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'It hurts': The coronavirus pandemic is forcing many dairy festivals across the dairy state to cancel

Hannah Kirby
Wisconsin State Farmer
June Dairy Days in West Salem, a 3-day festival held the first weekend in June, has been canceled over coronavirus concerns.

For as long as Jeanne Bahr remembers, she's attended West Salem's June Dairy Days

"I lived in the country, so for me, it was a big deal to come to town," said Bahr, who is now the president of the event's committee. 

The three-day festival, held the first weekend in June, was supposed to feature a parade, carnival, car show, live music, kids activities, and plenty of food.

But for the first time in the event's 50-year history, it has been canceled — over the coronavirus pandemic. 

And many other dairy festivals throughout the dairy state have decided to make the same call.

In 2019, more than 200,000 people attended at least 70 National Dairy Month celebration events in Wisconsin, said Beth Schaefer of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. 

"Naturally one of the things we're concerned about is that these were opportunities to connect dairy farmers with dairy consumers to share that Wisconsin dairy story," she said. 

West Salem's June Dairy Days typically attracts between 1,000 and 2,000 attendees, and last year, it brought in about $20,000, Bahr said. 

"It was a tough decision, but we didn't want to have that many people in one area, based on the current COVID-19 situation," she said. 

Now, more than 12 community groups, including the West Salem First Responders, the West Salem and Barre Lions Clubs, American Legion Post 51 and Auxiliary, the West Salem Business Association, churches, and schools, that volunteer for the event and get a share of its profits, won't see those funds this year. 

"They understood because they're all part of helping us plan and were part of the decision on whether we should have it or not," Bahr said. "It's unfortunate this year that it had to happen that way, but we want to keep people safe."

Another piece that factored into the cancelation was business sponsorship. 

"We felt bad having to ask them for money during this time," Bahr said. "It's hard to ask these businesses for sponsorship money when they've been down."

June Dairy Days

Another June Dairy Days, in GIlman, has also decided to cancel. 

"It takes months of planning to get everything advertised, to get sponsorships, and all of that stuff," said Kim Anderson, president of the Gilman Community Betterment Association, which puts on the event with the Gilman Lions and Lioness Clubs. 

"With Governor Evers' safer-at-home order he extended in April to the end of May, there was no adequate time to get everything together."

That order has since been stuck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court

One event during June Dairy Days in GIlman is the crowning of Miss Gilman. The 2020 festival has been canceled over coronavirus concerns.

Gilman's three-day festival, scheduled for June 19-21, was going to have a dairy breakfast, a parade, a softball tournament, fireworks, the crowning of Miss Gilman, a chicken dinner, a fun run/walk, and raffles. 

"All organizations in the village are involved somehow with the event," Anderson said. 

Its her organization's biggest fundraising event of the year, with 600 to 700 attendees in a village with a population of around 400

"It's a setback, but we'll just plan something better for next year," Anderson said. "We'll be OK."

Community groups, such as the Popular Grove 4-H Club and Gilman Future Farmers of America piggybacked off the event with dairy breakfast and ice cream sale fundraisers. 

"Our whole community was disappointed, but gets it," Anderson said. "The schools have been closed, graduation isn't going to happen, people get it."

A $2.55 million impact

In the past five years, the Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth — which started in 2001 — has grown from a 1,000 attendee "small town" event to a 30,000 visitor food festival. 

"All in all, the festival is to pay homage to the cheese curd, since Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery is the cheese curd capital of Wisconsin," said Becky Beissel, who leads the festival committee for the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce. 

The Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth usually has two "cheese curd centrals" that sell three flavors of deep-fried cheese curds: signature beer batter, cinnamon sugar, and one that changes yearly.

But the celebration won't be happening this year. 

"We thought it was our responsibility to not invite anything into our community that might have ill effects," Beissel said. 

The entire area, as well as community groups, will feel the loss since the event has a $2.55 million economic impact on the region, she said. 

About 20 community groups, including schools, churches, the Lions Club, first responders, sports teams, and the Ellsworth Public Library, serve as volunteers at the festival. 

Each volunteer is paid about $18 per hour — a rate of $10, plus a profit sharing bonus at the end of the fest — which gets donated right back to their organization. 

"Knowing that we were kind of canceling their main stream of funds was really hard," Beissel said. "We reached out to all of them and they completely understood. Everybody is just kind of feeling the same way — sad."

In the past five years, the Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth — which started in 2001 — has grown from a 1,000 attendee "small town" event to a 30,000 visitor food festival.

The fest usually has two "cheese curd centrals" that sell three flavors of deep-fried cheese curds: signature beer batter, cinnamon sugar, and one that changes yearly.

Each professional food vendor has two signature cheese curd items on their menus. 

