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A small building stood out in a field speckled with dandelions in western Chippewa County on May 19.

Breakfast to go
Pepin County on-farm breakfast canceled, drive-thru alternative offered

June Dairy Month is just around the corner, but with most dairy breakfasts in Wisconsin canceled or postponed, it’s a guarantee that celebrating it won’t look quite the same.

The same goes for the 32nd annual Pepin County Town and Country Dairy Breakfast, which has canceled its on-farm breakfast slated to have been held at Weiss Family Farms in Durand.

That doesn’t mean that the county is missing out on a dairy-filled breakfast next month, though, even if the method of delivery has had to change.

As an alternative to the on-farm breakfast, which is now planned to be held at Weiss Family Farms again in 2021, the Pepin County Dairy Promotion Council is hosting a free drive-thru breakfast on June 20, the same day that the on-farm event was initially scheduled to be on.

While not the traditional mode of delivery, the drive-thru is something the committee is planning to make a “100% honest attempt” at, said T.J. Poeschel, member of the Pepin County Dairy Promotion Council.

With the dairy industry and agriculture in a difficult situation, Poeschel said, the committee was looking for any way they could still show support amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have to do something,” Poeschel said.

Don Weiss, whose farm was initially scheduled to host next month, said that after the on-farm event was canceled, he proposed to the committee that they needed to still have a way to promote dairy products during a month traditionally dedicated to celebrating all things dairy.

The committee ultimately decided to go with the concept of the drive-thru breakfast, although they’ve also made and plan to make other dairy donations in the community as well.

Weiss said that he thought the drive-thru option was a “phenomenal idea.”

Weiss credited the county’s dairy promotion committee as being “very proactive for dairy” and said that they deserved “a pat on the back” for the work they’ve been doing to keep promoting their dairy products.

Instead of coming to the farm for the breakfast, two drive-thru locations at Eau Galle Cheese northwest of Durand on Highway 25 and Komro Sales & Service east of Durand on Highway 85 will be set up.

The drive-thru will still include dairy breakfast staples such as butter, milk, cheese, sausage and pancake mix, but instead of being prepared on site, participants will be given a bag with the ingredients to take home and make for themselves.

It’s a way for the committee to keep “real dairy products” in the hands of the consumers, Poeschel said.

Plans are to offer 600 bags with enough ingredients to feed a family of four, Poeschel said, and larger families can request more than one bag.

Items included in the breakfast are purchased locally, Poeschel said, including from businesses like Eau Galle Cheese, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, AMPI, Grassland Dairy and The Durand Smokehouse.

The Pepin County breakfast, which does not charge a fee, runs on local financial support.

While locals will indeed get their opportunity to enjoy a dairy breakfast next month and can show their support for the dairy industry, they’ll still be missing out on the on-farm experience that can often be as equally important as the meal itself.

This year, plans for virtual elements and tours that can be participated in safely from the confines of a home are being included in the dairy breakfast, but it won’t be same as having kids eager to learn and others who want to see how farms operate physically present on the farm and being able to educate them that way, Weiss said.

That educational piece of these events typically gives the host farm an opportunity to make a lasting impression on attendees and demonstrate the farm’s values.

“We want to get the people detached from farming back attached to it,” Weiss said.

They also want to “show the rest of the world we’re doing things the way the should be done” and the care they have for their animals, he added.

Like many in-person events that have been pushed into another format due to COVID-19, that experience can be hard or impossible to truly replicate digitally or otherwise.

But with Weiss Family Farms’ agreement return as host, something the committee is “very excited” about, Poeschel said, they hope to be able to get back to teaching kids and making connections on the farm next year.

Any updates on this year’s drive-thru breakfast will be posted on the Pepin County Dairy Promotion Council Facebook page and communicated via radio or newspaper advertising. Questions can also be directed to Pepin County Dairy Promotion Council Chairman Randy Koller at 715-577-4892.

Anecdote for a graduating senior

This column is dedicated to all the Chippewa Valley’s graduating high school seniors. Congratulations and best of luck.

My favorite college professor was Rebecca Walkowitz, and I became her student in my junior year at UW-Madison. Seems strange to think about it now, but she was just nine years older than me (29 to my 20) and filled with the kind of magnetic energy and charisma many great teachers possess. I’ve always been eager to please my teachers, but I can’t remember another instructor that I admired so very much and when I tell you that I still think about her almost every week of my life, it is the truth.

