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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Wisconsin Outperforms States in Diversity of Crops


Wisconsin has long been known as the ‘dairy’ state, but it actually grows the biggest variety of crops in the nation. Farmers here are tops in cranberries, while soy is also huge, so is corn. Wisconsin is also near the top when it comes to growing and processing vegetables and meats. In this segment of our series, “Project Milwaukee: What’s On Our Plate,” we touch upon just a few of the products and related operations that link farm to market.

The UW-Extension pegs the value of Wisconsin agriculture at $59 billion, while well over 300,000 people here work in farming and food processing businesses. Many of us have seen signs of nearly half that colossus. Dairy herds dot the state’s hilly landscape.

Operations Manager Jeff Slaasted is giving me a tour of Kemp’s Dairy in Cedarburg. It’s is one of the state’s largest, processing about 200,000 gallons of milk a week.

"We’re now going to head back to the receiving area where the loads of raw milk come in," Slaasted says.

Before we entered the plant, I have to put on a hair net and white lab coat, as well as booties over my shoes. Every so often we walk through what look like puddles of soapy water on the floor.

"That’s sanitizer for your feet Bob so that as we move from one area to the other we can insure that we’re not carrying organisms and bacterial problems to open product areas that could affect the quality of our product," Slaasted explains.

The raw milk is pumped through a maze of stainless steel pipes, and is virtually never touched by human hands.

"This is the heart and soul of our processing area Bob, you can see all three of our systems. When you take skim and you add butterfat back to it, you make it homo or two percent, you run it through what’s called a homogenizer to make what’s called a homogenious product so that the butterfat doesn’t stratify and rise to the top,” Slaasted says.

In addition to processing cow milk, you might be surprised to learn that Wisconsin is number one in milking goats.

Meat processing is another huge part of the state’s food economy and shares Wisconsin’s iconic farm animal: the cow, according to John Freitag.

"When they retire from the dairy industry, they join the beef industry," says Freitag of the Wisconsin Beef Council.

" A lot of it goes for hamburger, but a lot of the dairy cattle also provide lots of good steaks and roasts," Freitag says.

Wisconsin actually processes more beef than it produces. Up to 8,000 animals are trucked here every day from neighboring states. They’re all taken to slaughterhouses run by big conglomerates including Cargill in Milwaukee, or smaller, family owned operations like Abbeyland Foods in central Wisconsin. They package products ranging from cooked beef, brats.

Another huge part of the state’s food economy is vegetable production –we’re number one in green beans, second in potatoes, not to mention other crops ranging from sweet corn to cabbage to carrots.

The harvest ended month ago on Lee Lerch’s Fond Du Lac county farm near Lomira, and things are pretty quiet. Even his newest “neighbors,” towering wind mills on nearby farms, aren’t “saying” much.

"You can hear them more if we got a southeast wind, it’s that whrrr, whrrr, whrrr," Lerch says.

The windmills represent the newest development in a lifetime of changes Lerch has witnessed. He stopped dairy farming when he turned 65. Now, at age 81, he just finished another season of growing specialty crops.

"The lima beans go up north of Green Bay, there’s a freezing plant up there. And then in the wintertime they bring them out, and combine them with other vegetables and can them. And some of our canning stuff goes over to Japan," Lerch points out.

Wisconsin growers also produce a variety of fruit crops from apples to cherries. And, as we mentioned earlier, the state is number one is in cranberry production, and it processes them into everything from juice to dried cranberries. Some of those products are shipped overseas.

Wisconsin’s food producers have been selling more products to other countries. In 2009, the state agriculture department tagged food export sales at two billion dollars. The reason Wisconsin is able to produce such a bounty and variety of food products, is because of the state’s good soil and abundance of water, according to Nick George. He’s president of the Midwest Food Processors Association.

“Water is a key element in the whole food processing chain. It’s used for growing crops, but also in the whole processing process, to cook, steam, blanch, sterilize and clean, in addition to be used in the product itself,” George says.

There’s also the mechanical genius that’s helped propel Wisconsin’s food economy since the 1800s: the machinery of the trade. We’ll cover that topic in another segment of our series, "Project Milwaukee: What’s on our Plate?”