Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley fertile ground for a plethora of crops and produce

Grace Connatser amd Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Marieke Gouda smoked gouda was one of 20 finalists in the World Championship Cheese Contest on March 5, 2020, in Madison.

At the center of Farm Technology Days 2021 Eau Claire is Innovation Square which features five leading edge area farms that are breaking new ground in a wide range of different kinds of farming.

From leafy greens and beans to Holsteins and cheese, Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley is fertile ground for a plethora of crops and produce.

Andy Ferguson is the Chair of the Innovation Square Committee that features five Chippewa Valley family-owned farms that represent the best in their categories here in Northwestern Wisconsin, the greater Mid-West, the country, and even the world.

"I myself have been surprised at the unique variety of crops grown right in our backyard in this region, and the scale is mind-blowing," Ferguson said. "Just driving down the highway you wouldn't know we have the larges producer of horseradish, kidney beans or apple orchard."

Marieke Gouda (Penterman Dairy)

Marieke and Rolf Penterman moved to the US from The Netherlands in 2002, ready to transition to American dairy farming from their homeland. But, Marieke Penterman said, she eventually wanted to create a side business of her own, which led to the opening of an on-farm creamery in 2007.. Since then, the 400-cow farm has added on guided tours, viewing windows into every part of the cheesemaking process and even has a restaurant on-site.

Penterman said she missed Gouda cheese from Holland, so she wanted to make her own, Marieke Gouda. Back then, she said Gouda was not a popular cheese, but these days it's a favorite among many. The creamery also makes a vegetarian version called Marieke Golden, which uses vegetable rennet instead of animal rennet.

"It's so important to educate people just about the different kinds of cheeses. In our case, the focus will be more on Gouda, but it's such an upcoming cheese that even fast food chains are now advertising the Gouda on their hamburger," Penterman said. "It all starts with the wonderful cow and high quality of milk."

FTD presents an opportunity to show consumers what dairy farmers stand for, Penterman said. She added that she wants everyone to know how healthy and nutritious cheese and other dairy products are. The Penterman operation also focuses on sustainability and cow comfort, including sand bedding, cow brushes and waterways.

"I always think America truly is a land of opportunity. What we're doing here, we could have never done in Holland," Penterman said. "Yet, I think we try to take the best of both worlds. ... In general I think the dairy industry is very innovative. We try to look in both countries, and see what the best thing is."

An aerial view of the Superior Fresh aquaponics facility

Superior Fresh

Founded in Hickston, Wis. in 2016, Superior Fresh sells leafy greens, like kale, spinach and head lettuces, and Atlantic salmon, grown right on the farm in the operation's fish house. President Brandon Gottsacker said their operation is made unique by raising the salmon right here in Wisconsin, rather than shipping it in from the East Coast or operating a fish pond. Superior Fresh is also organically certified.

Gottsacker said the idea of Superior Fresh began in 2012 when he partnered up with other company heads to evaluate the concept of land-based aquacultures – essentially raising fish away from oceans and streams – and tying it in with healthy and organic food production. The operation also focuses on sustainability, including a 55-acre recycled water irrigation system.

"Sustainability is a huge piece (of our business)," Gottsacker said. "Growing Atlantic salmon in west-central Wisconsin is much different than where 95-96% of our Atlantic salmon our grown, which would be Chile or Norway, so they're shipped typically thousands of miles to get to our plates."

Gottsacker said his company makes nature a priority by feeding the salmon a certified organic diet and recycling water. He said growing food in a controlled environment with minimal input and water use has helped the operation become as sustainable as possible. Superior Fresh is now the home of the world's largest aquaponics facility at 15 acres, feeding nutrient-rich water to the greenhouse from the fish house and back.

"It's a very high-tech business, and to be recognized as a high-tech business in Wisconsin is obviously super special, but really it's about the team here and the individuals that have dedicated so much time and energy into understanding how these systems operate, whether it's water chemistry or engineering," Gottsacker said.

Inside the Nellie Holstein cow barn

Nellie Holsteins

Established in 1895, Nellie Holsteins now has a fifth generation of family farmers running the operation. Derrick and Miranda, who married into the Nelson family, have been working on the farm for years and eventually plan to take over the operation from Derrick's father. The farm is on 300 acres with a herd of 175.

Miranda Nelson said it's important for them to be a featured business this year because FTD isn't taking place on a dairy farm. She said she sees it as a great opportunity to connect with people both inside and outside the ag industry and help educate them on what dairy farmers are doing to give back.

"With being so close to the city of Eau Claire, I think we're going to draw out people that are removed from the farm for a number of generations," Miranda said. "So this is also an opportunity to educate the general public about dairy farming, our practices, why we conduct the practices that we do, also sharing some of the new technologies that people in the dairy industry are using."

Nellie Holsteins has an updated barn with a robotic feed pusher and an activity system that detects sickness and heats. Plus, the built-in alley scrapers allow for the barn to "take care of itself" besides the actual milking, the Nelsons said. The farm doesn't have any hired labor, even for field work and chopping forages. They said the robotics help to keep labor costs low and simple, and FTD will help put a spotlight on important technologies that farmers should be adopting into their own operations.

"I think it's important just to be able to go and see what technologies are available that you can possibly invest into and use on your own farm, and then be able to talk to people in the industry as well as just meet up with other farmers," Derrick Nelson said.

Chippewa Valley Bean

Chippewa Valley Bean, the largest provider of Red Kidney Beans in the world. Owned by the Doane family who still farms their seventh-generation farm that was founded in 1858, Chippewa Valley Bean processes their own beans and the beans of over 100 farmers throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, and sells them throughout the US, Europe, Asia and South America.

The exhibit features a red kidney bean field, harvesting equipment, processing demonstration, long-time partner Bush’s Beans, and more. Get a close-up view on how the beautiful red bean is grown, harvested and processed.

Ferguson’s Orchards is one of the largest apple orchards in the Midwest, and the top agritourist
destination in Wisconsin.

Ferguson’s Orchards

Ferguson's Orchards, one of the largest apple orchards in the Midwest, and the top agritourist destination in Wisconsin, will have an orchard of its famous apples for people to walk through and see how modern apple farming has transformed orchards for more varieties better yield.

A pumpkin patch with Ferguson’s special attractions will also be featured so attendees can get a taste of the famous local pumpkin patch.

Ferguson, a second generation owner, says the orchard is spread out on both sides of the Wisconsin and Minnesota border and boasts 300,000 apple trees. Ferguson's Orchards is the largest apple orchard in the Midwest excluding Michigan. 

"We're not one of those centuries-old farms, but 20 years ago we decided early on to survive and that we were going to need to produce a lot more apples," he said. "And happen to be nestled in the region great growing quality for apples."

Not only can guest pick apples and pumpkins, the family has turned the Eau Claire location into a top fall destination with a variety of activities including a corn maze, farm animals, wagon rides, apple cannons, a corn pit and more.

More to learn

Innovation Square will also include different recipes and samples using key ingredients from the featured farms, a display of equipment used to harvest the specialty crops, activities and games for the kids, mascot races and more.

"Agritourism in our industry is huge. Anytime you can combine agriculture and while trying to create a greater public interest in where their food comes from, it's a win," Ferguson said.