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Leader Telegram - Farm Technology Days will showcase diverse ag economy

October 18, 2019

By Chris Vetter - Leader-Telegram staff

Wisconsin’s top agriculture official on Friday saw some of the diversity that will highlight the 2020 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire County, specifically the host farm, where horseradish is the top crop.

Huntsinger Farms and Silver Spring Foods are hosting the three-day event, July 21-23, 2020. Organizers are hoping to draw 40,000 visitors from across the state and Midwest.

Bradley Pfaff, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, toured Huntsinger Farms on Friday, where he applauded the plans in the works for next summer’s festival.

“Wisconsin’s agriculture strength is its diversity, and this show will demonstrate that,” Pfaff said. “This is going to be a great show, telling a big story of where food comes from.”

Eric Rygg, Silver Spring Foods president, showed a four-minute video that highlighted the history of the farm, how the company grows horseradish, how the business has grown, and concluded with footage of his family sharing the farm.

“I think hosting Farm Technology Days, it gives us an opportunity to tell our story and showcase our horseradish,” Rygg said.

Pfaff raved about the video and the underlying message of the video, going beyond just agriculture, but how a family farm is interwoven into the story.

“We’re also telling the story of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin farms,” Pfaff said. “This is a story that needs to be told.”

Wisconsin Farm Technology Days will be set up over 460 acres, including a “tent city” with 500 commercial exhibitors on the south side of the property, along Mitchell Road. There also will be test fields where people can see horseradish crops. The University of Wisconsin-Madison will be bringing its diverse hemp crops. There will be experimental crops on display, such as winter barley, winter rye and turnips, not commonly grown in this climate.

“We have value-added (crops) through all of it,” Pfaff said. “It provides economic opportunities.”

Andy Ferguson, owner of Ferguson’s Orchards, is working on showcasing the diverse agriculture offerings in the state. An “innovation square” will show off everything from kidney beans to apples to gouda cheese to a salmon tank.

“There’s a lot of crops that I think people will be surprised are grown in Eau Claire County,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said a running theme through the show will be people who live in cities — and don’t know where their food comes from — meeting and learning from farmers who grow their food. He is impressed with the plans.

“The layout of the show really lends for people who are coming just one or a part of a day,” he said.

Bob Panzer, vice president of the Eau Claire Wisconsin Farm Technology Days executive committee, said Huntsinger Farms was an ideal site for the event because of its location just south of Interstate 94, and near Eau Claire city limits.

“We’re in a dynamic agriculture area,” Panzer said.

Committee members are meeting regularly to work on details, such as lining up buses to bring people to different areas of the grounds, and they are meeting with officials from the town of Brunswick about altering traffic patterns around the farm.

“There are a lot of things people don’t realize, from utilities to internet,” Panzer said. “We want to do a farmers market; we want vendors to commit to coming all three days.”

While Panzer is excited about how the show is coming together, the big thing he needs now is helpers.

“We need about 2,000 volunteers to do this show, and we have 400 to 500 now,” Panzer said. “We have a great show coming to the Chippewa Valley, and we need more people to pull it off.”

Eau Claire County last hosted Farm Technology Days in 1993, and a committee was formed to try to lure the event back to the area. Rygg said he was approached two years ago about being a host farm. He didn’t hesitate.

“Community members were trying to find a suitable farm,” Rygg said. “We had the right soil conditions, and we had the easy access, where people can find us. And (Farm Technology Days officials) liked the uniqueness of a horseradish farm.”

Rygg added: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. We’ve repainted the buildings and repaired some sidings and fixed some potholes. It was a great excuse to do that work.”

Silver Spring Foods now has more than 300 employees, Rygg said, with about 200 working in the manufacturing headquarters on the north side of Eau Claire. The company owns 9,000 total acres of farmland, most in Eau Claire, Chippewa, Dunn and Buffalo counties, but also near Bemidji, Minn.

Horseradish takes a full year to grow, so the crops pulled from the ground this fall were planted last fall, Rygg explained.

Rygg gave a tour of the underground cold storage building, where the horseradish is stored. Visitors also observed workers sorting and cutting fresh horseradish roots.

Rygg was thrilled to have Pfaff tour the farm buildings and fields.

“We’re very excited to have Brad here, because his enthusiasm for agriculture is contagious,” Rygg said. “It brings more attention to the show, because we want it to be successful.”