A day at the farm show

The 52nd annual Wisconsin Public Service Corp. Farm Show is at the EAA Grounds in Oshkosh through this afternoon.

Even though I’m not employed in an agriculture-related field, I make a point to go most years. I also go to what used to be called Farm Progress Days and now is called Farm Technology Days whenever it’s in the area. (This year it’ll be in Outagamie County July 17–19.) For that matter, one family highlight every March is the Ripon FFA Alumni Farm Toy Show. And one of the most interesting farm-related shows I’ve ever attended wasn’t a farm show, at least in name — the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair, held near Amherst each June. That show could have been called the Alt Fair, since it combined not just alternative energy but alternative building and, yes, alternative, mainly “sustainable,” agriculture.

The WPS Farm Show price is right (free plus $3 for parking). The food selection includes ribeye steak sandwiches, pork chop sandwiches, baked potatoes and cream puffs. There are also giveaways — for instance, recipe cards from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board — as well as an FFA silent auction and contests. (I chose not to enter the contest for free bull semen.)

If you’re a gearhead, you should be able to appreciate the technology on display, including sprayers large enough to walk underneath.

No, this is not a new model of crop duster.

I admit to being more interested in cars than in other pieces of transportation, which doesn’t stop me from going to,  for  instance, the EAA AirVenture. (Which has a substantial collection of Ford vehicles, including Shelbys.) So imagine my surprise to see …

… a real live Chevrolet Volt, the first I have ever seen. WPS had it there to promote electric vehicles, as an electric utility. WPS is driving a Volt in partnership with General Motors and the Electric Power Research Institute. Its results are supposed to be at www.wisconsinpublicservice.com/volt, though the site doesn’t appear to be up.

(I didn’t drive the Volt, but my impression that it is inadequate for families remains. It seats four, not five, so we won’t be buying one. The front seat room was adequate, but the trunk doesn’t appear adequate. You may not know that because of the materials used for the gas tank, it requires premium fuel. Maybe you won’t use much, but when you do, you’ll be using the most expensive gas out there.)

Going to farm shows always makes me pine for a pickup truck. I’ve never owned one, though I’ve driven a few, and I know owners of trucks. I don’t have a particular use for one, but, you know, a large Ford Super Duty 4×4 with a diesel engine and manual transmission might be fun to point in the direction of the next driver I see with an objectionable bumper sticker. (You can guess from reading this blog what I might find objectionable.)

It makes sense for farm shows to have farm animals, particularly unusual ones:

I asked the alpacas how they were enjoying the Farm Show. The brown one kept saying “Mmmmmmmmmmmmm,” and I can’t tell you what that means because I don’t speak alpaca. The white one kept eating the whole time. He must be related to me.

Part of my interest in farming (beyond my interest in eating) may be my indirect farming heritage. My godfather was a farmer (though he worked full-time off the farm), and my grandfather owned a farm implement dealership and then sold farm implements on the road. (He owned a succession of Chrysler Corp. station wagons packed from behind the front seat to the tailgate to the roof with three-ring binders and folders of his stuff. Had he ever been rear-ended in his wagons, he would have been decapitated.) He would stay with us while attending the World Dairy Expo or other farm expos at the Dane County Exposition Center.

Then after three years of living in Grant County, I married a farmer’s daughter; her father was a beef and dairy cattle farmer, and her brother now owns the farm. My mother-in-law has fed me farm food for more than 20 years — beef where you know the source, side pork (think of it as super-bacon), chickens the size of turkeys, elk, tongue, and other things I would not have been otherwise fed. The weight gain I’ve had since I met Jannan is a small price to pay, and as you know a waist is a terrible thing to mind.

Obligatory photo of the official farm tractor of the in-laws.

I think agriculture’s role is also underappreciated in the American economy and in Wisconsin specifically. Agriculture and farm equipment are two of the major exports of this state. You would have never gotten me to believe this 25 years ago, but I ended up doing a fair amount of ag reporting in my rural newspaper days, and I insisted on a yearly look at agriculture and food processing in my business magazine days. (My own experience in working agriculture is limited to manual labor tied to the farmer’s daughter’s gardening.)

Other than parenting, farming is the most 24/7/365 job there is. Dairy cattle have to be milked twice or three times every day. Other farm animals have to be fed every day. Cows and pigs do not recognize vacation. Farmers get to deal with the weather’s being too cold or hot, too dry or wet, or any of those at a specific time in the growing season. Farmers are better off repairing their own equipment if they can, because given how much we pay to get cars repaired, one can only imagine the equivalent per-hour repair costs of tractors and combines. Wisconsin’s famous work ethic started with farmers.

Farmers have to deal with everything businesses do, because farms are businesses, but they also get to deal with the various edicts of the state Department of Natural Resources, along with whatever idiocy the U.S. Department of Agriculture comes up with. (That is thanks to one of the worst U.S. Supreme Court decisions of all time, Wickard v. Filburn.) And if you wonder why food prices are going up this year, go down to your favorite gas station and look at the big digital numbers.

One of the great unremarked-upon innovations of the American economy is the opportunity to eat foods formerly considered out-of-season all year. Last night I made salads of spinach and tomato, neither from a can. If you buy peaches or watermelon in February, they won’t be the quality of peaches or watermelon purchased in August, but I’m old enough to remember when they weren’t available at all outside their traditional seasons.

My eyebrows start dropping in a scowl when I start hearing about the concept of farmland preservation well away from urban areas, because I think the purpose of farmland is misunderstood. Farms are factories, places where food is manufactured. Farms have become so efficient that much less farmland, and fewer farmers, are needed to feed more people, Americans and others. Farms are not there to prettify the rural landscape or to contribute to your sense of aesthetics. The people who have the most to lose by overgrazing or not otherwise taking care of their land is, duh, the farmers. (Not to mention their farm animals.)

One of the most interesting stories I wrote in stint number two at Marketplace was about Northeast Wisconsin specialty farms, which included free-range beef, dairy and chicken farms. The meat I sampled from two of them was great. It was also considerably more expensive than what you get in your favorite supermarket. Of course, in a free-market society, you should be able to choose food based on your standards of quality and value.

The WPS Farm Show was about farming (duh), but it was also about its sponsor. While farmers get to choose their suppliers for their inputs, the state Legislature chose not to give us the ability to choose our supplier of electric power and natural gas.

There were displays about electrical safety and energy conservation (including one of the coolest in-state inventions of all time, the Orion Energy Apollo Light Pipe, a combination hemispheric skylight and light). It’s a bit ironic that a power company has a show that includes displays that promote using less of its product. There were also some “green energy” companies, mainly solar power firms.

Except for those willing to pay the extra cost of “green energy,” users of electric power are agnostic about its source. Business runs on energy, whether it comes from coal, natural gas, nuclear power, wind power, solar power, hydropower, geothermal, biomass or whatever. Growing economies need more power, and will always need more power. Neither farmers nor anyone else enjoy the consequences of a non-growing economy.

One thought on “A day at the farm show

  1. You had me agreeing with you (and I never do) until the bit about farmland preservation and the need for less farm land, not more. I’ll bet any farmers reading the articles started gagging at that point. From the context of the paragraph my guess is that you are also confusing the terms “farmland preservation” and soil conservation”. You really don’t understand either I’ll bet.

    The largest dairy farm in the state is in your neighborhood. You should stop by there and inquire as to why preserving farmland is critical to their continued success, and why your commentary is 180 degrees off the mark.

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