Why would anyone want to kill some "sacred cows" in conjunction with the popular on-farm dairy breakfasts held every year on dozens of Wisconsin farms?
Jennifer Kuhn told representatives of dairy promotion groups from counties in northeast Wisconsin that, for the sake of revitalizing the event, "keeping the focus on dairy," and putting the organization on a firm financial footing, it was necessary for the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee to do exactly that within the past decade.
Kuhn, a native of a dairy farm near Alma in Buffalo County, is a strategic planner, conference leader, and consultant who has worked with many cooperative and farm organizations. She is one of three consultants serving the Dane County committee. They are paid a percentage of the income derived from the annual dairy breakfast.
At the time Kuhn became involved with the Dane County committee 11 years ago, it was composed of aging members who had difficulty finding enough time to devote to the group, had recently lost a long-time leader, was working on a tight budget, and had suffered some loss of reputation, she stated.
Today, the Dane County committee has four times as many members as it did at the time it was in danger of folding, has obtained several major sponsors, is able to award five $1,000 scholarships annually while still maintaining a reserve fund of $10,000, earned a net profit of $35,000 in 2013, and hosted a crowd of 6,300 for its 2013 dairy breakfast.
Another benefit is that past farm breakfast hosts have joined the committee, Kuhn reported.
How did this happen? Kuhn said it came at the cost of losing a few members from the original committee, eliminating some attractions such as the "petting zoo," and requiring the committee to decide if the goal of its several activities was education, fund-raising, or promotion.
Kuhn posed a similar question on the latter point to the attendees here. She also pointed out that people are likely to assign different meanings to those words, leading to lack of focus and difficulty in defining what constitutes "success."
In Dane County, that point was resolved by designating the "Cows on the Concourse" at the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison on the first Saturday of June as an educational event and the on-farm dairy breakfast a week later as a fund-raiser, Kuhn explained.
She noted that the event at the capitol emphasizes fitness and nutrition, has veterinarians on hand to describe dairy cow care, has cheese sandwiches and milk for sale, offers two spots for petting cows, and has a trivia format as an added attraction.
For the dairy breakfast, everyone over age 2 is charged admission — $4 for age three-11 and $7 for age 12 and above, Kuhn reported. She said the cost of staging the event averaged $4.50 per person in 2013.
In recent years, the host farms were able to offer such varied attractions as robotic milking, a cow floating tank, and a manure biodigester, Kuhn indicated. She also noted that vendors are welcome to set up booths at the event. The space is free to any party paying the dairy checkoff promotion fee and to the event's financial sponsors while all others are charged.
Among the other changes at the Dane County breakfast are preparation of scrambled eggs (no longer omelets) in a huge pan, serving hours from 7:30 a.m.-noon, the elimination of plywood signs in favor of the display of banners and small posters only, and having bank employees take the admission money. "Those were not easy changes," Kuhn commented.
Entertainment at the Dane County breakfast includes horse-drawn wagon rides, appearances by Bucky Badger and dairy and farm organization queens and princesses, and music by the Soggy Prairie Boys, Kuhn noted.
Face-painting is popular for children and even with a few bald-headed men and the scholarship winners and the next year's breakfast hosts are introduced from the stage, she said. The success of the new approach has led to having hosts lined for the coming three-five years, she observed.
All political candidates and their accompanying staff are charged admission and are not allowed to roam the grounds seeking signatures on their candidacy forms, Kuhn stated. They are invited instead to stand behind a table and have people approach them for obtaining signatures.
This is in tune with "keeping the focus on dairy," Kuhn remarked. "I have also taken down political signs that were put up."
In the past, the Dane County committee relied on the year's host farm to send out letters to sponsors seeking financial or in-kind support for the dairy breakfast with the result that contributions averaging $35 were common, Kuhn indicated. The new procedure is to have the consultants prepare and send a two-page letter instead.
What Kuhn described as "a soft sell" letter goes out in January and asks the recipients for cash, products, or volunteer workers. Invitations also go to associations, product sellers, animal adoption agencies, corn growers, dairy goat owners, and animal product suppliers to obtain exposure for themselves at the breakfast.
The introduction of sponsorship levels and the dollar amounts involved nearly caused some of the dairy promotion committee members to "suffer a stroke" but it has proven to be an extremely successful way to provide financial stability for the organization, Kuhn commented. An inventory control and storage plan were also instituted, she added.
Similar to the approach that counties take when hosting Wisconsin's annual Alice in Dairyland competition and that other organizations chose as a fund-raising format for activities, events, or projects, the Dane County committee offers sponsorship levels of platinum for $2,000, gold for $500, silver for $250, and bronze for $100, Kuhn stated.
Depending on the year and the location of the breakfast, the committee has often been able to attract six or more platinum level sponsors — 10 of them in 2013. They have included a dairy processing company, seed company, car dealership, bank, cell phone company, a newspaper, radio station, a syndicated farm news program, a chamber of commerce, a dental office, and even a local unit of government, Kuhn reported.
The top three levels receive certain things in return, including free booth space and exposure on the committee's website. The website address is www.danecountydairy.com.
Kuhn explained that volunteers for the dairy breakfast self-register through the website. They select specific times, are given job descriptions, and are assigned to a supervisor.
The same approach applies within the Dane County dairy promotion committee, Kuhn stated. She said members are given or allowed to choose specific roles and tasks.
A key to the event is to convey an impression of safety, cleanliness, and good organization to the breakfast attendees, Kuhn remarked. One of the practices in Dane County is to have a food line set up for special needs diners, she pointed out. Riding groups are also given a place to tie up their bicycles.
Other standard practices include having an agreement with the host farm and coordination with the local unit of government on traffic patterns and roadway control, Kuhn reported. Having hosts scheduled several years ahead also serves to set up a crop rotation suitable to provide convenient parking, she observed.
To replenish dairy promotion committee rosters, and especially to attract younger members, Kuhn suggested using the social media such as Facebook but sticking with one format rather than delving into several of the social media possibilities. In lieu of social media contacts, issue newsletters, she advised.
Talk to people who attend farm tours, wine and cheese tastings, and county fairs, Kuhn indicated. Recruiting can also involve tapping members from other organizations and talking to dairy breakfast attendees, she added.
Dairy promotion groups can also link with other events to spread their message, Kuhn advised. She mentioned parades, holiday craft shows, special events at a zoo coinciding with Halloween or other celebrations, and the sporting events, marathons, and bike-a-tons at which chocolate milk can be served as the competitors finish.
Attendees at the conference here also shared what they or other counties are doing. It was noted that Rock County's committee provides 25 wooden cutout cows that cooperating groups or individuals decorate — an idea that is devised as a fund-raiser that would also be adaptable with a silo, barn, or farmer profile as the cutout. Dairy breakfast attendees vote on the entries for the awarding of prizes of $300, $200, and $100.
Other activities that one or more counties have folded into their dairy farm breakfast are an early morning worship service or Catholic Mass, self-guided tour stations at the farm, a garden walk at the host farm, a sand or corn play box for children, a children's pedal tractor pull, a scavenger (dairy information) hunt, an aerial or silo candy drop, a run or walk, a rescue from a silo, the offering of flu and tetanus shots, a blood drive, a calf dressing contest, and cheese carving.
Possibilities in other settings could be a dairy-related snow or ice sculpturing exhibition or contest and the "milking cows for a weekend" prize that Dane County veterinarians offer at World Dairy Expo.
Kuhn can be reached by e-mail to email@example.com or by phone at 608-577-8990.