Organizations, volunteers step up to the plate to keep producers in business and people fed

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive economic fallout among Wisconsin agribusiness, but many volunteers have organized to ensure these producers stay alive during the crisis.

Kristy Tremelling, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Spring Green near Madison, has begun selling T-shirts to support dairy farmers. All the proceeds will buy dairy products from local farmers, which will then be donated to food pantries. Tremelling said she wants to support her community because farmers are always helping others, even if they are struggling themselves.

As a full-time ER nurse, Tremelling said she never thought there would be such an overlap between the nursing and farming professions. But she's noticed how similarly she cares for her patients like she does for her calves, and even though she sometimes doesn't get enough sleep, Tremelling said she feels rewarded as long as she helps someone.

"When the milk checks and bills are piling up, when you can put a smile on a kid's face because you gave them an ice cream cone ... you made a huge impact," Tremelling said. "You say one thing or you do one thing, and it can change somebody's outlook."

Tremelling said the shirts don't just represent her little town, but all of Wisconsin - the strive for tradition and passion incorporates everything Wisconsin dairy farming is about, she said. 

Waupun FFA Chapter advisor Tari Costello has been working nonstop with ag producers for over two months. She's partnered with Waupun-area businesses to create Ag Product Giveaway Days, where the FFA will give away products purchased from local businesses to neighbors who need it every Friday morning.

The first week, Costello said they gave away 1,200 gallons of milk in less than two hours. She said they used a local business parking lot that allowed people to drive right up and grab a gallon or two for their family. People would also leave cash donations - Costello said they collected $400 that morning. That cash would go towards the next week's purchases.

"People thought that what we were giving away ... it wasn't necessarily to feed the needy, although that is a component of it," Costello said. "What we were really trying to do was move product. We wanted to get product off the shelves, we wanted to put dairy products, in particular, into the hands of consumers."

Since many dairy farmers have had to dump milk since March due to restaurant and school closures, the excess product wasn't able to be sold since the demand no longer existed. But with this system, ag producers could make some profit back while also helping the local community and economy.

The Waupun Area Jr./Sr. FFA and Alumni hand out 1,100 half gallons of chocolate milk during the Agriculture Product Giveaway. The efforts have been possible over the past 10 weeks due to the donations of area businesses, farms, individuals, 4-H groups and the FFA and Alumni groups.

Costello said helping people is important right now because there needs to be positivity during such a chaotic time for Wisconsinites. Other businesses and organizations who helped with the Waupun FFA initiative include Vita Plus, LeRoy Meats of Fox Lake, Kwik Trip, the Aronson family, Brandon Meats and Sausage and Tractor Supply.

Waupun FFA also partnered with Saputo and Knaus Cheese Inc. to give away 500 pounds of Saputo's mozzarella and 500 pounds of Knaus's cheese curds. Redeker Dairy Equipment and Waupun Equipment also pitched in with over 1,000 pizzas in donations to the Waupun FFA.

RELATED: Pandemic fears create a very different June Dairy Month

RELATED: FFA experiences changed by coronavirus pandemic

RELATED: COVID-19 forces changes to dairy promotion activities

RELATED: Pandemic brings about change to agri-businesses

Yodelay Yogurt has also helped people out by donating yogurt to schools for lunches. Emily Gregory, director of public relations for Yodelay, said her company has worked with many Wisconsin FFA groups, including Waupun and Mt. Horeb. She said she's glad the company has been able to not only give back to communities, but also help continue teaching people about agriculture and where food comes from.

"It's been really, really neat to see how companies and people in general have stepped up to help others," Gregory said.

A local coalition of farms in Marinette and Oconto counties, including Finger Family Farms, Schwittay Farms and Drees Dairy, has also banded together to give product to food banks and pantries. The group said they've fed over 300 families a month since they began giving back.

Laura Finger of Finger Family Farms said many people gave her money to buy milk and butter from local grocery stores and donate it to the pantries because it's the right thing to do. She said farmers are built with the unique gift of giving.

"Different people have different opportunities, and all of us saw the opportunity to do that," Finger said. "So we took advantage of being able to help."

Monica Schwittay, one of the dairy farmers within the coalition, said she had people asking her how they could help the cause too. She said many donors, including herself, set personal goals to see how much they could donate and raise for the cause. But Schwittay also said this shouldn't stop after the economic crisis has been dealt with.

"We don't want this to be a one-stop cause for anybody," she said. "I want this to continue moving forward."

Schwittay also said that since this was an educational opportunity, she wanted people to know that the kindness wasn't just to get food on the tables of the less fortunate. It was also to help farmers stay in business and get product moving, because otherwise they would have to get rid of unsellable product that they didn't have the room to store or the money to process. At the end of the day, it's about cash flow.

Mack Drees, of Drees Dairy, said Finger was the one who got him involved in giving back and educating the public about dairy farming. He said he wants people to know that dairy products are nutritious additions to a family's diet, and that we're fortunate to have such an abundance of it in Wisconsin.

"My family goes through about one and a half gallons a day," Drees said. "I like to think of it as a really, really healthy product, and it's guided my family to be a healthy family."

Drees said that even though this situation has been "a living nightmare," he would never let anyone go hungry if he could help it. He said living through a pandemic like this, as well as the resulting economic losses, has helped him become humbler and more aware of the people around him.

Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus gave away free milk in a "kindness cooler" between March and May.

Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus had a "kindness cooler," a refrigerator filled with free milk and other dairy products, in front of their store between March and May. Anyone who found themselves struggling to pay for groceries could visit the cooler and take what they needed, no questions asked. They have continued to donate their products to food pantries although the cooler is no longer outside.

“It's all about taking care of people in the community," co-owner James Baerwolf said in an earlier story. "We just make sure it's full. It's not a matter of who's in need or how much they need.”

The Horicon FFA has also been helping out dairy farmers and those in need during this time. Advisor Alice Kern said she worked with the Waupun FFA for ideas on how to partner with local businesses and farms, and on May 15, they went to work. Kern said the organization handed out 300 gallons of milk, 200 pounds of cheese and nearly 300 pounds of sausage in one day. The week before that, FFA sent 60 pounds of cheese home in school lunches.

Kern said area businesses, like Kwik Trip, Central Ag Supply and Widmer Cheese Cellars sold or donated product to give to food pantries and also give away to people who drove up for them. She also said people were kind enough to sit through long car lines, only to donate cash when they got to the front of the line.

"I was telling people, maybe if you don't need it, come get some (milk) and give us a donation to keep it going," Kern said. "You don't even have to go to the store. ... Give us a donation and we'll keep purchasing from the local farmers."

Kern said she's unsure if the Horicon FFA will continue doing their work through the summer because their funds have run out, but if she gets more donations or volunteers, she will continue to set up more giveaways.

One of Horicon's own had to dump thousands of gallons of milk throughout April. Joe Condon, who is president of Horicon FFA Alumni, has been a dairy farmer since 1986 - and he said this is the first time he has ever experienced the inability to sell milk. He said many people didn't understand that milk has to be processed and pasteurized before it can be sold, and he was unable to do that without cash coming in. This is a good time to tell people where their food comes from, he said.

"People don't even grow gardens anymore, like our parents did and grandparents did," Condon said. "They just think food comes from the store, they don't realize where it starts."

Tiffany Westphal Sponholz hands out fresh mozzarella cheese in Waupun.

Condon said this is an important time to be helping people compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some people may not be able to go grocery shopping like they ordinarily would, he said, which is where the help comes in. He added that Horicon FFA Alumni donated $300 to Horicon FFA to help them buy dairy products to hand out.

Beth Stay and Jackie Goplin started the Curds for Kids program in April, collaborating with Feed My People Food Bank in the Eau Claire area, in response to school cancellations. The cancellations meant some kids went hungry because their most reliable meal came from school. Stay also said they knew farmers had to dump milk, and they wanted to help connect the dots between the two groups.

Curds for Kids has donated over 10,000 pounds of cheese curds to thousands of students in Trempeleau County so far, Stay said, adding that chapters of the organization have also been created in Jackson and Clark counties. 

"We heard that dairy farmers were dumping milk, yet we also knew that school children were in need of food," Stay said. "We hope to continue through the summer as long as the schools are providing meals to their students."

R. Braun Inc., a St. Nazianz ag equipment and hardware service, helped to donate locally-sourced butter and cheese and give it away through local restaurant Meat's Opera Haus. Every customer who made a purchase of $15 or more got to pick a free pound of butter or cheese curds. Alecia Braun, who co-owns the business, said they gave away more than 300 pounds of dairy.

"When the prospect of farmers having to dump milk became a reality for some of our customers, we knew we needed to do something," Braun said. "That was hard to hear and hard to see."

Burnett Dairy Cooperative of Grantsburg has donated 65,000 pounds of cheese as of mid-June and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. Most of that is pizza cheese, like mozzarella and provolone, and it's been donated to local food pantries, Catholic charities, United Way and pizza restaurants. 

Ledgerock Distillery, based in Fond du Lac, began making hand sanitizer just hours after they received an email from the federal government giving details on how to produce it, co-owner Heidi Retzer said.

Retzer said they donated hand sanitizer to Fond du Lac's emergency rooms and fire departments because her husband and son, Jay and Bryce Retzer, are first responders. They also donated to food pantries, nursing homes, the Salvation Army and the Waupun and Campbellsport FFA chapters, among other places.

Retzer said the distillery stayed open 24/7, and her husband and son, who run the business with her, even slept on the floor there at times. She said it's been difficult to get all the components ready to package the sanitizer, and it's still hard today to get some plastic parts.

"Even though it was definitely very taxing on them, it just felt very good to give back to the community and try to make sure that people in our community were going to stay safe," Retzer said.

Stephanie Miller, who works in marketing for Burnett Dairy, said Chell Trucking helped facilitate deliveries to places that didn't have refrigerated trucks available to carry the cheese, and also volunteered to load and unload it all. Miller said that was "an extremely important piece" of the project.

Part of the 65,000 pounds of donations has gone to area schools. Miller said 16,000 pounds were donated to school lunch and backpack programs. Two pounds of shredded mozzarella was included with every meal, with a recipe card attached for cheesy bread so the kids would have something fun to make.

"Our farmers felt good because they could still take their milk someplace, and then we could help the community as well," Miller said. "Everybody was watching out for each other."