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Pandemic fears create a very different June Dairy Month

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
With the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing changing the fabric of daily life, Wisconsin’s dairy promotion folks have had to take a second look at their traditional ways of promoting June Dairy Month – when events are used to educate consumers on how milk is produced and made into dairy products.

MADISON – With the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing changing the fabric of daily life, Wisconsin’s dairy promotion folks have had to take a second look at their traditional ways of promoting June Dairy Month – when events are used to educate consumers on how milk is produced and made into dairy products.

Traditionally many counties and local promotion groups have sponsored breakfasts on the farm in June, often drawing in hundreds of hungry consumers for a taste of dairy goodness and a chance to look at an operating dairy farm. But this will be a very different June Dairy Month as organizers make changes to keep their volunteers and visitors safe.

In Pepin County, June’s dairy breakfast has been turned into a drive-through event where sponsors are giving attendees everything they need to go home and make their own breakfast. When they’ve got their breakfast cooked, they can go online for virtual tours of a dairy farm and a cheese factory. That’s just one example of changes that have been made with safety in mind.

Liz Fitzsimmons, director of local market communications for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, said organizers of these local events didn’t want to leave a void where people would normally have their June dairy promotion events. “The county groups have been really creative and it has been pretty cool to see how these volunteers have started to come up with fresh ideas.

“A lot of these groups tried to wait and hold off as long as they could but then they moved on into some very creative planning. I would almost hate to say it, but June dairy breakfasts may never be the same,” Fitzsimmons added. “There are some amazing things happening.”

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In Fond du Lac County, it would have been the 32nd year for a June breakfast on the farm, but it has been cancelled and will be replaced on the same date – Sunday, June 28 – with a socially distanced event. It won’t be the same as feeding people on the farm, but organizers have found a way for visitors to drive through a farm and take home some of the foods that the county is known for, says Amy Ries, director of ag programs with Envision Greater Fond du Lac Area Agribusiness Council.

Traditionally many counties and local promotion groups have sponsored breakfasts on the farm in June, often drawing in hundreds of hungry consumers for a taste of dairy goodness and a chance to look at an operating dairy farm. But this will be a very different June Dairy Month as organizers make changes to keep their volunteers and visitors safe.

The dairy breakfast was to have been held at LaClare Family Creamery, a family-owned dairy plant that converts goat milk into a cheese called Chevre that is sold around the world. They had hoped to showcase their recently completed $10 million expansion that will make it a national leader in Chevre. (Chilton Dairy – a goat farm owned by Milk Source – is one of the partners in the expansion.)

LaClare had hoped to use this year’s dairy breakfast to educate visitors on their niche in the dairy industry, but their hosting of the event will be pushed back to next year.

Ries said the hosts and organizers were disappointed to have to change their event, but immediately went into brainstorming mode – thinking of ways they could make the new event as educational as possible. A narration is being created to provide information to visitors as they drive their cars through a visit to Vir-Clar LLC, a (cow) dairy farm in the county. Local foods like sausage specialties and cheese will be given to visitors in an insulated lunch bag, so they can enjoy them at home.

“Normally people would come to the farm and they’d get eggs and ham and brat patties and cheese samples and we’d have a kiddie tractor pull. While we can’t do those things, we still wanted to celebrate June Dairy Month,” she said.

An idea was discussed about having a drive-through breakfast but then there was concern about all the people making the food and how they might be at risk for the virus. “We don’t want to be a reckless organization and put people in harm’s way. Everybody involved struggled with the decision but we decided we have to respect people’s fears and where people are at, and still find a way to celebrate and promote dairy,” she said.

That’s when they hit upon the idea for the drive-through farm tour and take-home lunch bag.

Business support

“We are excited. There are so many agribusinesses that want to support this,” says Ries. “People are finding a way to be positive. It’s a win-win-win for people who want to get out of the house and it will be a safer environment. This pandemic has brought out a lot of creativity in our businesses.”

While youngsters won't have the opportunity to pet calves, they will still be able to see them during a drive-through farm tour at VirClar Farm in Fond du Lac County.

Ries notes that because of the pandemic and its secondary effects, people who might have taken agriculture and the food supply for granted have come to a new realization of how the food supply chain works and how food gets into their hands. “I think agriculture did come to the forefront.”

In addition to fundraising and organizing the June dairy events the Fond du Lac Agribusiness Council invests funds in two Ag Ambassadors to spread the word to school children about the important role of agriculture. Ries and Bre Zoch have continued to spread the word throughout the shutdown of Wisconsin schools. “It’s too important a message to not continue doing it. We have found virtual ways to keep promoting and celebrating agriculture,” says Ries.

