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'Holy cow': Trempealeau County women recognized for Curds for Kids efforts

The plane wasn’t able to fly, so a back-up plan needed to be made. One of Brad Goplin’s Holsteins would have to be painted.

The Trempealeau County scene, organized with the help of Pastor Mary Ann Bowman of Peace Lutheran of Pigeon Falls, elicited a “Holy cow,” from Mike Rowe, the creator of the Discovery Channel program “Dirty Jobs,” who was on a videocall with Jackie Goplin and Beth Stay to surprise them with a $15,000 donation to their organization, Curds for Kids, which supplies cheese curds for school lunches in an effort to help dairy farmers and feed hungry children.

Since going live on April 8, Goplin and Stay’s nonprofit, Curds for Kids, has raised more than $50,000 and has delivered about 16,500 pounds of cheese curds from plants representing 800 local farmers. Curds for Kids has distributed the curds through six Trempealeau County schools, feeding more than 3,000 kids a week, and supplies several food pantries with curds.

“It was a huge leap of faith when we started this,” Goplin said. “We had no idea if anyone had any money to give.”

But in the first two weeks of the program, Curds for Kids raised about $20,000.

“At that point, we were like, ‘We can do this. And, hopefully, we can finish the summer,’” Goplin said.

Rowe’s surprise donation would allow them to keep the program going through the summer with less focus on fundraising efforts, Goplin said.

“At the beginning, we didn’t have a big vision,” Stay said. “We were reacting to this horrible situation of farmers dumping milk coinciding with students being hungry.

“We had to do something about that. And we weren’t the only people who wanted to do something, and that’s why people have done such an incredible job of supporting us financially. All we did was provide the framework to allow the dollars to flow from the community to the dairies to the kids.”

Goplin and Stay created Curds for Kids after meeting through their pastor at Peace Lutheran of Pigeon Falls.

Stay first approached Pastor Mary Ann Bowman about wanting to help dairy farmers who were struggling with lowered demand for milk early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay said it was difficult to see farmers having to dispose of milk that exceeded processors’ capacity while knowing there were children who would no longer have access to nutritious lunches when the pandemic closed schools.

Bowman recommended Stay get in tough with Goplin, whose family has been farming in Trempealeau County for six generations.

“Pastor Mary Ann is the one who put Jackie and me together,” Stay said. “We think that was a really good piece of wisdom that she contributed at the very beginning that was very pivotal.”

After Goplin and Stay talked and started wondering how to help, Goplin’s son, Brad, showed her a Facebook post about Rich Miller’s efforts to get cheese curds into the lunches handed out by school districts in the New Richmond area. Goplin contacted Miller, who encouraged her to try to do something similar in Trempealeau County.

“He told me a little bit about what they were doing, and it was like, ‘This is perfect, this is what we need to do here,’” she said. “The more people that do it, the better for everybody.”

Curds for Kids was founded as an outreach ministry from Peach Lutheran of Pigeon Falls. Another member of Peace Lutheran, Cindy Hangartner, connected Goplin and Stay with Feed My People Food Bank in Eau Claire, which allowed Curds for Kids to create a website for taking donations.

Stay works for the school district in Arcadia and Goplin works for the school district in Whitehall, and both credited the time spent working on the curd-donation program with helping them cope with their newfound free time following school closures.

Trempealeau County schools in Arcadia, Blair-Taylor, Independence, Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau, Whitehall and Osseo-Fairchild participated in Curds for Kids efforts during the remainder of the school year.

Cheese curds for the program come from Lynn Dairy in Granton, where Goplin’s son ships his milk, and from AMPI in Blair.

“Both of the dairies right from the beginning gave us a very good price,” Stay said.

The cost of the cheese curds has increased since the beginning of the program, but that’s a price Stay and Goplin said they are willing to pay.

“One of the points was to help dairy farmers, and if they’re getting more for their milk, we’re very happy about that,” Stay said.

