In the modern era, Wisconsin agriculture is looking to reinvent itself as international in scope, forward thinking in its aspirations and unapologetic in its pursuit of perfection.
“We see that across the board in Wisconsin. No matter where you go in any part of the industry, competing in quality in a consistent theme and that’s a good place to be,” said Randy Romanski, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “There are always those who will undersell, but when you have a reputation for quality — which the state of Wisconsin clearly does with so many products — then it doesn’t matter. You’ll establish a place in the market.”
Romanski stopped Thursday by Chippewa Valley Bean near Menomonie to commemorate National Bean Day. The company was a fitting host in more ways than one. Not only is Chippewa Valley Bean the largest processor of dark red kidney beans in the world, but it’s an international juggernaut with a proven track record in foreign markets since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Today, roughly 70% of the company’s revenue comes from exports.
As the state makes a concerted effort to aggressively expand Wisconsin exports, Romanski said companies like Chippewa Valley Bean can serve as a model for agriculturists to reverence as they look to establish market share for themselves in places as diverse as Italy, China and Brazil.
“The one thing that comes out of this is that kidney beans are a specialty crop and it becomes very specialized because of the quality demands,” said Bob Wachsmuth, a co-owner and vice president. “We started this in ‘73 and we’ve always tried to have a high quality, low skin kidney bean. It’s about quality, safe quality, that’s always been our motto. I think it’s really king.”
Of course, what defines quality has shifted and evolved over the decades. As Chippewa Valley Bean enters the 2020s, their model is predicated on collaborative relationship with shippers, business partners and consumers, so they keep lockstep with changing preferences.
“Quality is number one, but there’s so many things we look at and we build ourselves in these markets. Our customers worldwide and domestically are asking these questions,” said Charles Wachsmuth, vice president of marketing. “What our steps to get there? What’s our sustainability plan? What are we doing — not just protecting the soil, but improving the soil? Are we looking at ways to adjust our energy consumption? People care about this. Companies are interested in this, and it’s coming through.”
Chippewa Valley Bean’s history is one of aggressive expansion from its relatively humble beginnings as a multi-family cooperative in the early ‘70s. Back then, its primary customers were Bush Brothers and Co., alongside a few smaller operations scattered across Wisconsin.
The company is largely operated by the same families fifty years later, but the subsequent decades have seen Chippewa Valley Bean make an aggressive foray into foreign markets. There’s been some challenges. China emerged as a formidable opponent in the early 2000s and tariff wars have proven tricky to work around, to say nothing of COVID-19, but today the company enjoys a robust presence in the international stage. This includes China itself.
President Cindy Brown said it proved easier to establish an exports model than it was to sell a can of soup stateside, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact it can be daunting for agricultural operations looking to dip their toes across the borders and overseas. Sometimes, it’s hard to pin down when and where a company should stake its claim in a foreign market.
A quality product is vital, but Chippewa Valley Bean’s model is one of aggressive marketing and collaboration, whether that’s working with state agencies, joining international trade federations, consulting with university programs or the like. And then, it’s often a matter of old-fashioned relationship building, as the company actively works to maintain connections with its foreign partners.
While Chippewa Valley Bean depends on exports, that isn’t to say it’s lost touch with its domestic roots. In fact, it’s not enough for the company to maintain a distinctive Midwestern flavor, but it’s executives openly promote a Wisconsin-centric vision. They’ve been fostering connections with local farmers, working with them to establish a rotational crop system that can support a viable kidney bean harvest every year.
“We ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t we growing more beans in Wisconsin?’ As an organization, we said we want rural Wisconsin,” Charles Wachsmuth said. “We’re looking to establish a network of kidney bean farms, from north of us in Baldwin, all the way down to Hastings. Wisconsin’s the largest processor and exporter of kidney beans. Let’s make Wisconsin the largest grower community in the nation.”
And therein lies a path forward for Wisconsin agriculture, Romanski said, a $114.8 billion industry that’s looking to establish a recognizable brand overseas.
“It’s so important,” Romanski said. “Wisconsin should never have to apologize for competing in the high end, because we do.”
Five-hundred miles seems a long drive to see a bench. And yet, here we are — my wife, our three kids, and the dog, all roaming some closed-for-the-season camping road at Pokagon State Park on the shores of northwestern Indiana’s Lake James.
“Is it this way?” my wife asks, pointing toward a snow-packed trail as I hustle ahead for a bit of reconnaissance.
