Iola Car Show makes pitch to hold FTD 2021, possibly more

Jan Shepel
Iola Car Show organizers say their group has facilities and grounds that would be conducive to the large farm show. Their car show swells the population of tiny Iola from 1,300 people to 120,000 during their event each July.

MADISON - The changing structure of UW-Extension as well as potentially big changes in Wisconsin agriculture in the next few years have made it difficult to determine what the fate of Farm Technology Days will be in the future.     

The annual outdoor farm show is set through 2020, with Wood County hosting the show near Marshfield this year, Jefferson County hosting in 2019 and Eau Claire County hosting in 2020. But at the annual meeting of Farm Technology Days Inc., in Madison April 4, board members didn’t immediately choose a site for the event the following year.

Each year when FTD, Inc. — the corporate board that oversees the traveling outdoor farm show — holds its annual meeting in April the next host county is announced. But that didn’t happen this year. John Shutske, who has been chairman of the FTD board for the past eight years, said that there are concerns about the future of UW-Extension and the overall farm economy of Wisconsin and the impact of both of those things on the future of Farm Technology Days.

Larry Fechter, left, managing director of the Iola Car Show and Joe Opperman, the show’s public relations and marketing director, were part of a group representing the car show at the annual meeting of Farm Technology Days, Inc in Madison where they presented a pitch to hold the annual outdoor farm show on their permanent grounds in 2021. The board’s decision is still pending.

During a private session, the board heard an hour-long presentation from officials with the Iola Car Show in Waupaca County and board members were encouraged by that group’s interest in holding Farm Technology Days on their permanent show grounds in 2021 as a pilot effort.

“We will hold discussions throughout today and for the next few months with the Iola people and convene later in the summer to make a decision,” Shutske said.

“The people from Iola made a great presentation and the board wants to do its due diligence,” he added. “We should have a decision this summer and certainly no later than World Dairy Expo.”

Larry Fechter, managing director of the Iola Car Show, which celebrates its 46th anniversary this year, told Wisconsin State Farmer that his group has facilities and grounds that would be conducive to the large farm show. Their car show swells the population of tiny Iola from 1,300 people to 120,000 during their event each July.

Joe Opperman, the Iola Car Show’s public relations and marketing director, said his group understands the logistics and infrastructure of a really big outdoor show and they do it every year. He and Fechter are both full-time employees of the Iola Car Show.

Their show grounds cover 300 acres and they have spent a large amount of assets in developing those grounds over the last several decades — including paving streets. Their facilities include 4,200 vendor sites and during their event, which is sometimes called the Old Car Show, they have room for 2,500 show cars.

“We understand logistics and infrastructure for a show like this,” Fechter said. “The FTD board is debating what they want to do and deciding if it’s a good fit or not.” The two were accompanied by three other board members to represent the car show at the FTD meeting.

After having heard public presentations from last year’s Kewaunee County hosts and from the three counties that are currently on deck, Fechter said their emphasis on developing leadership in the host counties is something he and his group are very conscious of.

Waupaca County could be a good fit for the show since it hosted the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the event and it also hosted the first event — when it began as a plowing contest.

Over the years UW-Extension has played a critical role in getting the show off the ground in a new host county each year. The County Agent has been the de-facto general manager for the show in each new county, a job that begins when the county is chosen as a host and goes on for three or more years as the show is planned, organized and hosted.

As financial support for Cooperative Extension diminishes, counties aren’t sure they want to host such a large event without the support of that person in the county’s UW-Extension office. In light of Extension cuts, recent FTD, Inc. meetings have included discussions about hiring a non-Extension staff person in the county to help with the show.

Guests at Farm Technology Days at Ebert Enterprises in Algoma watch a field demonstration of choppers on July 12, 2017.

Kewaunee County

The concern about future shows comes on the heels of a wildly successful 2017 event in Kewaunee County. Aerica Bjerstrom, the county’s UW-Extension agent who was executive secretary of the show, said they had 1,900 volunteers – 10 percent of the county’s population and took 15,000 people on tours of the Ebert farm which hosted the event.

Their commemorative toy sold out before the show and was one of the most popular models sold by a county show since the Fox chopper. The passion for agriculture and for FTD was shown by the Ebert family even before they were selected as host family, she said.

Cows at Ebert Enterprises get milked three times a day in the round 80-stall rotary milking parlor. Guests at 2017 Farm Technology Days could tour the farm on tram rides.

“We had a lot of fun and took a lot of pride in making Kewaunee County a destination rather than just a place you go through to get to Door County,” she said.

Amber Hewett, chair of the executive committee for the Kewaunee show said organizers had already given back $104,000 to the community and still have “six figures” in their coffers which they plan to use for a legacy-type project for the county, for scholarships and for local grants for projects in the county.

Wood County

Wood County organizers have less than 100 days to their show, to be held near Marshfield. Dennis Bangart, chair of the executive committee, said they will showcase the dairy industry, since about 25 percent of Wisconsin’s dairy processing is done within a small radius around Marshfield.

2018 Farm Technology Days, Wood County

The area is also a hub of stainless steel fabricating for North America and is home to a large, well-known medical organization, Marshfield Clinic. Clinic staff will provide six different types of free health screenings at the show. The video produced for the show has had 60,000 views in 40 days and their food committee is planning to highlight dairy processing as well as beef and dairy farms and the area’s large cranberry production region.

Jefferson County

Scott Schneider, chair of the executive committee for the 2019 Jefferson County Farm Technology Days, said organizers have been at work building relationships within the county and making presentations to agribusiness groups and building excitement through publications and interviews. Fundraising for the show is “gaining momentum” he said.

Tent City is taking shape with input from various committees like traffic and parking. Schneider said he “was naïve” regarding the amount of money that is needed to produce a toy tractor for the show. “The cost is astronomical,” he added.

Organizers are relying on LaVern Georgson in the Extension office for support. “He’s the glue that holds us together.”

Eau Claire County

Eau Claire County’s Extension agent is Mark Hagedorn, who previously served as executive secretary for an FTD show in Brown County. Huntzinger Farms has been selected as host for the show — notable for their signature crop, horseradish. The farm has 5,500 acres and devotes 700 of that to horseradish, producing 7.5 million pounds a year. They are the world’s largest producer of horseradish.

Bob Panzer, vice chair of the executive committee said that under their brand, Silver Springs, the Huntzingers produce 47 percent of the horseradish sold in the United States.