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Vegetable growers relish family longevity, community history

Cindy Doane Brown did not anticipate running the family business one day.

She grew up in Dunn County and initially planned to operate a hotel but began working on the family farm as a college junior. Doane Brown enjoyed the job and progressed to a full-time job after graduation. She worked her way up and has served as president of Chippewa Valley Bean and Doane Limited for nine years.

For Doane Brown, who oversees one of several area vegetable growers, the role represents the chance to build the company’s local legacy. The business was established in 1858 and is now one of the world’s largest kidney bean exporters, selling products around the globe from its headquarters at N2960 730th St., Menomonie.

Generally, Chippewa Valley Bean oversees sales and marketing, while Doane Limited handles the farming operations. The companies employ a total of about 40 people, some of whom now work from home because of COVID-19.

Doane Brown’s son and nephew work for the company, and she feels it is important to carry on the family name.

“Our wish has been to keep the business strong and healthy to provide for the next generation,” Brown said. “It’s been with us since 1858, and it’s our job to keep it going for a long number of years.”

Eric Rygg understands the importance of family business as well. As president and co-owner of Huntsinger Farms and Silver Springs Food, 2424 Alpine Rd., Eau Claire, he is well-acquainted with local ties.

Rygg, a fourth-generation Huntsinger, leads the world’s largest horseradish grower and producer on about 9,000 acres in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The company was slated to host Farm Technology Days this year, but the event was moved back to 2021 because of COVID-19.

Rygg said a family business offers the luxury to look long-term, compared to a corporation where decisions are driven by short-term profits.

“We can really develop these strong roots here and develop the culture that we want and share the progress and the benefit with the employees and the community,” Rygg said.

Rygg did not grow up in the area but has come to love it over the past several years. He was raised in California and while attending college, he spent summers working on the farm in Wisconsin. He had other jobs over the years and eventually moved back about five years ago to help run the company with his brother and mother.

“It was never an expectation that my parents put on me to take it over some day,” Rygg said. “They just gave us access to the company and allowed me and my brother both the opportunity to work in the company.”

Huntsinger Farms began in 1929 and now employs about 300 people who work to produce horseradish, mustards, sauces and Kosher products. According to Rygg, the overarching mission is “to bring excitement and flavor to food.”

Horseradish is grown on about 1,000 acres per year but needs five- to seven-year rotations, so the company also grows crops like corn and soybeans. Workers usually start harvesting horseradish in the middle of April with a customized harvester that cuts the tops and goes for the root vegetable below the surface.

After the horseradish is taken out of the ground, it is refrigerated as quickly as possible to maintain strength and flavor. The cooler climate provides an ideal setting.

“We want a big, hardy root under the ground,” Rygg said. “We have that natural cold storage in Wisconsin all winter long, and it doesn’t harm the product.”

Like Doane Brown, Rygg’s goal is to leave Huntsinger Farms better than when he started. He wants to make the company a good place to work; help solve customers’ problems; incorporate the company into the community; and “make the world a tastier place.”

“I feel that if I do those four things well, we’re going to be around for another 90 years,” Rygg said.

Rygg must balance long-term success with short-term problem solving, and the past few months have entailed challenges caused by COVID-19. The company sent as many employees to work from home as it could, which was about 11% of the workforce. It also stopped having outside visitors, staggered workforce hours and implemented physical distancing and masks for employees.

Rygg said the coronavirus has not impacted overall sales too much but it has changed where purchases come from. Supermarket demand has increased, while restaurants and buffet demand significantly decreased.

At Chippewa Valley Bean, the pandemic has affected workflow, but production levels have essentially stayed the same. Demand for kidney beans may have actually increased, Doane Brown said, because they can easily be preserved and are relatively inexpensive.

While the pandemic has not directly affected output, it has disrupted the supply chain that puts beans from field to plate. Shipping and transportation are more difficult. and processing has slowed down.

“Our food supply system in the U.S. is challenged right now,” Brown said. “It’s not that we have a shortage of food anywhere. It’s just our ability to get it moved and processed in the right format to the right spot.”

Robert Wachsmuth, co-owner and vice president at Chippewa Valley Bean and Doane Limited, manages the farming operations. He said the coronavirus has resulted in employees enacting physical distancing, wearing face masks and doing temperature checks before beginning their labor.

Wachsmuth has worked at the company for more than half a century, beginning as a college freshman in 1969. He founded Doane Limited with Russell Doane a few years later.

“I’ve always had the farmer in the blood,” Wachsmuth said. “I was very intrigued with the challenges, and it’s been there, no question about that.”