“We’re happy to pay more,” Goplin said.

With schools out for the summer, Stay and Goplin are still delivering curds weekly to four of the six districts.

“The kids and families really like cheese curds,” Stay said. “We, along the way, have said, ‘Are you sick of this? Do you want a change? Do you want to get something different? Do you want us to take a week off?’ ‘No, no, no, no. We like cheese curds.’”

One-pound bags of cheese curds are sent each week in the bagged lunches. Families with multiple school-aged children can get more than one bag of cheese curds included with their lunches. For the week, the school lunches also include a gallon of milk per child, Goplin said.

Rowe connected with Goplin and Stay for an episode of the Facebook Watch program he hosts called “Returning the Favor.” With “Returning the Favor” Rowe honors one person each week, telling their story and setting up a surprise reward.

“Most people can’t possibly understand what that would feel like for a farmer, to take their product and literally flush it away knowing that within 30, 40, 50 miles there are hungry people,” Rowe said during the episode. “It’s gotta be one of the great tragedies of modern agriculture.”

Stay and Goplin were in contact several times with producers of Rowe’s “Returning the Favor,” but were surprised to find out in mid-June videographers would be arriving on the farm in two days.

“At the very end, we had a strong suspicion that we might be getting something, but we really did not know,” Stay said. “We thought we were just going to have another Zoom call with the producers.”

Goplin said Bowman was the insider, coordinating between Goplin and Stay and the show’s producers. That meant when weather wouldn’t let the plane fly that was to reveal the $15,000 donation, Bowman had to come up with a Plan B.

“She said, ‘It’s a good thing you’re dealing with people from rural Wisconsin, because we know how to improvise,’” Stay said. “Plan B was the cow, so that was good.”

The donation will allow Curds for Kids to finish the summer by filling school lunches with cheese curds and add a couple food pantries to the donations. When school begins again, Stay said the organization should still be able to supply kitchen staff with curds to put out as snacks on the lunch lines.

Stay and Goplin said it’s remarkable hearing how grateful farmers are for their efforts and seeing the response from donors to the program.

“I think it means a lot to farmers that we are doing this,” Stay said. “Many people care deeply about the dairy farmer and so appreciate that we are helping.”

“The thing that is remarkable to me is on our donor page, all the comments of the people who are donating,” Goplin said. “People really comment on the farming aspect, ‘It’s so good to hear you’re doing something for the farmers.’

“It’s been heartwarming for me. I live on the farm, and I know it’s not easy.”

Get your blue mind on

Eight years ago, after watching the Packers in a bar, my son bid on a 1987 Sun Tracker pontoon. Let’s just say Alex’s judgement wasn’t crystal clear. The 24-foot “party barge” needed new seats, carpet and motor. Alex finished college and military training then landed a job in Texas, so his rebuilt beauty stayed behind in storage.

When my dad died last year, Alex rushed home for the funeral. Though he’d talked about selling his pontoon before, he was really ready this time. “Why don’t you buy it,” he pitched. “I’ll give you a deal.”

As much as I liked the thought of spending Dad’s inheritance on a party barge lovingly restored by my son, I knew I had to float the idea past my husband. Bruce said, “What will we do with a boat that size on no-wake Lake Hallie?” He finally agreed, if we traded in the motor for a smaller one and named the pontoon after my dad.

Last summer Minnetonka’s 2-horsepower electric outboard was in high demand. We couldn’t get it installed until August at Skeeter’s, where Alex’s boat had been wrapped in plastic since 2016. When we got it home, I stenciled on “The Jo Sea,” a female aquatic version of Joe See. We christened her not with hoity-toity champagne but with Dad’s favorite drink, “Mist and Mist,” Canadian Mist and Sierra Mist.

