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Huntsinger Farms adds solar power in advance of Farm Technology Days

With the flip of a switch Wednesday morning, 288 solar panels at Huntsinger Farms started generating energy. Over the course of the year, solar power should generate about 144,000 kilowatt hours, or about 18% of all the energy used at the farm each year.

The solar panels were installed over a two-week period beginning in late May.

Huntsinger Farms and Silver Spring Foods are hosting the 2021 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire County on 460 acres, just southwest of city limits.

Eric Rygg, Silver Spring Foods president, said they decided last year to purchase the solar technology.

“I think Farm Technology Days was a big factor for us in making this investment,” Rygg said. “Being able to showcase this, and inspire others, was important to us. And we’ll have a year’s worth of data to share, and show the benefits.”

The farm houses the massive underground horseradish business, with large coolers to store and preserve the roots.

“We have 100% humidity in there, so the horseradish doesn’t dry out,” Rygg explained. “This is just another step we’re taking toward sustainability.”

Rygg declined to divulge the cost of the system but said he anticipates a return on investment in seven or eight years. They also have applied for grants to help cover the costs.

Tim Dilley, director of business development at Hudson-based Carlson Electric, installed the system. Dilley said the company installs 40 to 50 systems a year, and the one installed at Huntsinger Farms is the largest allowed by Xcel Energy. Dilley said the solar panels are great for sustainability and lower the farm’s carbon footprint.

However, Dilley said very few of their systems have been installed on farms. However, policy changes are making it easier for farms to look at solar technology.

“Farms are ideal because they have the land,” Dilley said.

Silver Spring Foods, a subsidiary of Huntsinger Farms, is the world’s largest grower and processor of horseradish. Rygg said the business has seen a 123% growth in online sales because of shelter-in-place orders, as more people are buying their products for dining at home. They also purchased Detroit-based Brede Foods horseradish company in March, allowing for a 12% growth in product.

About 40,000 patrons from across the state and Midwest are anticipated to attend the 2021 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days. About 500 commercial exhibitors will be on hand. The show was slated for July 21-23, 2020, but was postponed a year because of COVID-19 concerns.

Bigger gatherings allowed in new EC County order, but some virus data 'concerning'

In a new county order that went into effect today, Eau Claire County is loosening restrictions on the number of people at public gatherings, despite some changes in county virus data that health officials called “concerning.”

The new two-week order, which went into effect after midnight Wednesday, allows people to gather in larger groups and loosens other restrictions, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department:

  • Instead of a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings and a 100-person limit outdoors, public gatherings in the county will be allowed to host up to 100 people inside and 250 people outside.
  • Businesses won’t be required to provide 144 square feet of space for each household unit, but will be recommended to operate at 50% capacity.
  • One-on-one personal services won’t be required to close their waiting areas, but it’s still recommended.

Any large public gathering still needs to keep six feet of distance between household units, Giese emphasized Wednesday at a media conference.

The new order will be in effect through July 8.

Giese said the order will loosen restrictions “despite the fact that we have some very significant public health concerns.”

“We are making some changes because our capacity in public health and health care remains strong,” Giese told reporters Wednesday. “We remain very concerned about our disease data and we’ll be watching that carefully.”

Increasing cases

Cases continue to rise nearly daily in the county, and the portion of total tests that come back positive is also rising.

That average test-positivity rate for the last two weeks in Eau Claire County is 9.6%, according to Health Department data. It means almost 10% of tests done in those two weeks have returned positive.

It’s an uptick since earlier this summer: As of June 1, the county’s test positivity rate was 4.2%, according to county data. It’s also significantly higher than the state’s overall test positivity rate, which has hovered between 2% and 4% over the past 14 days.

Three more Eau Claire County residents have tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday, bringing the county’s total cases to 170. An estimated 137 are recovered, and over 7,400 have tested negative, Giese said. The county has recorded one death from COVID-19.

The number of county cases associated with ‘community spread’ — or the number of cases that don’t know where they could have contracted COVID-19 — has dipped from nearly 50% in early June down to 25% this week. But Giese still calls it a “concerning indicator that we have community spread.”

“Many of our cases are happening because people are getting closer than six feet (apart),” she said Wednesday, urging people to keep their distance from others that don’t live with them.

The state Department of Health Services on Wednesday bumped up Eau Claire County’s general COVID-19 risk, designating it “high-level” for COVID-19 activity. The county was designated at medium-level virus activity on Tuesday.

“It’s one measure the state is using as they consider how schools open up, as they consider how other activities happen,” Giese said of the state’s assessment.

Positive news

There’s also some good news in the county data. Local public health and hospitals are still easily able to handle the county’s number of coronavirus patients, Giese said, which is part of the reason why the Health Department is moving forward with a less restrictive countywide order.