“I don’t think so,” I say, unfolding a piece of paper from my pocket. “If I’m reading this map correctly ...”
We’re in trouble, I realize, if we are at the mercy of my map-reading.
We have come in search of the memorial bench for my father-in-law, Steve Ball, who passed away last June. In one of his final wishes, he’d mentioned to my wife that rather than have his name etched on some dreary gravestone, he’d prefer a lakeside bench constructed at the state park we frequented.
For three carefree days each summer, Steve would lug his bait and tackle toward Lake James while the rest of us lounged beachside, whittling away the hours building sandcastles, swimming to the buoy and back, and hiking the park’s many trails. Most of the time, Steve could be found on his rented rowboat, returning hours later with a cooler overflowing with glassy-eyed bluegill and perch.
But other days he’d forego the boat in favor of a lakeside bench, which provided him easy access to the water, not to mention a place to untangle his fishing line. Which was precisely what he hoped to leave for the next fisherman.
Thirteen days prior to his death, I stood in Steve’s backyard and called the state park to inquire about the memorial bench.
“Of course,” the woman said. “I can help you with that. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Well, we haven’t lost him yet,” I said, glancing Steve tending his tomato garden. “We are still losing him.”
I explained to the woman that we needed a lakeside bench. That as a fisherman, it was important to Steve that the bench be in full view of the water. A place where a fisherman could untangle his line.
The woman turned quiet.
“I’m sorry,” she said at last. “We’re actually out of lakefront spots for memorial benches. They’re quite popular and ... ”
I didn’t hear what she said next. All I heard was my heart beating in my head.
“Yes but, you see, he’s dying,” I said, my eyes trained on Steve in the garden. “This is sort of his last wish. I’ve been asked to carry out this last ...” I trailed off, tried a new tact.
“Look, I need to believe there’s some patch of land, just a couple of feet, where a bench might fit. Where a fisherman might untangle a line. We go there every summer. Please. He’s probably caught half the fish in that lake. Please.”
Because the woman couldn’t bear to tell me no, she agreed to take it up with the property manager. But she promised nothing.
Fast forward to the six-month anniversary of Steve’s death, to this snowy state park, to our breathless attempt to find the bench. So far, our efforts have been thwarted. Our casual stroll through the woods has quickly become a forced march, one which the children and dog want no part of.
An hour earlier, we’d come so terribly close. There, along the familiar beach, the kids and I had wiped the snow clean from a bench’s memorial plaque to see the name Steve Baldridge.
But where was the bench for Steve Ball?
After soliciting the help of a couple of park rangers, we were directed to our current location: a closed road on the opposite side of the park.
“Are we almost there?” my son moans.
“Please say yes,” begs my daughter.
The 2-year-old wails, a sound soon matched by the dog’s howl.
My wife, who holds the dog’s leash in one hand and the baby’s hand in the other, sighs.
We are too cold and too tired. The warmth of the minivan beckons.
“Can we just go?” my wife asks, untangling herself from the dog’s leash.
“I’m just going to run ahead really quick,” I say.
My wife gives me the look.
“Super-fast,” I promise. “I just need to see it.”
I sprint through the ankle-deep snow, slipping on all sorts of downed branches as I venture deeper into the closed camping lot. Though I’ve been to this park a dozen times, I’ve never been here. I cover as much ground as possible while the rest of the family trudges back toward the van.
Why am I so desperate to see this bench?
Because over the past 36 hours, my wife and I have signed our wills, waved goodbye to our childhood homes, and left the city where we both grew up. My parents are moving, and my wife’s parents are gone, and we’re out of reasons to return to Indiana.
Suddenly this bench is the only home we’ve got here.
Ahead of me, on a slight promontory jutting toward the blue-gray water, I spot a snow-covered bench.
This is it, I think. I can feel it.
But that is not it.
Instead, Steve’s bench is the last bench on the rim of the water — just as the woman on the phone had promised me hours after our initial phone call.
When I’d asked her why the property manager changed his mind — why he’d snagged us this last sacred spot — she informed me that the property manager was a fisherman, too. And that he appreciated my father-in-law’s commitment to placing a bench where a fisherman could untangle the line.
Which is precisely the plaque’s inscription:
“In Loving Memory of Steven C. Ball, 1950-2021, A Perfect Place To Untangle The Line.”
For a full minute, I steady myself against Steve’s bench and peer out at the water.
And then, I two-time it back toward my family.
My wife stands outside the van, peering at the snow-blanketed trees while the rest of our gang buckles into their seats.
