No fair, no food stands

Jan Shepel
Jim Koch has been running a grilled cheese stand at the Lodi Agricultural Fair for 14 years. Last year he sold about 1,800 of the popular sandwiches. This year, concern about coronavirus closed the fair, but he had already decided to pass it by for the safety of his volunteers, many of whom fall into a vulnerable age group for the virus.

For most fairgoers, food is a big part of the attraction. Those funnel cakes, hot dogs, burgers, caramel popcorn and grilled cheese sandwiches are the stuff of tradition.

For the non-profit and civic groups that organize many of these food stands, a county or local fair is a way to raise money for things like scholarship programs and other funds that help support local youth like 4-H and FFA programs.

Reuben Hopp, president of the Fond du Lac County Farm Bureau has been part of the food stand scene for decades. He said one of the concerns this year is that many of the volunteers for these food stands are elderly – in the age group that’s most likely to be stricken with the coronavirus.

“The younger ones do help but many of them are working. Retired folks are willing and available,” he said.

The massive food stand at a normal Fond du Lac County Fair requires 20 volunteers per day. They offer breakfast including eggs and pancakes, lunch and supper – things like turkey dinners and pie. He knows a lot about large fair food stands, having served for 30 years as chairman of the enormous food stand at the Alto Farm Bureau 4-H Fair in the tiny hamlet of Alto. There, they need 80 volunteers a day.

According to Hopp, the Alto Fair’s organizers are meeting this week to decide if they will have their fair or not.

The Fond du Lac County Fair is a pretty good fundraiser for his organization, allowing them to “support as many youth as we can,” he said. Even though the fair is going on in a modified for this year, his Farm Bureau chapter won’t be offering its traditional food stand.

“Our bottom line will go down but we felt it was the best thing to do rather than to get into a situation with this COVID-19,” he said. The county Farm Bureau “is sitting pretty well financially” and will still be able to take care of their traditional things like scholarships because they sold their building and have those funds, he added.

At the Lodi Agricultural Fair in Lodi, Jim Koch and a loyal group of FFA and FFA Alumni volunteers have been making grilled cheese sandwiches for 14 years. “When we started, we cooked about 500 sandwiches during the three-and-a-half days of the fair. Last year we made from 1,700 to 1,800 sandwiches. Our quantities have gone up every year because these sandwiches have been popular and in demand,” he said.

The fare also expanded from only sandwiches made with real Cheddar and butter to some that had ham and cheese or turkey and cheese or special bread, flavors and condiments.

The ability of the group to donate money to the Lodi and Waunakee FFA Alumni chapters also grew. Last year Koch and his volunteers were able to donate about $3,200 to the alumni chapters which those alumni members could then use to support the local FFA students.

“When this started we were driven both by a desire to see real cheese served at the fair and to support FFA,” said Koch, who is a dairy farmer. “Budgets were being cut and those cuts fell on FFA a lot of the time. We felt that if we didn’t do something we’d lose our agricultural education in the schools.”

Because of concerns about the coronavirus and age of many of his volunteers, Koch said he and his core group had talked about not participating this year. “Kids are involved but most of the volunteers are older and we had health concerns about those people participating. Many of them are in an age group that makes them vulnerable to this infection,” he said.

Lodi’s fair is one of the first on the schedule each year – along with Stoughton and Sauk County. Organizers made the decision to cancel the Lodi fair which made that decision for Koch.

Funds from the grilled cheese food stand at the fair, along with donations from the Dane County Dairy Promotion Committee and private individuals – mostly dairy farmers – have been part of another project. Those funds helped Koch and more volunteers hand out half-pints of milk at another local event – the Dane Fireman’s Festival. Rather than throw candy as many do during a parade he decided to hand out milk.

During the last parade, they handed out 1,100 half pints of chocolate and white milk. However, that festival was cancelled this year as well due to virus concerns.