as possible? How do we add as much value as much milk as possible? So we came up with two grant programs.”

Finding its genesis in the 2018 Farm Bill, the Dairy Industry Impact program is one of three similar federal initiatives in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Vermont.

Four recipients have been chosen this year, including two Wisconsin operations in Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Specialty Cheese Co. in Reeseville. Milk Specialties Global in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and GoodSport Nutrition in Evanston, Illinois, round out the other two.

Cedar Grove Cheese has garnered acclaim for its liquid waste-to-fertilizer system designed for small dairy processors.

This system converts wash water into marketable fertilizer, which is expected to be relatively affordable for small and medium-sized dairy plants.

Special Cheese Co. is in the initial analysis stages of potential nutritional benefits from low-value dairy byproducts in animal feed. If successful, the expected nutritional benefits will create both a new market and higher prices for commodity items.

Guerin said these four recipients were chosen from sixteen applicants, which represented encouraging response to the program’s roll-out. The ramifications of these innovations can’t be understated. In some cases, they could represent significant progress for the industry, revealing techniques and technologies that can be shared among dairies across the nation.

“We didn’t know what how this would go. It was our first attempt,” Guerin said. “They’ve got models in place — a model that can be done, that we’re looking for some funding to help get off the ground. The benefit of that is, if it’s successful, it can be duplicated anywhere else.”

In Losing The Antique Emporium, We Lose A Piece Of Our Past

Of the many people I do not expect to find inside Eau Claire’s Antique Emporium, Susan B. Anthony is near the top of the list. Yet there she is, her marble bust a near perfect representation of one of America’s leading social reformers.

“I didn’t know it was her when I bought it,” explains 69-year-old Hugh Passow, who’s been running the Antique Emporium for the past 40 years. “And the people at the auction didn’t know either. They were selling so much great art, who wanted some dirty, old woman statue?”

Hugh did. And as he later learned, that “dirty, old woman statue” was sculpted by Leonard Volk—the same artist who famously molded the life mask of Abraham Lincoln’s face. In other words, the hands that once held Lincoln’s face also touched this marble.

Leonard Volk’s Susan B. Anthony statue is but one of a hundred thousand items Hugh’s accumulated within the Antique Emporium on Main Street. Others include his taxidermied hyena (“It’s the biggest one you’ll ever find—even bigger than the one in the Field Museum!”) and a Civil War era stoneware eagle (“To make this in clay without a shrinkage line or crack is unbelievable!”). Add to these a hammerhead shark, an ostrich, and a giant moose head, and Hugh’s menagerie seems nearly complete. Yet as Hugh and I roam the emporium’s first floor, it’s clear we’re only getting started.

“You’ve sure got a lot of unique things in here,” I say.

“That’s because I always looked for the odd stuff, the more interesting and unusual stuff,” Hugh explains. For more than three decades, Hugh’s annual auction trips regularly resulted in a trailer’s worth of treasures. Rather than stock up on staples like depression glass and oak furniture, Hugh always preferred buying “against the grain.” Which probably explains the sideshow mummy he keeps on the second floor. And why walking into the Antique Emporium today feels like entering a museum, or a time machine, or your grandparents’ attic.

Hugh is equally eclectic: a collector, a curator, an entrepreneur, and an historian, too. The more we talk, the more I realize he may inadvertently hold another title: memory keeper of Eau Claire.

You need only look a bit beyond the ostrich and the hyena to notice the local photos lining the walls, from the century-old images of the Gillette Safety Tire Company picnics to the 1940s-era Eau Claire police department posing on the courthouse steps. Atop an Abraham Lincoln bust rests a horn which once called local lumberjacks to mealtime. And displayed to the right of the hammerhead is a 19th century flag for the Eau Claire chapter of the Germania Club—a fraternal organization from the era.

Such a world-class collection has garnered the attention of more than a few celebrities, including John Prine, Paul Simon, Johnny and June Cash—all of whom have spent hours roaming the store. It’s an experience I know myself, though more enjoyable when accompanied by a knowledgeable guide.

As I soon learn, Hugh can recount the story behind most every item in the place, though his own story is of interest, too. Born in Arcadia, he spent his elementary years accompanying his grandfather to the town dump—ostensibly to get rid of the family’s trash.

“The problem,” Hugh laughs, “is that we always brought more back than we took.”

“Let me get this straight,” I say. “Your love of antiques began at the dump?”

“Oh, in those days dumps were fabulous,” Hugh smiles. “There was great stuff in them all the time.”

By his early 20s, Hugh had traded in the dumps for the auctions, and for the next four decades, worked to curate the antique store right here in Eau Claire.

Today, the fruits of his labor are on full display for everyone who walks through his doors—from Currier & Ives prints to New Guinean masks.

Though by July 1, 2022, the Antique Emporium will close its doors for good.

“How do you feel about letting it go?” I ask.

“Well, I’m not very happy about it, but things change,” Hugh says. “I’m still in fairly good health, but that could change, too.”

It won’t be easy to auction off his collection, but he’s glad the building will receive the renovation it requires.

“The right people got it,” Hugh says, “and they’re going to fix it all up.”

He means Pablo Group, the Eau Claire real estate company who have plans to house within the building’s historic walls a co-working space, tenants, among other mixed uses.