“Hey,” I gasp, slowing my jog. “I found it.”
She looks surprised.
“Yeah?” she asks. “How is it?”
“Perfect,” I say. “The kind of place where you’d want to stay awhile.”
We will stay awhile when we return here next summer: me lugging Steve’s fishing gear, while Meredith manages the kids and the dog. Together, we’ll fill every square inch of that bench until nightfall. And then, once the fish stop biting, we’ll reel in our lines, gather our gear, and try not to buckle beneath this new weight.
Slowly, but surely, the Midwest is climbing out of its economic slump in the wake of 2020. Still, it remains to be seen if factors such as high inflation and rising gas prices are signs of rockier seas ahead.
That was a recurring theme at the Midwest Economic Forecast Forum hosted by the Wisconsin Banking Association. Headlining the event was Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and David Kohl, a professor emeritus on ag finance and an agricultural economist.
Discussions covered everything from land acquisitions to cryptocurrencies, but largely focused on economic recovery.
“The economy went through a very rapid shutdown, partially by government mandate, but also just by individuals, families and businesses taking effort to protect themselves,” Kashkari said. “Now, the economy has been trying to reopen and recover from that. I think the recovery is well under way, but it’s been uneven and there’s still some big gaps. Different sectors have been affected differently.”
Much of this unevenness can be attributed to factors like federal stimulus, localized shutdowns, a sudden increase in home shipping — as well as associated shipping breakdowns — and labor shortages. In general, the U.S. economy took a notable shift from services to goods, which isn’t surprising considering that services often require face-to-face interactions and social occasions.
Kashkari noted that, while the nation’s gross domestic product has bounced back and the stock exchange is humming along, there still remains a 4-6 million employee shortage, while many businesses, communities and families are still struggling to find their feet again.
If there is a concerning development to keep an eye on, it’s skyrocketing inflation. Kashkari admitted that, while he expected inflation to occur, its sudden rise and sustained climb has been far beyond his initial expectations. If the Federal Reserve and the U.S. economy isn’t able to curb inflation, it could spell trouble down the road in the form of an economic recession.
But, Kashkari remained optimistic. It’s no longer a question if high inflation will happen, he said, it’s a question if high inflation is a long-standing trend, or just a temporary bump in the road.
“I’ve been strongly in the camp of we think it’s going to be transitory,” Kashkari said. “I think that as the COVID problem passes, as the economy returns back to normal, there should not be a permanent change in the inflation rate that we’ve been seeing. I think that it should go back to the low inflation that we saw prior to the pandemic. I don’t see why we wouldn’t revert back to the low inflation regime we’ve had for more than 20 years as result of trade, technology and demographics.”
Kohl said there will likely be many economic disruptions across the globe in the years ahead as the international economy shifts from a globalist phase, which has dominated for 50-60 years, into a de-globalist phase.
“They’re disruptors, they’re challenges to your businesses,” Kohl said of these potential trends, “but they also relate to opportunity.”
Among these emerging trends is the rise of agricultural export markets, which now account for $1 out of every $5 made by agriculture. He also pointed to shifts in energy production — where rising gas prices are at the forefront in a power struggle between the West and OPEC — and noted that the United States’ divestment in fossil fuels may make it more vulnerable to Russian interests.
There’s also labor shortages and automation to consider. As for the former, Kohl noted it’s been a chronic issue that’s only grown worse with the pandemic, while automation could remove as much as 30% from the job market — mostly in low-level, mundane labor — by the year 2030. As such, labor shortages may be mitigated, but some jobs will likely remain in plentiful supply.
While the pandemic remains a powerful force in American society, now powered by the Omicron variant, Kohl said it’s also likely that federal intervention remains a prominent feature of the economy. As of now, 14% of the United States’ $85 trillion economy is stimulus of one kind or another.
While cryptocurrencies are slowly emerging as something economists need to consider, Kohl pointed out that, ironically, aging agriculturists — who hold the lion’s share of farm wealth and purchasing power — are leaning into tangible forms of capital as the new decade unfolds. Land acquisition is an increasingly popular decision in this demographic, he noted, and the decision is often framed as a legacy to be left for future generations to depend on.
Climate change will complicate these trends, just as it will complicate most every aspect of human civilization this century. Then, Kohl said, there is always the possibility for “Black Swan events,” or seismic events that can’t be predicted with any semblance of certainty. The emergence of COVID-19 is one such example, while Kohl said a crippling cyberattack could be another.