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Maple farm offers hands-on education

Gov. Scott Walker serves up conversation and bratwurst to Diane Tetzner of Washburn and her granddaughter Lauren, 4, during Dairy Day at the Jon and Tracy Tepoel farm in Maple on Saturday. Hundreds of visitors stopped by for an up-close look at a working dairy farm. Maria Lockwood

Dairy Days are more than a celebration of Wisconsin’s claim to fame. Each one connects people with the everyday activities of farming.

“The future of dairy lies in what we teach the next generation,” said Peter Thewis, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Ashland County.

At Jon and Tracy TePoel’s organic dairy farm in Maple Saturday, class was in session.

Children toted spotted balloons as they moved from pen to pen petting goats, blowing kisses at sheep and peering at calves. They arrived by tractor and were invited to try their hand at planting seeds, gathering eggs and even milking a plastic cow.

Evelyn Schlies, 2, held her father’s hand as she touched a sheep’s wooly back.

“She just loves to see animals,” said Joshua Schlies of Superior.

In the food tent, Gov. Scott Walker served up bratwurst while wearing a Superior Fire Department T-shirt, given to him the second time he visited Superior following the Husky Energy fire. Cheese, ice cream and Wisconsin’s energy drink — milk — flowed in abundance.

“It’s great to be back in Northern Wisconsin and it’s kind of nice to be here for something that’s not flood-related, not related to an explosion, disaster, anything else,” Walker said.

It was the final Dairy Day of Dairy Month, but he encouraged everyone to keep ice cream in mind in the July heat.

The state lost 500 dairy farms in 2017, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Thewis, president of the Chequamegon Dairy Association, said another 300 have been lost this year due to low milk prices and the consolidation of small farms into larger ones.

Despite that, he said, “We are still the dairy state.”

Walker said the dairy industry accounts for about $43.5 billion of the state’s economy — almost half of all Wisconsin’s agricultural-related economy — and employs about 79,000 people.

“But as you see with this family and others like them, it’s more than just a business,” Walker said. “It’s really a way of life.”

Visitors to the TePoel farm got a chance to see where their food really comes from, and glimpse the bond between families and their herds.

“We want our animals to be taken care of,” Thewis said. “We need them just as much as they need us.”

Neighbors contributed to the event. The goats came from Robert and Amy Colby’s farm, the sheep from Gary and Nola Honkala’s. Ice cream was provided by the Tetzner Dairy in Washburn. Their multi-generational business is a one-stop shop — milking, pasteurization and ice cream production all take place on the farm.

Dairy Day reminds people that farmers still milk cows in their neighborhood. Thewis said people in northwestern Wisconsin are surprised when he tells them how many dairy farms are still operating in the area: six in Douglas County, 22 in Bayfield County, 13 in Ashland County, four in Iron County and 17 in Washburn County as of Jan. 1, according to the DATCP. For people who live further south, it’s a steeper learning curve.

“You talk to anybody south of Highway 8, they didn’t know there were farmers north of Highway 8, period,” Thewis said.

Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Delta, said she’d like to promote a new state bumper sticker: “Start seeing cows.”

Walker announced the formation of a Dairy Task Force in June to move the dairy industry forward. He signed an executive order earlier this year to find new markets for the state’s dairy and agriculture products across the country and around the world.

“We want to keep helping our dairy families in the state,” Walker said.

He also touted the Wisconsin Healthcare Stability Plan, which would drive down the premium costs of individual health insurance plans. It received broad bipartisan support in the Legislature, the governor said, and is waiting on federal approval.

TePoel said he gets up at 4 a.m. daily to care for his milking herd of about 90. He was willing to host the local Dairy Day event to provide hands-on education for people who may not be familiar with farming.

“Sometimes you forget about where that food comes from,” Walker said. “It’s important to recognize it’s families like this that make it possible.”