The first week we pontoon with all three of Bruce’s kids, a rare treat. Dan’s driving, with Bruce beside him. Our new motor groans and sputters. I hit the switch to lift the trim. An ancient, mossy rope chokes the propeller. Noah climbs over the stern for a closer look. Former lifeguard Laura offers to jump in and pull us to the nearby landing. “Never get out of the boat,” I say in my best “Apocalypse Now” impression.

Noah gives the rope a tug. He jokes about a dead body attached to it. Fortunately Bruce doesn’t go anywhere without a pocket knife. Noah saws through the rope and frees the propeller. Anyone on shore that day may have heard a collective whoop of voices, boaters excited to be out together on this blue-blue day but even more thrilled that their party barge can take them home.

The original party barge cruised Lake Hallie 140 years ago, and it was actually a barge. The lake formed in 1843 and was a nameless holding pond for a nearby sawmill. In 1880 as the logging industry waned, Badger Mills co-owner John Ure, Jr.’s vision was that “Lake Hallie” — which he named after his daughter — might become a recreational attraction. He christened his two steamboats after his other daughters: Lorraine and Antoinette. One towed a barge on which couples danced as they sailed the lake.

How this must have looked: women in bustled long dresses, swirled by their male partners on a floating, fenced-in dance floor. The tinny music from a cranked phonograph likely carried for miles. Farmers looking up from evening chores may have wondered if the source was insect or human.

People have forever been drawn to water. Wallace Nichols’ book explains why. “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do” is quite a title and a proclamation. Human brains are hardwired to react positively to water, not only for calming but healing and even sparking creativity. Nichols calls it “getting your blue mind on.”

I am so ready for this, especially in April, after three weeks of safer-at-home. One night I dream I bust my pontoon off the Boat Center storage lot and pull her down the highway still in blue plastic. The next morning Bruce says, “Maybe you should just call first.” To my surprise, Jake at Skeeter’s answers. I arrange for The Jo Sea to be delivered as soon as ice goes off the lake.

After my second phone conversation with Jake, he asks, “Are you related to the Sees from 617 Harding Street?”

I say, “That was our house till my dad died.”

“I live there now.”

I exclaim “Noo way” so loudly I’m sure this young man has to pull the phone from his ear.

I am used to Chippewa connections. Still, this one.

“We love it,” Jake says. He tells me that when he and his girlfriend first toured Dad’s house, Jake’s mom — a Thorn girl who grew up down the street and was friends with my siblings — encouraged them to buy the See house. What can I say but, “Small world.”

Most trips on The Jo Sea I head toward the widest stretch of Lake Hallie. As the sun goes down the metal edge of a faraway dock turns golden then on fire. Everything looks different from the height of a pontoon, part of the inspiration of Minnesota farmer Ambrose Weeres who in 1952 developed a prototype — wooden platform on top of two steel barrels — based on a seafaring design used for thousands of years. He later opened Weeres Pontoons, the first-ever American pontoon company. His family-friendly vessels were an easy sell: a tippy fishing boat versus a stable pontoon is like the difference between walking on a gangplank or a deck.

One late afternoon my best friend Karen and I lumber along in The Jo Sea; even kayakers pass us by. At 79 acres, Lake Hallie is so small we loop around twice just to feel like we’ve been somewhere. As we pass Karen’s childhood home, her mom comes out to see us. Helen stands in the yard barefoot and waving.

“Want a ride?” Karen yells.

“No,” her mom calls back. Still, Helen walks closer to shore. She recently gave me the greatest compliment: “No one loves Lake Hallie like Patti.” That’s something coming from an 80-year-old who’s lived on this lake for 74 years.

Karen yells to her, “Meet us on Larry’s dock.”

Helen does. Karen helps her mom aboard.

I putt-putt us over to where Helen grew up: the farm her parents, Clark and Carol Hughes, bought in 1946.

Karen’s brother owns the house now; Helen still owns the dilapidated barn, the oldest structure on Lake Hallie.