No doubt parents, teachers and students have been pleased to have Ries and Zoch present their message on-line. “We are still doing the lessons that we would have taken to the classrooms. But now, when we’re doing our classes we’re also seeing older and younger brothers and sisters and parents listening in so we’re reaching an even larger audience,” says Ries.

Because the lessons are being done on-line, with kids at home, it’s possible to ask them to do things like go look in the refrigerator for a certain kind of dairy product, she said, to highlight the message. They can show her what they found in the screen.

(The message of the two Ag Ambassadors isn’t just dairy. They highlight the many fruits and vegetables grown in Wisconsin as well as trees supporting the forestry and paper industries.)

“At the end of each presentation we say ‘next year maybe we’ll see you in person’,” she said.

Grassroots promotions

Beth Schaefer, a regional program manager with DFW, works with grassroots promotion groups around the state and coordinates events with Alice in Dairyland. “There are different sets of challenges for county organizers depending on where they are located geographically and because of the fluidity of the situation,” she told Wisconsin State Farmer.

“They want to help and do promotions and they want to be good stewards of the money that has been donated by sponsors. It’s important to remember that these promotion events are locally planned and supported by local businesses,” Schaefer said. “It is a credit to these many volunteers.”

One of the reasons that geography matters is that some regions of the state don’t have wide availability of broadband services, meaning that it would be difficult if not impossible, for local organizers to create a “virtual” event – as Dane County plans to do with this year’s Cows on the Concourse event.

Hosted on the Capitol Square, Cows on the Concourse, a free and family-friendly event, kicked off June Dairy Month in Dane County. Due to ongoing concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's event will not be held in its traditional capacity but rather as a virtual event throughout the week of June 1 to 6 to bring the experience to viewers homes.

The situation facing organizers this year, she believes, is giving rise to new partnerships and new collaborations. “People really want to help our dairy farmers. June Dairy Month really began back in March. I believe this is a great opportunity to connect farmers with consumers and allow our organizers to focus on their own communities.

“We are finding silver linings and opportunities,” Schaefer said.

Also looking for silver linings is Cambridge dairy farmer Tina Hinchley. Her family was set to host the Dane County dairy breakfast on June 13 when the coronavirus and reaction to the outbreak put their plans on hold. They pushed the event back and will try to hold it on August 1.

“At first when the committee met by Zoom we talked about making sure people stayed safe even though that experience on the farm is really what we all want people to have. When we talked about a decision to postpone or cancel the event we began by contacting sponsors,” Hinchley said.

“It was really gratifying to hear that sponsors were okay if we carried their donations to the next month or to next year if we had to. We have to see how it goes. It’s important to respect everyone’s fears.”

Farm tours halted

For Hinchley and her family, the changes have involved more than a delay in the dairy breakfast. For 22 years she has hosted farm tours and this year there were no buses or bustling groups of elementary students in her farm driveway. Every year from April 15 through the end of the school year she has been booked solid. “Some days we’d have four classes here – often 120 kids at a time. Last year we had a lot of seniors touring the farm too,” she said. That’s seniors, as in older adults.

Tina Hinchley says tours to Hinchley Dairy Farms gives visitors a realistic look at dairy farming. But this year things are decidedly quieter around the farmstead.

The Hinchleys offer visitors guided tours of the farm and then lunch. Just over a year ago they expanded their herd to 240 cows and began milking them with a robotic milking system and kids were excited to see that innovation.

This year things are decidedly quieter around the farmstead. Hinchley said one teacher who had scheduled her class for a visit will be coming to do a virtual tour for her students.

Silver linings for Hinchley have included spending time with her daughter who graduated (without ceremony) this spring from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in dairy science. Together, they’ve been rearranging perennial gardens and tidying up the farmstead.

“Going into this spring our schedule was full (for farm tours). It’s almost painful to talk about. We are enjoying the down time but you go a little stir crazy too,” Hinchley said.

In addition to the financial hit from low milk prices and the loss of the farm tour side of their operation, the family grows 2,200 acres of crops – much of it corn as a cash crop. Sale of their corn has been halted due to the slowdown in the ethanol business.

 “I don’t want to be negative but it’s been a hard financial spring. We’re doing it on a shoestring.”

 Hinchley is hoping they can go forward with the on-farm event on August 1. For decades she’s been showing visitors what it’s like to be a farmer – how they love their animals and do what’s best for the environment. And she, for one, wants to get back to doing just that.