Tent City shaping up in Outagamie County
When Kevin Jarek was only eight years old, he remembers coming to the big outdoor farm show in Outagamie County.
It was 1981 and the event was called Farm Progress Days that year when it was hosted by Richard, Helen and Terry Van Epern.
“For an eight-year-old boy growing up on a farm, a show like that is a candy store,” he said. “As an Allis Chalmers fan I remember they had an Allis on top of a silo, showing the strength of a silo roof.”
That event made a lasting impression on that boy, who is now executive secretary for the county’s second turn at hosting Farm Technology Days.
Jarek, who is the county’s UW Extension agent for crops, soils and horticulture, spoke with Wisconsin State Farmer at a media day June 6 hosted by organizers of this year’s show.
With only about 40 days to go before the opening of this year’s event July 17-19, Sugar Creek Farm and Heideman Farms welcomed the media to an open house to promote the event, just outside New London.
This year’s host families understand flexibility and collaboration, Jarek said, which is one of the reasons they were chosen to host.
Though there were other applicants, the committee keyed in on this set of farms because of the owners’ willingness to work with their neighbors, with the committee and also for their dedication to the ideal of promoting Wisconsin agriculture, Jarek said.
“It isn’t just a question of land or buildings or whatever. In this case the potential hosts convinced the committee they weren’t going to be passive but active participants and they could work with their friends and neighbors.”
Outagamie County’s Executive Committee chose Sugar Creek Farm, owned by Mike Bruette and Jeff Handschke and families along with nearby neighbors, the father-and-son team of John P. and John A. Heideman to host the show.
“Lots of time and effort has gone into this and we’re starting to see that this show is going to be a success. I have a lot of quiet satisfaction with the changes we’ve seen,” Jarek said.
A lot of collaboration has helped create and improve the site that will soon become 60 acres of Tent City and the heart of the show where 600 exhibitors will set up and where 60,000 people will visit.
The center of the area where Tent City needed to be sited included a huge sink hole covering about two acres. It had to be dealt with.
“It was a crater you could drive two semis into,” Jarek said.
State and local agencies worked with the farmers to make sure the filling of that natural depression was done appropriately and quickly. “The NRCS and Land Conservation Department worked with us to find the appropriate fill and it will make a much better site for Tent City.
“And once the show is done, the host farmer will be able to farm that complete field without having to work around that sink hole.”
Today there’s no sign that the rise in the middle of Tent City was once an unsightly and unproductive hole in the field.
In addition, fence lines have been cleaned up and pulled out, with rocks and tree stumps making way for clean sight lines around the farm field across from the Sugar Creek Farm where Tent City is all mapped out.
“Everybody’s happy with the changes in the landscape at the site.”
In addition to the host farmers, another neighbor contributed land too, so there would be enough to site Tent City. Milk haulers Larry and Greg Natzke are allowing their land at one corner of the site to be used.
“Without that we wouldn’t have had the 60 acres needed for Tent City,” Jarek said.
SHOWCASE FOR COUNTY AGRICULTURE
Outagamie County is known for some of its larger cities but Jarek notes that agriculture is the backbone of the county economy. “We have lots of small towns and rural areas where agriculture is king,” he said.
It is the top county in the state for cabbage production and that cabbage is mostly processed into sauerkraut. “We have the largest kraut processing plant in the state and cabbage is one of the first things people think of when they think of this county’s agricultural production.”
Agriculture is consistently worth about $3 billion to the county’s economy, says Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson. “This event will add $2 million to the local economy,” he adds.
“We have thriving farms of all sizes, including Milk Source, which is the largest dairy operation in the state,” Nelson added.
The group of volunteers working on this year’s show has become an extended family, Jarek said. “I see the enjoyment and depth of feeling in these people.”
The volunteers on the executive committee have given three years of their time to this show, he added, and have found that flexibility is a key attribute for working on an event of this kind.
“You can’t plan everything,” he says, flashing a trademark smile.
In getting this show on track he said he has made an effort to take time to appreciate those who are giving of their time and to remember that the host families have their businesses to run as well as family concerns.
Jarek said he also tried to make the planning and execution of this upcoming show fun for those who are volunteering their time to it.
“I’m about the journey, not the destination.”
People working on the show have developed friendships that they never would have made if they hadn’t stepped up and volunteered, he said, and that is very gratifying.
CHALLENGE OF TIMING
One of the challenges of this year’s show was that the planning proceeded during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“Our presentation to the county board happened in November 2008 and you know what was happening then — everything was going belly up.”
The show traditionally needs seed money from the host county to get everything rolling and the Outagamie County volunteers were asking their county board for $45,000.
“Though budgets were tight and the outlook was bleak we proceeded with telling them what they could expect from the show. You build your case and are honest about things as you move forward.”
Jarek made multiple trips to county board meetings to answer questions and provide more information about the annual farm show. The show is expected to have a $1.8-$2 million economic impact on the county.
Vic Grimm, chairman of the show’s local executive committee said one of the things that the committee made clear to the county board was that any money earned from the show gets pumped back into the community. (See related story.)
“Agriculture is a massive part of this county’s economy. We’re thought of as an urban county but everything we deal with links back to agriculture,” Grimm said.
Grimm, who is head of corporate quality control for Agropur (formerly Trega Foods) and its 27 cheese plants, said he had been to many FTD shows before, but wasn’t aware of how much work went into planning one.
He’s been impressed with the way the tight-knit agricultural community in the county has been willing to work together to get this job done.
TO MOVE OR NOT
Since it began as Farm Progress Days, the farm trade show and outdoor event has moved from county to county each year.
To move or not to move the show each year has been a serious question in recent years as some events have been rained out on one of more days of the show.
From an exhibitor point of view, Jarek said, he can see that a permanent site for the show with gravel or paved roadways would be preferable. But having seen the local pride and many friendships that have developed, he comes down on the side of moving the show each year and building that local pride and involvement.
“I can see arguments that could go both ways, but moving the show also allows people coming to the show to see the diversity of the state’s agriculture.”