At about the same time I met Professor Walkowitz, my father suffered a massive brain aneurysm. Because my parents were separated, I became my dad’s legal guardian, a responsibility I carry to this day. While my classmates were busy attending Badger football games or keg parties, I held down a part-time job, and argued with nursing homes about my dad’s care. At times, I felt bitter, angry, cheated. I don’t know how to better explain my inner frustration except to say that I became a sort of caricature of myself, an exaggerated version of a young, ornery, headstrong northwood lumberjack.

I resented my circumstances, the work I was doing, my obligations. Looking back at myself from the vantage of about 20 years, I was no one you wanted to pick a fight with or talk to at a party. I was a damn stick in the mud.

One day I was sitting in Professor Walkowitz’ office, and if I remember correctly, she asked me what I wanted to do with my life. This was not long after 9/11, and there was a part of me that wanted to volunteer for the military. Or maybe, retreat up to some family land in northern Michigan and, I don’t know, cut firewood, or stare intently into the flames of a wood stove. I’m sure I was spouting some anti-intellectual garbage, trying to somehow display how macho and self-assured I was. Basically, I was waving a white flag on my college career. Though it now sounds crazy, I was contemplating the notion of giving up the path I’d chosen — to study literature.

At some point, Professor Walkowitz sighed, and — this I will never forget — she said, “Nick, what if we all stayed the same person we were at 20? Or 18? What if we never matured beyond what we had learned in high school? What if we never traveled anywhere? How would that be commendable? What would the world be like?”

If you are a thoughtful person, a sensitive person, there are moments in your life, when, if you are listening, someone will challenge you in just such a way that they may as well have flicked you in the forehead with a finger. Or punched you square in the nose. That was what I felt. What if I never changed? What if I was inflexible? Where was the virtue in being so stubborn, so obtuse? And — didn’t I want to learn more? Isn’t that the point of this, my life? All our lives?

When we think of education, it is easy to immediately conjure classrooms, desks, and increasingly and unfortunately — tests. But the lessons I return to on a daily basis, the cornerstones of who I am as a human, those moments of enlightenment or regret, empathy or understanding, most of those lessons were derived outside of the classroom, in quiet offices, over beers, in fishing boats or on long walks.

The miraculous thing about being, say, 18 and a graduating high school senior is that if you understand that there is strength in learning, in flexibility, in openness — then the world will present itself to you, the world will become your classroom and teacher.

I am hopeful that this quarantine and this virus we are all trying to come to terms with is an opportunity to reflect on what lessons are important, on what voices we listen to, what work we believe is good, valuable and virtuous. Without much forethought, I have spent more than a few days in the past month planting trees. And during that silent work, when it is just me, a shovel and a tree so small it almost resembles a twig, I have reflected on the why of my labor. Why am I doing this when I might be doing that? My answer is that even if I were to die tomorrow, planting a burr oak tree today would always be the right thing to do. It would always make the Earth a better place to live, a cleaner, cooler, more beautiful place.

Whenever I can, I share my anecdote about Professor Walkowitz because it informs not only who I am, but the way I wish the world would or could be. I wish that we all took a moment from time to time to assess if we are still teachable, if we are still learning and if what we assume we know of the world is true. I wish every person had a Professor Walkowitz in their life, pushing them, agitating them, inspiring them.

I think of who I was at 16, 18, 21 years of age, and I do not feel nostalgic for that person. But I do feel inspired by all the women and men in my life who at 60, 70, 80 years old, still treat the world like a university, still treat their fellow humans, each one, like professors, no human underestimated. Those women and men who still treat every day like a new book to be read.

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill to a new graduate. On the contrary, after this most strange spring, when so many experiences, so many goodbyes, so many parties, so many celebrations have been stolen, I want to emphatically say that everything is ahead, and it is all somehow different than you think in the most beautiful and unexpected of ways. So please — don’t ever stop being a student.

Holstein and Brown Swiss cows grazed in the hills on George and Mary Gierok’s Independence dairy farm. The Gieroks hosted the Trempealeau County Dairy Breakfast in 2019.

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Relief funds coming to farmers

Wisconsin farmers will soon be getting a little relief from the upheaval of the past several months.

Gov. Tony Evers on May 20 announced the Wisconsin Farm Support Program, including $50 million in direct payments to farmers in support of the agricultural sector during the COVID-19 pandemic and a $15-million Food Security Initiative to combat hunger in Wisconsin.