"We go through about 6,000 pounds of cheese curds during the festival," Beissel said. "Even though it's not huge in the grand scheme of the dairy industry and the issues that they're having, it's a little bit we could have done."

"These dairy events really moved a lot of dairy products," Beth Schaefer said. "If you've been to a dairy breakfast or celebration, there's always lots of milk and cheese and sampling that happens.

"It's small, but something to be considered since we've seen that retail-side of the dairy industry impacted so much with the closure of restaurants and the slow reopening."

'A way to get people to notice us'

In 1989, Clayton Lions Club member Ed Cerney helped out at his first Clayton Cheese Days, flipping burgers. 

The event started back in 1965 as Clayton Blue Cheese Day, and featured blue cheese burgers, tractor pulls and ball games, said Cerney, superintendent of the Clayton School District. 

Over the years, the event —held Father's Day weekend — has expanded to three days and has featured a variety of festivities, from carnivals and car shows to triathlons. 

"We use this as a way to get people to notice us," Cerney said. "We are right on a highway, but most people just drive by. 

"Our Cheese Days is what gets people to stop and say, 'Hey, there is a place here, there is a village here, there is something to do here."

This was one of the trucks that participated in a Clayton Cheese Days antique auto show in 2018.

Two years ago, Cerney began working with community groups to put together an organizing committee for the event. 

"We've been looking at how we can make it a little less disjointed," he said. "Instead of having everybody do their own thing and it fits together, try to make it make sense as an entire festival."

In prior years, local organizations involved with the event would ask area businesses for donations. This year, the committee switched to a model of having one entity ask each business for one donation to be shared among the groups. 

"The businesses really liked that because they could make one larger donation, knowing that they're not going to have to make four or five more," Cerney said. "It was working great until we had to close everything down."

When the Clayton Lions Club and the Clayton Fire Department — the event's two major players — met back in March, they decided they needed to cancel this year's event. 

"It's not something any of us really wanted to consider," Cerney said. "But it came down to what's going to be the best and healthiest for the residents in the area."

Clayton Cheese Days started back in 1965 as Clayton Blue Cheese Day.

In a "good year with no rain," Cerney said the Lions Club brings in about $10,000 during that weekend. The event typically averages between $40,000 to $50,000 in profits. 

The Lions Club uses their funds to support local students, Cerney said, and the fire department uses theirs to supplement the cost of equipment, gear and truck updates. 

"It hurts," Cerney said. "We only have one shot, and not being able to do that is going to be a little tougher this year."

'Holding on with hope'

With the 55th annual Colby Cheese Days slated for July 17-19, its organizers are still "holding on with hope" to be able to have it, said Connie Gurtner, chairperson of the event and the city's clerk. 

A parade, memorial run, carnival, cheese curd throwing contest, performances, sports tournaments, and three pulls, among other festivities, are planned for the weekend. 

During Colby Cheese Days, an annual run is held to honor Lt. Jamison Kampmeyer, who was killed in the line of duty as a member of the Colby Fire Department.

The Colby Cheese Days committee, a subcommittee of the The AbbyColby Crossings Chamber of Commerce, heads the event, and usually just breaks even with beer tent sales and entertainment. 

The 10 organizations that run the food court and sports tournaments over the three-day fest, including the local 4-H Club, Cub/Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, VFW, churches, choirs, bands, and the booster club, are the ones that "really make the money from the event," Gurtner said. 

"I don't know where they'll get the money if we don't have Cheese Days," she said. "That's my driving force behind my thoughts of we really should still go ahead with it."

When Gurtner used to be 4-H leader, she said her group raised more than $2,000 over that one weekend.

"That was the only fundraiser we really had to do," she said.

The 55th annual Colby Cheese Days is slated for July 17-19. Its organizers will decide in June whether or not they will have it this year.

In total, she estimated that the event brings in about $30,000 to $40,000, and draws between 3,000 and 4,000 attendees. 

"It's a big decision on my shoulders," she said. "I know that no matter what we decide, not everybody is going to be happy."

They plan to make a final decision at the beginning of June. 

"After that point it's going to be too late to do anything," she said. 

They've delayed their contracts with food vendors and mailings to businesses asking for advertising donations. 

"Media that the locals, especially the elderly, have been listening to and watching, there's a lot of fear," she said. "We're just concerned even if we have it, there will be a lot that won't come." 

Cows on the Concourse

Another popular event that draws thousands to Capitol Square will also be held with a virtual twist. From June 1 to 5 the virtual Cows on the Concourse event will feature daily live videos air on our Facebook page (@CowsOnTheConcourse) between noon and 4 p.m. to give viewers a virtual experience. 

Organizers will also feature tours of a tour of a local dairy farm, cooking demonstration with Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, get an inside look at Sassy Cow Creamery, and music from Soggy Prairie. 

Contact Hannah Kirby at hannah.kirby@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HannahHopeKirby.