Kidney beans are rotated with corn and alfalfa on about 4,000 acres in the Chippewa Valley and planted from about mid-May to mid-June. The kidney bean is larger than other beans and must be planted with more space in between. Technology improvements have made that easier over the years.

Kidney beans do not need as much water to grow, which is helpful and makes them appealing to buy in mass quantities. Kidney bean skin is fragile, so it must be harvested carefully before being canned.

“That’s a constant battle to try and keep these beans as whole as we can,” Wachsmuth said.

Doane Brown’s career has involved constant challenges as well. She is involved in many national and international industry organizations and said her career has tremendously exceeded her expectations.

“I never dreamed that this job would have me testifying before the agricultural organization of the U.N., or my opportunity to testify before Congress on agricultural issues,” Brown said. “Growing up on this farm in Dunn County, Wisconsin, I never dreamed that my life would unfold like that.”


Writers-notebook
Take a ride on the slide

Of the many cultural touchstones Wisconsin has to offer, none are more celebrated (and with greater zeal) than our legendary (and endless array) of water parks. As a Wisconsin transplant, it’s a phenomenon I’m still struggling to understand. After all, what entices us, year after year, to strip down to our swimsuits alongside hundreds of strangers only to be shot through a tube?

I was determined to find out.

Under the guise of a “birthday celebration” for my eight-year-old son, one cold January afternoon, my family and I packed our bags and drove east toward the water. We found a suitable park an hour outside the Dells, which was good enough for me.

“Everyone remember the rules?” I asked as we stepped inside the 60,000-square-foot indoor water park.

“No drowning,” my eldest son and daughter said in unison.

“Correct!”

The kids were gone in an instant, joining the ranks of their swimming brethren, all of whom were displacing the water in the wave pool, and on the slides, and in the lazy river.

Scanning the madness, I said, “This place is…a lot.”

My wife, who was busy adjusting the baby’s legs into a swim diaper, asked, “What did you expect?”

Truth be told, this was exactly what I’d expected: the constant thrum of falling water, the kitschy décor, and the elaborate network of tubes so vast that, for a brief moment, I thought I’d entered a well-ventilated hamster cage.

Though I was still a newbie in the world of water parks, I knew a thing or two about their slides. In what was perhaps my greatest graduate school accomplishment, one rainy spring day in 2011, I managed 101 consecutive runs down the waterslide at the University of Alabama’s recreation center pool. What began as a dare suddenly turned serious, and by the time I was 50 runs deep, I figured, “Why stop now?”

The lifeguards ignored me at first. But there was no denying me once I’d reached 90 consecutive runs.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” boomed a voice over the pool’s PA system, “if you’ll direct your attention to the man who’s been hogging the waterslide all day. Apparently, he’s going for a new record. And he’s got 10 more slides to go. Let’s cheer him on!”

While I’d competed in sports all my life — even for a stint at the collegiate level — not once did I receive the support that befell me that day at the rec center pool.

As I flew through the tube for the last time, my back all but shredded, a crowd of well-wishers rooted me on. Shoulder blades up, arms across my chest, I held perfect form as I sliced into the water. The crowd went just short of wild, one lifeguard even handing me a complimentary sports drink — the rec center pool’s equivalent of a gold medal.

“Think you’ll ever try to break your own record?” the lifeguard asked.

“I think,” I gasped, “I’m retired.”

Which is the long way of saying: once, I understood the appeal of a good waterslide. But in the decade since my glory day, I’d apparently forgotten.

Throughout our night at the Wisconsin water park, I seemed to be attempting a vastly different record: least amount of time spent in the water. Thankfully, holding the baby made for a good excuse, and so, she and I took up residence on a lawn chair alongside a fake tree and some fake rocks while the others had their fun.

Indeed, there’s a lot of fun to be had in places like this. Each year, no fewer than four million people shoot their bodies down the waterslides in the Wisconsin Dells, contributing to the $1.2 billion the city brings in annually by way of tourism. By comparison, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette, the Packers contribute around $15 million per home game to their own local economy, or around $120 million over the course of a season.

Which was all the number crunching I needed to confirm that I was clearly missing something with all this water park business. What was all the fuss about? Was I the last sane person in the state, or simply the last dry one?

After another poolside hour lost in the din of waterslide-induced laughter, it became clear to me that the water park wasn’t the problem; I was.