Contact tracers have also been contacting 100% of recent cases within 24 hours, and have reached over 90% of close contacts within 24 to 48 hours.

“We have significant concerns, and it’s our responsibility to protect the public as the Health Department,” Giese said of the decision to slightly loosen the countywide order. “But we also understand we need to look at ways to load the responsibility for protecting each other at the community level.”

Local outbreaks

In addition to county-level data, the number of local outbreaks is concerning health officials, Giese said Wednesday.

The county has seen three new outbreaks in the last two weeks, including one at an Altoona nursing home. (Its goal is to have no new outbreaks in that two-week period.)

At any long-term care facility, investigations are triggered automatically whenever a case is found.

An employee at Altoona nursing home Oakwood Health Services tested positive, but has since recovered and returned to work, said Kristin Mueller, director of communications for North Shore Healthcare, which operates the nursing home.

Oakwood Health Services hadn’t had any residents test positive for the virus, Mueller told the Leader-Telegram on June 18.

“Our work with all our long-term care settings has been very positive and proactive,” Giese said. “That group is working hard to protect residents, and continues to test their employees and residents so that we have a good sense of that vulnerable population.”

People have also tested for the virus who were present at two Eau Claire businesses, Olive Garden and bowling alley Wagner’s Lanes, the Health Department said Wednesday morning. The department asked anyone who had dined at Olive Garden or at the inside bar at Wagner’s Lanes on specific June dates to get tested if they’re experiencing symptoms. For more information about the businesses’ potential COVID-19 exposure, see page 3A.

“We anticipate more,” Giese said of the outbreaks. “Our indicators are concerning this week. We are not incredibly surprised by that. We knew the more we opened up … that we would see more disease.”

Statewide, 432 new cases of the virus and seven new deaths were identified Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health Services. The state has seen 25,763 cases of the virus and 757 deaths in total since mid-March.

Health Department: Patrons of two EC businesses could have been exposed to virus

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department on Wednesday morning alerted the public to potential COVID-19 exposure at two Eau Claire establishments.

Times and places of potential exposure include dine-in service at Olive Garden, 4920 Golf Road, from 4 to 9 p.m. June 4, 9, 10 and 11 and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 16 and 17 at the inside bar at Wagner’s Lanes, 2159 Brackett Ave.

Both establishments are cooperating with the public health investigations and following best practices for disease prevention, the department said, adding that the alert was released in light of new information that members of the public may have been exposed and were not able to be contacted.

“Anyone who was at these establishments on the given days and times AND are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should contact their provider to get tested,” the department said in a news release.

COVID-19 symptoms include cough, fever, sore throat, headache, body or muscle aches, chills, fatigue, vomiting and new loss of taste or smell.

“The health and safety of our guests and team members is our highest priority,” said Nick Hewitt, general manager of Olive Garden in Eau Claire, in the release. “We have thoroughly sanitized the entire restaurant using CDC-approved disinfectant. Additionally, we continue to follow a number of daily processes to create a safe environment for our guests and team members, and the Health Department has assured us we are taking the right steps.”

Dave Burg, owner of the management company that owns Wagner’s, told the Leader-Telegram on Tuesday that one person potentially was exposed at the business, although an initial test came back negative.

“Every day is a battle and we try to make sure everyone is healthy,” Burg said.

Burg said Wagner’s has been requiring employees to wear masks at work, asking them about COVID-19 symptoms daily and not permitting any employees with symptoms to work.

“Wagner’s Lanes takes this situation very seriously, as the safety and well-being of both our employees and our customers are of the utmost importance to us,” Wagner’s general manager Rob Ingram said in the release. “We can assure you that we are going above and beyond the guidelines and recommendations of the Health Department, taking extra precautions in as many areas as possible.”

The Health Department announced those two businesses publicly because “they’re places we’re not able to be sure we’ve been able to identify all close contacts” with the people who tested positive, said department Director Lieske Giese at a media conference Wednesday.

“We carefully consider when we make announcements like this,” Giese added. “We only do it in situations where we’re not able to come up with all close contacts of an individual that’s been COVID-positive.”

The Health Department reminded residents that everyone can help prevent the spread of illness by following these actions.

• Stay home if you have a cough, fever, sore throat or other symptoms of illness.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, eating or drinking. Use hand sanitizer if you do not have soap and water readily available.

• Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, then wash your hands.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

• While in public, keep 6 feet between you and people who don’t live in your home. Avoid gathering with people not in your household. Wear a cloth face covering when physical distance is hard to maintain.

• Call your health care provider if you have any questions about your health.

For more information, email the Health Department at echealth@co.eau-claire.wi.us or call the COVID-19 phone line at 715-831-7425.