“My baby will be in good hands,” Hugh says confidently.

The future seems a strange topic in a place so steeped in the past. But it’s an essential conversation. Especially since we Eau Clairians are now tasked with holding the mantle of our city’s memory. Hugh’s held it long enough. Now is our last chance to enter through Hugh’s doors and marvel at his collection. And perhaps, make our own memory.

Soon, the Antique Emporium is destined to reinvent itself yet again, just as it did when Hugh started the store back in 1985. As Pablo Group prepares to write the next chapter in the property’s history, we can only hope that its future remains as bright as its past. Surely it will, especially since they already have a pretty good lead on some incredible décor.

Might I suggest a Susan B. Anthony statue, or a Germania Club flag? Perhaps a stonewear eagle or a lumberjack horn?

There’s something for everyone at the Antique Emporium, but you’ve got to act now.

A piece of our past is going, going, nearly gone.

Agricultural economist tackles potential food shortage

After years of decline, worldwide rates of chronic hunger and malnourishment are on the rise as a byproduct of COVID-19. In 2020-2021, roughly 9.9%, or about 161 million people, are considered among the nutrition impoverished.

While agriculture operations across the globe produce more food than ever before and maximize productivity by a staggering degree, nearly one out of ten people still go hungry. That assessment is all the more sobering with growing concerns the world could face a shortage of food to feed its booming population in coming decades.

According to the World Economic Forum, the global population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. That means a 60% increase in food demand and it comes during a time when climate change, urbanization and soil degradation will shrink arable land. Water shortages, pollution, and worsening economic inequality are potential secondary factors in this grim scenario.

“There’s a very real possibility that it has an impact on productivity. That’s a very real concern,” said Andrew Stevens, an agricultural economist and lecturer at UW-Madison. “If we don’t change what we do, if we just keep planting on the same dates and don’t change our crops. If we don’t adapt, certainly, there will be some pretty negative consequences.”

While he cautioned that, unaddressed, these burgeoning issues could pose a problem for humanity, Stevens perspective on the situation remained optimistic.

It’s important to remember that issues like food shortages and overpopulation — much in the vein of climate change — have led to no shortage of hand-wringing since the 1800s. Despite this, agriculture has always responded well, Stevens said, because agriculturists inevitably find new ways to innovate, streamline and maximize their operations to feed the masses.

So, while the prospect of feeding another two or so billion people might seem daunting, Stevens said, the world’s farms have always found a way to meet demand and actually decrease rates of hunger across the globe.

“Yes, the climate risk is new and different from previous risks that agriculture has faced. In a lot of ways, it is larger in scale and scope and severity, But also historically every threat to agriculture has been a new novel risk,” Stevens said. “The amount of science we have directed at understanding adaptation to climate is a whole lot more powerful than the amount of science agriculture we had, say, 150 years ago. That gives me some hope that humanity will rise to the challenge.”

The subject is further complicated by a simple question: What defines a food shortage? Is it scarcity so bad that it results in empty shelves? Or is it decreased supply that leads to higher prices on those shelves?

For his part, Stevens said he thinks a worldwide food shortage would more likely fall into the latter category if it were to occur. This could actually pose a benefit in terms of climate change, he noted, as the market would create incentives for consumers to eat food products that aren’t as costly — not only monetarily, but environmentally.

Agriculturists — including Stevens — often frame the issue in terms of productivity. If there’s more mouths to feed in 2050, then world agriculture must boost productivity to meet demand. But, is this the wrong approach, particularly if worsening climate conditions inhibit productivity?

For perspective, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that, annually, the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food, while the United States discards more food than any other country — nearly 40 million tons, or 80 billion pounds, every flip of the calendar.

So, could it be a matter of better utilizing what we already produce?

That’s part of the equation, Stevens said, but not as much as people might think and much of the issue boils down to how food waste is defined. Is food wasted when Thanksgiving leftovers are dumped in the trash, or is it when excess fat is removed from a T-bone steak?

By different metrics, nearly 40-50% of a chicken will never be consumed, because certain inedible body parts won’t be processed in hyper-specialized ways. It that necessarily food waste?

”If you ask different people what food waste is, you’ll get different answers and distinctions,” Stevens said. “That makes a difference in what conclusions are drawn.”

Depending on how it’s viewed, Stevens said it’s conceivable that modern economies are highly efficient, wasting virtually no food.

”Broadly speaking, in a market-based economy there’s there’s not a lot of what I would consider to be waste,” Stevens said. “There’s always a scope to increase the efficiency of our system and to reduce unnecessary food waste and to I think the way to frame this is to help develop markets for what would otherwise be waste products.”

Communities and agriculturists should think in terms of global food networks — namely, how to produce, ship and allocate food products to hungry mouths across the globe, especially vulnerable areas in underdeveloped nations and economies. Often, Stevens said, it’s simply a matter of access to supply, not a lack of supply, that hurts these communities.

”I would say it’s more about our institutions,” Stevens aid. “It’s more about our markets. It’s more about how things get from where they’re produced to where they’re consumed.”

”The picture is twofold,” he added. “One is increasing technical productivity. That’s empowering farmers to make more optimal decisions by providing them information. And the other component is a much more political. It’s about liberalizing markets. It’s about about the way we politically organize ourselves as a species and about how we convince plants to grow better.”