After years of dreaming, planning - Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is a reality

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

NEWTON - After 8 years of research, planning and fundraising, the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is ready to tell the state's agriculture story.

Guests, supporters, VIPs and the media received a first-hand look at the interactive center on July 16. Housed under the gambrel roof of a big red barn, the Center located along the I-43 corridor south of Manitowoc at 7001 Gass Lake Rd just off of County Highway C.

A grand opening for the public is set for the weekend of July 28-29.

Governor Scott Walker (center) holds the ribbon as Farm Wisconsin Board of Directors President Julie Maurer cuts the ribbon for the new Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc during a preview event on July 16.

Outwardly the Center resembles a traditional dairy barn to passersby on the busy interstate. But inside, the 29,000-square foot site is so much more. While paying homage to the history of agriculture in the Badger state, the second floor is filled with interactive exhibits to help educate visitors (consumers) about the journey their food makes from the farm to their dinner table.

The facility also includes a birthing barn where guests can observe the birth of calves each day, and have the opportunity to tour a nearby, working dairy farm.

"Together here, we will tell our story. Because of our collective efforts, more and more Americans will better understand the role of agriculture in their lives," said Julie Maurer, Farm Wisconsin Board President.

Driving force

The visionary behind the Center was Manitowoc County dairy farmer Norval Dvorak whose passion for agriculture and education spread far beyond northeast Wisconsin. Retired at the time, Dvorak accompanied his son, Steve Dvorak, on a business trip to Fair Oak Farms in Indiana, commonly referred to as the "Disneyland of agricultural tourism".

Agriculture pioneer, Norval Dvorak’s legacy lives on through the mission of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center. Dvorak envisioned the Center and worked tirelessly to make it a reality. The Manitowoc County farmer and educator passed away at the age of 93, just one year before the groundbreaking.

"It wasn't long before he made mention that Manitowoc County needed a farm education center to tell Wisconsin's own story about agriculture," said Steve Dvorak. "I told him that I thought it wouldn't work but I should have known my thought process wouldn't affect dad too much."

The elder Dvorak soon found a small band of supporters who also embraced his vision, rolled up their sleeves and began laying the foundation for the ambitious project that would include the financial commitment of area agribusinesses, support of legislators and vital collaborative partnerships throughout the ag community. 

"He had this dream for such a long time and he was such a prime proponent for Wisconsin agriculture and agriculture all over the world," said Dvorak's sister, Darlene Wellner. "I'm happy to be here because I think this will be a great addition to our community and the economy here."

The family of Norval Dvorak, who is credited with forming the idea for the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, gathers at the display that pays tribute to the family patriarch.

Dvorak and his wife, Jean, and their son, Richard—who were also staunch supporters of the project—unfortunately didn't live to see the Center reach fruition.

Financial partners

Dreams take money, and Maurer says Gov. Scott Walker helped champion the effort by encouraging the group to apply for a $5 million non-state agency grant. While FWDC was awarded the grant, they had two years to drum up matching funds. The Center has currently raised 96% of its $13 million goal through corporate and individual donors.

"The governor's encouragement was the wind in our sails throughout this entire process," Maurer said. 

One of those business partners is Land O' Lakes which secured naming rights of the birthing barn.

"The purpose of Land O’ Lakes through the years as been to help position its farmers to be more successful through the power of collaboration and the willingness to change," said Peter Kappelman, Land O' Lakes Board of Directors President. "We are now teamed with Farm Wisconsin on a collaborative mission to innovate, to educate and promote ag."

With declining farm numbers and a growing world population, Kappelman says it's critical to build awareness and to educate the public on the realities of food security and about the hope that innovation and technology brings to this global issue.

"We all play a role in agriculture's future prosperity and we all have a responsibility to ensure a better tomorrow. We need to let scientists dream and engineers imagine how we will grow more with less," Kappelman said. "The decisions we make here in this country impact real people; people with faces and names all around the world."

Connecting with consumers

It's no secret to the ag community that Wisconsin is a major player in the dairy and cheese industry as well as the leading producer of cranberries, ginseng, snap beans and potatoes. But outside of that circle, consumers have a harder time making the connection said Secretary Sheila Harsdorf of the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

"Agriculture wouldn't be the industry that it is in Wisconsin without the people producing and growing it on farms and processors readying it for the consumer's table," Harsdorf said. "As more people are getting farther removed from the farm, it's important that they understand how their food is grown, how it's produced and the nutritional value of that food. Consumers want to know those things and feel connected to those who produce our food and fiber."

The new Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center opens July 28, 2018 in Manitowoc.

Not only will the Center give visitors an close-up look at modern farming and how it directly impacts them, the six exhibit centers—Wisconsin: America's Dairyland; Wisconsin's Diverse Agriculture; Feeding Your Family; Common Ground; Advances in Food Production and Agri-"Culture"—will allow them to immerse themselves in all facets of the agriculture industry which employs over 400,000 workers in Wisconsin.

"Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center will provide an opportunity for young people to not just learn about where their food comes from but to learn about all of the career opportunities tied to agriculture," said Gov. Scott Walker. "Farm families aren't nearly as big as they used to be when I was a kid and not everyone from the farm is going into agriculture. We need more young people to pursue careers in agriculture and here they will be able to see it, touch it and live it and hopefully be inspired by this place."

A statue of hands holding a seedling greets visitors at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc. The grand opening for the center is July 28-29, 2018.

It's here!

Standing among the exhibits, Manitowoc County Agriculture Agent Scott Gunderson says he still can't believe the Center is a reality.

"I actually have goosebumps," he said. "It's really a dream come true."

Maurer told hundreds of supporters gathered for the preview, that had it not been for their support, Norval's vision would have remained just a dream.

Governor Scott Walker talks with Julie Maurer, president of the Farm Wisconsin Board of Directors during a preview event to the new Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc on July 16.

"And I would be back at the farm tending cows and continuing to be bothered by the fact that many American's don't understand that farming is a labor of love, and what great care it takes to nurture the land and assure the well-being of animals. And the great responsibility we have to feed communities and how diligently we work to find the most efficient, most productive and most importantly, safest way to do this," she said. "But today is the day we put that all aside. It's my pleasure to say Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is finally here!"