Media Day provides first look at FTD host Walter Grain Farms

Jan Shepel
Media Day for Jefferson County’s Farm Technology Days, visitors climbed aboard trams pulled by tractors to take a look at the acreage that will become home to Tent City in a few weeks’ time. Right now, they quipped, it is “Stake City” because it has been outlined with wooden stakes to mark the streets and sites which will become exhibitors’ lots. The show runs July 23-25 at Walter Grain Farm near Johnson Creek.

JOHNSON CREEK – Scattered showers moving through south-central Wisconsin didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Jefferson County volunteers who will be putting on the state’s largest outdoor farm show in about one month’s time.

Jefferson County’s Farm Technology Days volunteers hosted Media Day on June 25, which is traditionally the opening bell leading up to the opening of the show. It’s a chance for reporters from farm publications and farm broadcasters to find out what will be new at the show and meet volunteers and host families. The show this year will be July 23-25 at the Walter Grain Farm on French Road, Johnson Creek.

The Walter family of Johnson Creek will be the host family of this year's Farm Technology Days show in Jefferson County.

The theme of the show is “Generations of Farm Pride”, a nod to the fact that the Walters family also hosted the show in 1984, when the event was still called Farm Progress Days.

The showcase for farm reporters was in a new storage building the Walters family put up in preparation for the show. Scott Schneider, the executive chair of this year’s show, said the Walters have adjusted their business plan and their cropping rotation and attended meetings for the last three years. “They are our biggest cheerleaders,” he added.

For the first time in years there is no dairy operation, no livestock presence on the host farm for Farm Technology Days, but the Walter family farms 6,000 acres with about 2,500 of it owned by them.

LaVern Georgson, the University of Wisconsin-Extension agent for Jefferson County who has been working as Jefferson County FTD Executive Director since the county got the bid to host the show, notes that agriculture is still a huge economic engine for the county. Grain accounts for nearly $85 million in county economic activity, milk is valued at $58 million in Jefferson County and poultry production is a close third at $55 million.

In addition, the county is home to the state’s largest trout farm, largest nursery and greenhouse business and largest ethanol plant, he said. Of the county’s 48,431 jobs 7,869 are in agriculture.

“Agriculture in Jefferson County pays $32 million in taxes and pumps $1.8 billion into local economies,” he said. Sixty-four percent of the county’s land is in the hands of farmers, he added.

In addition to highlighting the importance of agriculture in the county, Georgson said he hopes that those who visit the show will come away with the sense of community that is present in the county’s communities and businesses. “We want to convey the message that agriculture is important and we want to use this show as a springboard to the future,” he added. “The host family has provided a really strong foundation.”

After the many thousands of visitors head to the Walter Grain Farm for FTD, he hopes people will return to the county at a later date to see what else it has to offer.

One video presented during Media Day showcased the Walters family and another showed many of the county’s business leaders who have lined up to support FTD including Jones Dairy Farm, Tyranena Brewing Company, Berres Brothers Coffee Roasters, Emil’s Pizza, Mullen’s Dairy Bar and Wedl’s Hamburger Stand.

Ben Wehmeier, Jefferson County Administrator, said when organizers came to the county several years ago with the idea of hosting the show in 2019, they needed seed money to the tune of $50,000. “With the heritage of agriculture in this county and the potential for economic development and the show’s economic impact, it was a pretty easy sell,” he said.

Jim Schroeder, the Jefferson County Board chair, noted that studies have shown there may be as much as $1.86 million in economic benefit to the county from hosting the show. “Our hope is that before or after the show they will get on the back roads, visit our small towns and stop by at some of the businesses we are going to showcase,” he said. Bike trails and park systems in the county are something he hopes visitors will notice.

This year's executive committee for the FTD show in Jefferson County includes (front row from left) Katelyn
Broedlow, Linda Wright, Melissa Gerner, Tracy Brandel, Amy Listle, Brent Payne. Not Pictured: Matt Hanson, Christy Strobel, Lloyd Zastrow, and Jeremy Chwala. Back Row (from left) LaVern Georgson, Scott Schneider, Tim Finger, Luke Wiedenfeld, Dale Gaugert, Mark Schnell, Paul Hadler, and Claude Christie.

The county will play host for the show again in two years when it will be held at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. Schroeder said he’s proud that the show will be in the county this year and again in 2021.

This year’s FTD Executive Director Melissa Gerner said the show will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on July 23 with an admission price of $8 all day. That day will also be Ag Career Day and will feature a scavenger hunt for young people. The idea is to help them learn more about the diverse career options in all aspects of agriculture, she said.

On Wednesday, July 24, the show will remain open until 7 p.m. and admission prices will be reduced to $5 after 3 p.m. Gerner said organizers are hoping they will attract non-farm visitors who can learn about agriculture but also take part in a Block Party that will feature beer, wine and cheese from local purveyors and makers. That evening event is planned to include comedy and music.

“There are 25 or 30 different breweries and wineries in the area and they want to be participants in the show,” she said. There is an extra charge for partaking in the block party.

The third day of the show is Mascot Day, featuring Bucky Badger, a cream-puff mascot and others, she said. Real cream puffs in various flavors will be offered at food tents.

The show’s farm toy is a 1600 Oliver with a front-mounted picker. Sales have been brisk with show organizers anticipating a sellout by the end of the show.

The show’s farm toy is a 1600 Oliver with a front-mounted picker and Gerner said sales have been brisk. “We anticipate a sellout by the end of the show.”

The county has a large equine population and organizers have included demonstrations and performances by some top local horse trainers as well as nationally known clinicians, including Curt Pate, she said.

Field demonstrations on the Walter Farm will run from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 3 p.m. daily and will include wheat harvest, baling, mowing, merging and rock pickup as well as field drainage demonstrations.

The Heritage Tractor organizers have planned plowing demonstrations at 10 a.m. daily – a nod to the plowing contests that were the original event at the first Farm Progress Days events. They plan to highlight equipment from 1954 – when the first show was held – and 1984, when the Walters family first hosted the event.

An ever-popular pedal tractor pull will also be part of the event.

The Walter family will be hosting this year's show at their home operation, Walter Grain Farms in Johnson Creek, in Jefferson County.

Gerner said the county’s food pantries have told her that July is the toughest month of the year for donations so they are asking visitors to bring non-perishable food to FTD and drop them off at the show’s information booths to benefit the county’s food pantries.

Innovation Square, a central part of the show grounds that has been part of FTD for the past few years, will highlight Jefferson County’s history – it was established in 1836 – as well as its recreation, energy and hospitals, Gerner said. That is also where the Block Party will be held.

Matt Glewen, FTD General Manager noted that Wisconsin is really the only place where there is such a large farm show moving from county to county, being put on by people who’ve never done it before. “When we describe that to our friends who put on other exhibitions in other parts of the country they say we’re either really brave or really stupid,” he joked.

“Sometimes I wonder how it’s ever going to happen and it always does. It’s a tribute to all the volunteers who make it happen year after year,” he said.

Eau Claire will host the 2020 show at the biggest horseradish farm in the world and then the show returns to Jefferson County in 2021. “The fairgrounds in Jefferson is one of the best facilities around and we are happy the show will be there,” Glewen said.

After that the show will be hosted in Clark County in 2022.

Glewen thanked the members of the media for being at the event. “I am amazed at the amount of coverage from the media we get year after year and we thank them for all they do.”