The Lake Effect team headed to WE Energies Energy Park at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis as part of our summer series Full Plate, which has been showcasing agriculture in our region.
The series has looked at the impact of bees on agriculture, how the dairy industry impacts Wisconsin's economy, and what it means to be a modern-day farmer, among other topics. There will be even more stories to come as the harvest approaches, but we decided to take time out to look at the Wisconsin State Fair, where many suburbanites and city-dwellers are first introduced to the people and processes that put food on their tables.
Lake Effect contributors Kyle Cherek and Melinda Myers joined us on stage, along with Dale Leidheiser from Wisconsin's 4-H program and Jason Kollwelter from WE Energies.
The Wisconsin State Fair celebrates Wisconsin’s agricultural heritage; past, present, and future. And the Fair itself is where we start with regular Lake Effect contributor Kyle Cherek. According to him, the fair first started in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1851 and was just two days in October.
"They couldn't do it in August because the farmers needed to be in the fields," Cherek explains. "So just after harvest time or at the very cusp, so folks could come. And it was really a membership drive by the Wisconsin Agricultural Society to get more members."
Since then a lot has changed, including the move to modern-day West Allis and the construction of the permanent fair grounds we enjoy today. But some things have remained the same. For more than 150 years, the fair has been a place for farmers to show off their talents and share their "institutional knowledge." In more recent years as farming has become less common among the general population, the fair has also given visitors and first-hand look at the kind of work farmers do.
"If you're not in touch with that in your day-to-day life - maybe you're living in a suburb, what have you, and you don't exactly know where your food comes from - you come to the State Fair and you're intimately acquainted with that and you can talk to the people who raise the animals that feed your family," says Cherek.
Many may know Cherek first and foremost as the host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, so it might surprise some to hear that he goes to the State Fair, in part, for the food.
"I look at this like one of the great bazars, right? So you go to Morocco, you might sample a whole bunch of things if you're never going to go back and you can't eat everything because you'd be stuffed by the third stall. But that's how I enjoy the State Fair when I come for the food," says Cherek.
Wisconsin’s 4-H program has been working with kids for more than a century. The organization’s name is a reference to its original motto: head, hearts, hands, and health. And although it's changed over the years, it still maintains some roots in the celebration of rural and agricultural work, offering hands-on learning experiences in horticulture, animal sciences, and more.
Dale Leidheiser is the State Program Director of the 4-H Youth Development Program, and he says he encounters a lot of misconceptions about what the organization offers to kids.
"People in Milwaukee will say that 4-H isn't for me because we don't live on a farm and we don't raise pigs or cows or we don't have a dairy animal in the backyard," says Leidheiser.
He says that only 10% of the kids in their program live on farms. The majority of students involved in 4-H come from families that don't make their money from farming, a fact reflected in the kinds of programs they offer.
Thousands of 4-H kids participate in the Wisconsin State Fair every year, as well as county fairs throughout the state. They showcase projects they've worked on in the program which include everything from quilts, canned food, and livestock, to skills like archery and clogging.
"The project that they take, the animal that they raise it's a means to a greater end," says Leidheiser. "And the greater end is about life skills and it's about communication skills and decision making and responsibility - some of those things that are important to employers no matter where you happen to live."
WE Energies Energy Park is the regular habitat of Lake Effect's gardening contributor, Melinda Myers. For two weeks every summer, she heads to the Wisconsin State Fair to talk all things gardening with some of the many people who visit the fair grounds.
Myers is also the author of numerous books that help people around the Midwest beautify their yards (or their balconies) and also grow food. She believes gardening allows people to connect with nature and gain insight into the world of agriculture.
"Once you start gardening you have a greater appreciation for what the farmers go through. I mean, you know, if insects take out my home garden or we get flooded out, it's a bad day. But that's not my livelihood. I can go somewhere and purchase my food, and I still am going to get a paycheck from my company. But if I'm a farmer, it's bad news," says Myers.
To some it might seem odd that an energy company would have such a large presence at a state fair. But in fact, much of what WE Energies does is work with farmers to ensure our agricultural needs are met.
Jason Kollwelter is manager of agriculture and customer-owned generation for WE Energies. He works with farmers to help upgrade their systems and figure out how to get the energy they need to run their farms.
"Agriculture is an $88 billion industry in Wisconsin and about half of that, or about $43 billion, is dairy," he says. "So they are very large customers and typically on a rural part of our distribution system."
Being in a rural area can be difficult for farms which require a lot of energy for things like fans to keep cows cool or lighting systems, which Kollwelter says some farms use in order to trick cows into believing it's daytime.
"The challenge has really become, as farms continue to get larger - they are in the rural areas of our distribution system, we have to build our system and it's hard... to build it very large for one customer. So we have to work with the customers, see what alternatives they have and work with the energy efficiency to meet their needs and keep them productive," he says.