The funding is part of the money allocated to Wisconsin through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

“The governor reaffirmed his commitment to using federal funding from the CARES Act to support agriculture,” Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection interim Secretary Randy Romanski said in a May 21 ag media conference call. In addition to the direct payments to farmers, Romanski said, Evers also saw a way to assist farmers through the hunger initiative by, “connecting the dots between Wisconsin producers, Wisconsin processors to Wisconsin consumers by helping those who are food insecure.”

Farm groups were quick to applaud the announcement, including the eight — Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Corn Growers Association, Wisconsin Soybean Association, Wisconsin Pork Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association, and Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association — that last month sent a letter to Evers making a case for $50 million in aid after calculating the economic impact of the pandemic on agricultural sectors.

“The pandemic’s crushing economic effects on our commodity markets are unprecedented. The crisis severely twisted our supply chains, devastated our labor force and created anxiety for our customers. COVID-19 will likely bankrupt many multi-generational farms in Wisconsin,” the groups said in a news release. “We know that these payments will not make up what our farmers have lost financially. However, this assistance will provide support to help them cash flow and continue their vital mission of providing food to our nation during this crisis.”

Farmers will have to apply for the aid through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, which is working with DATCP. Farm support payments could begin arriving as early as June.

“Farmers have asked for help, and this direct aid is meant to aid the farmers who are the foundation of our food system,” Evers said in a news release. “Farmers also serve as the backbone of many of Wisconsin’s local rural economies, and these direct payments will help revitalize local economies and jump-start Wisconsin’s food supply chain, which has been significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. ... I look forward to getting this relief into the hands of farmers around the state.”

Romanski said an announcement is coming on the window of time farmers will have to apply for the relief funding and that funding will not be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

“We want to find a way to get the funds in the hands of farmers as quickly as possible,” Romanski said. “Wisconsin’s got a diverse agriculture industry, and we’ve engaged that diversity in this discussion (of how funds will be divided). Our goal is to identify a way we can get the dollars out so it goes to all farmers.”

A portion of the $15 million funding with the Food Security Initiative will go toward helping food banks, pantries, and other nonprofit organizations fighting food insecurity adapt to challenges posed by the COVID-19 public health crisis. This may include adjustments to public health and social distancing guidelines, such as curbside pickup or delivery services, purchasing prepared meals from local restaurants for distribution, as well as other expenses that are being incurred by these organizations as they continue to provide services to families in need. The initiative will emphasize the importance of prioritizing the use of Wisconsin products wherever possible in feeding citizens who find themselves in need of support.

Additional funding from the Food Security Initiative will help food banks, pantries, and other nonprofit organizations purchase, process, and/or store Wisconsin agricultural products for distribution to local consumers in need. This section of the Food Security Initiative will help ensure that the funding provided in the federal CARES Act goes to help Wisconsin organizations distribute nutritious Wisconsin food products to Wisconsin consumers who need them most.

“During this difficult time, people across our state don’t have enough to eat in a state that helps feed the entire country,” Evers said. “Connecting the dots between struggling food producers with organizations that are working to address food insecurity requires a coordinated effort — one that draws upon the ingenuity of our residents and their devotion to their neighbors and communities.

“Our farmers and agribusinesses have never wavered in their commitment to providing nutritious, high-quality food for folks here in Wisconsin and around the world. Now, we’re going all in together to support both Wisconsin’s agriculture industry and people in need throughout the state.”

The Food Security Initiative builds on work that was done in April as part of a commodity-purchase program while at the federal level the U.S. Department of Agriculture was working on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. Romanski said the Food Security Initiative is in some ways intended to make up for what he sees as shortcomings in the way the USDA involved Wisconsin agriculture in the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

Of the initial $1.2 billion the USDA made available as part of the Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program, Farmers to Families Food Box Program, Wisconsin farmers saw only $9 million of that come their way.

“DATCP created additional opportunities by connecting farmers to organizations here in Wisconsin. This is a great way to give that a boost while we’re still waiting to see how the USDA food box program works,” Romanski said. “How the governor boiled this down is: Wisconsin products, Wisconsin processors, Wisconsin distribution networks, Wisconsin consumers. That’s connecting the dots all the way through the supply chain, something that we have yet to see how the USDA food box program would make happen.”