For Wirkus, being Alice was ‘dream come true’
As a very young child growing up on a dairy farm near Edgar, Katie Wirkus knew she wanted to be Alice in Dairyland.
Now, as she finishes her year of serving as the 64th Alice in Dairyland, she tells Wisconsin State Farmer that the experience of serving as Wisconsin’s agriculture ambassador has “far exceeded her expectations.”
Wirkus will serve as Alice until June 4, and she’s excited that she will get to squeeze in a few more June dairy breakfasts before giving up her title.
Her successor will be chosen after a series of events and interviews this week in Grant County, culminating with ceremonies on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus on Saturday evening, May 19, when the 65th Alice will be named.
“It’s been an incredible experience. I knew I would be busy but until you go through it and remember all the smiles you see and all the other wonderful experiences you really can’t imagine what it’s going to be like.
“It has been a dream come true.”
Wirkus has traveled over 40,000 miles around Wisconsin talking about the state’s agricultural businesses and says she has learned a lot about agriculture in the state and about its importance to the economy.
“It has been an amazing experience. I know the roads of Wisconsin very well.”
On those travels, she has been driving around in a flex-fuel Chevrolet Tahoe, made possible through a partnership with the Wisconsin Corn Promotion Board.
One of her goals all year was to refuel exclusively with E-85 (fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.) “A couple of times I got close to empty but you learn your favorite fueling stops that have E-85 and I always made it back to them.”
A favorite memory she shared was ending up in a celebrity bicycle race event last June where she was drafted into biking in one leg of the race. “I did it in high heels too.”
Luckily, she had worn slacks that day, she says, or she wouldn’t have attempted a bike race. That event, sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board was aimed at highlighting the value of chocolate milk as a sports recovery beverage because of its protein, carbohydrates and other essential nutrients.
The WMMB also partnered with the Alice program, which is part of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, in sending Wirkus to fourth-grade classrooms around the state, where she spoke before 6,800 students (and counting) about healthy foods that are grown in Wisconsin.
With older students, Wirkus said she talked about career options in agriculture and making healthy beverage choices.
Wirkus loved the tours she was given around the state that showed her the wide variety of things that are produced in Wisconsin. They included a tour of the Hedrich family’s goat dairy near Chilton, an ethanol plant, a sorghum farm and mill that produces a specialty product for local farmers markets, and corn mazes that emphasized ag tourism.
She also toured the Trimberger family’s mink farm to see how Wisconsin producers raise some of the highest quality pelts in the world. The Trimbergers and the Kettle Moraine Mink Breeders gave her a mahogany brown mink coat that she didn’t get to wear as much as she would have liked because of the unusually warm winter.
“It is beautiful. Wisconsin is known worldwide for the quality of its pelts.”
And, of course, as Alice in Dairyland, there must be cheese.
“It was so interesting. I have always eaten Wisconsin cheese but it was usually the traditional varieties. In this job I had the chance to taste hundreds of specialty cheeses.”
Her parents, who both grew up on Holstein-based dairy farms, ended up milking Jersey cattle at the farm in Edgar where they live, says their daughter.
Their farm also produces sweet corn and pumpkins for sale to the public.
She grew up showing dairy cattle, but wanted something different for herself, Wirkus said, and found it in the 4-H swine project. She started with three pigs and it has now grown to 30 sows.
“It’s a 4-H project that has gotten out of hand,” she says with a laugh.
She and her sister raise the mostly Yorkshire herd, with some Duroc and Spot genetics (“to add a little personality to the operation”) to produce pigs that are destined mostly for youth exhibitors to raise as show pigs.
Just before Wirkus was chosen as Alice a year ago, she had accepted a job teaching middle school math in the district where she was educated. “I hadn’t taught a day, but the school considered my term as Alice ‘professional development’ and my superintendent was really supportive.”
The school hired a long-term substitute teacher to fill her spot and Wirkus will begin teaching math there this fall.
“I’m really looking forward to using real-world examples from my time as Alice to help my sixth, seventh and eighth graders learn about math. There are so many numbers in agriculture.”
Wirkus earned a degree in agricultural education and mathematics at UW-River Falls. Some of her earlier experiences — the 2008 Wisconsin Jersey Queen and 2009 Wisconsin Valley Fairest of the Fair — prepared her well for a one-year stint serving as an ag ambassador.
“I’m really going to miss going to the events and talking about all that Wisconsin has to offer. We have so much to be proud of — Wisconsin is number-one in so many things.
“The quality of our products and the breadth of our products is something we can all be proud of.”