That night, as the rest of the family snored following their long day on the slides, I remained restless. What is it about growing older than makes fun a little harder to come by? Why do we withdraw when we ought to indulge, instead? What had happened to the man who’d once hogged the waterslide for most of an afternoon? And who was this imposter who preferred to toe at the waterline, rather than cannonball in?

The next morning, I promised myself to return to my waterslide hogging tendencies. I suited up, then joined my eldest children at the water park’s locked doors five minutes before showtime.

“Who’s going to be the first in the pool?” I asked.

“Me!” they cried.

“Good luck with that,” I said, striking a runner’s pose.

Five minutes later, as the lifeguards perched high in their chairs, my son, daughter and I walked briskly (there’s no running in the water park) to the lip of the pool. We leapt headlong into that water, swimming at full tilt until the goosebumps vanished. For a moment, we were the only ones there. Every ripple was our own.

“Dad! Let’s do the green slide!” my son hollered.

“No! The yellow one!” my daughter said.

“We’ll do them all!” I promised. “One hundred times each!”

That morning, the hours passed like seasons, which still seemed much too fast.

As our time wound down and the end was near, my kids begged, “One last time?”

Exhausted, I agreed. Hustling up the wooden stairs, I reached the top of the slide platform for the final time of the trip.

“On three,” I shouted to my daughter as we settled ourselves into the mouths of those dark tubes. “One, two…”

In a flicker, she was gone.

Shoulder blades up, arms across my chest, I smiled, then let the water take me too.


A Holstein grazed near the town of Pilsen in rural Kewaunee County.


Country-updates
centerpiece top story
Wisconsin State Fair canceled

Summer schedules continue to open up.

State Fair Park Board of Directors Chairman John Yingling announced May 28 the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair, which had been scheduled for Aug. 6-16 in West Allis, has been canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski said the State Fair board made a difficult decision taking into account safety of fairgoers and staff.

“We know how important State Fair is to Wisconsin: the tradition, the showcase of agriculture, the importance of the opportunity for youth exhibitors. It’s a really important part of our state, and has been for many years,” Romanski said in a May 28 ag media conference call. “The first priority is to make sure we have a safe and healthy experience for all as part of the State Fair.”

In a news release from the State Fair Park Board of Directors, Yingling said the decision to cancel the 2020 Wisconsin State Fair was not taken lightly.

“Months of deliberation took place, considering all options to host a Fair that adheres to the highest standard of safety without compromising the experience,” Yingling said in a news release. “We explored countless models, but ultimately safety cannot be compromised. The risks associated with hosting an event of this size and scope right now are just too great.”

The Wisconsin State Fair is the largest event in the State of Wisconsin, drawing more than 1 million people over the course of 11 days.

According to the State Fair Park Board of Directors, the magnitude of the financial implications associated with hosting a fair with significantly reduced attendance, as well as implementing the recommended mass gathering safety measures, could be detrimental to the future of State Fair Park. “The State Fair Park Board has the responsibility to be stewards of the public funds entrusted to Wisconsin State Fair Park and ensure the financial viability of the Fair Park not only heading into 2021, but for years to come,” the news release said.

“The Wisconsin State Fair is so much more than just a fair — it is a celebration of everything we are so proud of in Wisconsin,” Kathleen O’Leary, CEO of Wisconsin State Fair Park, said in a news release. “We have tremendously loyal fairgoers, vendors, partners and exhibitors. For that we are forever grateful, and our greatest responsibility is to ensure that the fair remains strong and resilient for future generations.”

Admission tickets already purchased will be valid for the 2021 Wisconsin State Fair. However, refunds are also available through June 30. For more information, visit wistatefair.com.

Wisconsin’s state fair cancellation comes on the heels of Minnesota and Ohio making similar decisions. Illinois and Iowa are still considering the fates of their state fairs.

“We’ve seen some of our neighboring and Midwestern states in kind of the same boat as we are in when it comes to what’s going to happen with the fair,” Romanski said.

Also during his May 28 ag media conference call, Romanski said DATCP, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue and Gov. Tony Evers are working together to finalize details relating to distribution to farmers of $50 million in CARES Act funding.

Romanski encouraged farmers to sign-up for email updates on the direct aid program and food insecurity initiative on the DATCP website, https://datcp.wi.gov/Pages/News_Media/COVID19Relief.aspx.

“We are working as quickly as we can to get information put together with farm organizations and out to the public,” Romanski said. “We’ve had some really productive discussions with farm groups. They’ve offered a variety of scenarios, and we want to make sure we’re taking a look at that.”


The author, Max Wolter, with his largest longnose gar from Lake Shelbyville in Illinois.