We drift past the Clark Hughes Boat Landing, named for her dad who donated the land. Helen tells us she can’t remember the last time she cruised the lake. Decades or more. At sunset we take in the spectacular view of her old homestead from the middle of Lake Hallie. I can see in Helen’s eyes what none of us has to say.

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Farmer relief payments sent, another round planned
  • Updated

Many Wisconsin farmers should soon be getting a check for $3,500 in the mail while others have an opportunity to apply for a new round of COVID-19 relief payments, according to state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary-designee Randy Romanski.

Romanski said July 16 during a conference call with agriculture media that checks from the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program administered by the the Wisconsin Department of Revenue were sent out July 14 and direct-deposit payments were made on July 15.

Gov. Tony Evers introduced the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program in May. The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Farm groups in April asked Evers for $50 million in aid after calculating the economic impact of the pandemic on ag sectors.

“With the Farm Support Program, when Gov. Evers, set aside the $50 million for direct payments to farmers, one of his goals was the dollars get out to farmers and in their hands as quickly as possible,” Romanski said.

The Department of Revenue received 14,543 applications between June 15 and June 29 for the one-time direct payments from the $50 million Wisconsin Farm Support Program. Payments were available for farmers who had a gross income between $35,000 and $5 million based on 2019 tax filings.

The original plan was to offer payments of of between $1,000 and $3,500 on a sliding scale based on gross income. Instead, the number of eligible applicants, based on the Department of Revenue’s findings, resulted in $3,500 payments to everyone who received funding, Romanski said.

With the $3,500 payments going to an estimated 12,000 eligible farmers (out of the 14,543 applicants), the Farm Support Program used about $41 million of the $50 million allocated for the program.

Because not all the funding was used in the first round of the program, in August the Department of Revenue will be seeking a second round of applications to use the approximately $9 million remaining in the program, Romanski said.

The application window for the second round will be available from Aug. 10-24. Payments from that round are expected to be sent out in mid-September.

Eligibility for this round will include those with $10,000 in gross income and above, and farmers who received payments in the first round are not eligible.

Payments from this round will be smaller than they were in the first round, Romanski said. Payments will be administered on a sliding scale based on income, but the minimum and maximum payments on the sliding scale have yet to be determined, he said.

“We’re pleased that the the Department of Revenue has gotten the dollars out the door quickly, and we are also pleased that there will be another opportunity for farmers to sign up for and exhaust the funding the governor has made available,” Romanski said.

Food Security Initiative

Food banks and other eligible nonprofit organizations can apply for COVID-19 Food Security and Wisconsin Products grants until 5 p.m. on July 29.

On July 15, DATCP released a request for proposals for an estimated $10 million in grants to help food banks and other eligible nonprofits purchase Wisconsin food products for distribution to people experiencing food insecurity.

Among other materials, applications must include a letter documenting a commitment to provide a specific Wisconsin food product for purchase by the applicant. For the purposes of the COVID-19 Food Security and Wisconsin Product Grants, a “Wisconsin food product” is defined as at least 50% of the value of the product or service being attributable to Wisconsin ingredients, production, or processing activities.

Romanski said DATCP is encouraging food pantries and other organizations that might not be eligible to apply to work with food banks to make sure their needs are represented in the food banks’ proposals.

“This is meant to focus on partnerships,” Romanski said. “What we’ve found through COVID-19 is there is a wide array of food-security programs throughout the state and one of the goals has been to connect the dots between those groups ... and Wisconsin agencies and federal programs and connecting them to the funding that Gov. Evers had made available to strengthen those partnerships now and into the future.”

Applications are available at foodsecurity.wi.gov. Grant funds will be awarded for costs that are related to COVID-19 and are incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

Evers in May announced the $15-million Food Security Initiative to combat hunger in Wisconsin. The funding for that also came through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

This is the second grant available under the Food Security Initiative. Payments are estimated to be issued beginning in mid-August.

For more information, visit foodsecurity.wi.gov or email DATCPFoodSecurityInitiative@wisconsin.gov.