Calling Wisconsin Farm Technology Days the state’s largest farm trade show is accurate but may sell the event a little short, this year’s host told a gathering last week.
“When you look at the partnership between Farm Technology Days and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, it becomes an educational process,” Randy Ebert said. “And this is where I don’t think you need to be in the market to buy something, I don’t think you need to be a farmer (to enjoy and appreciate the show) … You could easily spend a day in (any) one of those tents just understanding soil and water and crops and growing … to understand the foods we’re growing and why we do some of the things we do.”
Two years ago Ebert Enterprises was selected as the host of the 2017 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days exposition, scheduled for July 11-13. Ebert talked about the impact of being selected when he addressed the annual meeting of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. at the Rendezvous in Neuren.
The toughest part for Ebert and his wife, Renee, was “stuff like this,” he said – speaking in front of groups as the center of attention.
“We’re definitely more of a behind-the-scenes type family, it’s very self-conscious when you’re the feature,” Ebert said. “We love talking individually or in small groups – in fact we’re often the last people to leave because you’re always having these discussions.”
Ebert said he’s much better at one-on-one conversations and answering questions than he is a storyteller.
“Knowing all this, we know that farmers and our industry need to tell our story, because there’s plenty of people that will tell our story for us,” he said. “And as black-and-white as I am, I guarantee you will get it the way it is. That doesn’t mean we need to always see eye to eye, but I guarantee you we’ll have a good conversation about why, what and where.”
He and Renee view being “out of our comfort zone” as a net positive, though, he said.
Ebert Enterprises had specific plans for capital investments in 2015, 2016, and 2017, but when the farm was selected to host 2017 Farm Technology Days the family “shoved them all into 2015,” Ebert said.
The most visible of those investments is a state-of-the-art milking parlor that was designed to recall the traditional red barns that once dotted the countryside everywhere.
“I miss the red barn, I’ll be the first to tell you that, and so what we tried to do is combine some of heritage of that along with some new technology,” he said. The Mickelson family – his mother’s side of the family – sported five brothers who were barn builders in the 1940s and ’50s, “so you got a little bit of that in your blood.”
The other projects that were accelerated were a new manure handling and nutrient separation area, which replaced a 10-year-old system, and moving the farm’s feed center to a better location.
“Feed is our largest expense, we need to take care of it, and I’m a big believer that you have to give your employees the right tools to do their job correctly,” he said, “and we feel that’s one of those areas where you don’t cut corners, you make it as efficient as you can.”
Ebert Enterprises has grown to 50 full-time employees and about 10 seasonal workers
The operation over the years sought “slow but steady” growth that has accelerated somewhat, especially since hosting the annual Kewaunee County Breakfast on the Farm in 2003. From that time until 2012, the farm doubled in size strictly on internal growth – no animal purchases – which he said was a credit to his employees.
“You can’t do that unless you’re taking care of animals and doing things right,” Ebert said.
Another growth burst came in 2012 when the Eberts purchased a neighboring dairy farm and incorporated that operation into the existing farm.
This summer will see quite a transformation at the farm for the July 11-13 Farm Technology Days show, which is expected to draw 30,000 to 45,000 people to Kewaunee County. The exhibition tent city will comprise 60-70 acres and parking will take about 100 acres to the east and west.
It’s an enormous enterprise, and Ebert credited the various committees and volunteers who have been working to make it all happen.
“There are a bunch of doers on these committees,” he said. “We all know that there’s talkers and there’s doers in life, and we’re pretty blessed to have a whole bunch of committees and a whole lot of doers.”
The group hopes to create a farmers market theme in the middle of the event’s Innovation Square, to highlight the wide variety of agriculture in Kewaunee County – “commodities but also vineyards, hops and breweries, apples and cherries and strawberries and raspberries and honey and maple syrup, CSA’s.” To pull it off, they hope to “reach out to people who are growing, processing and marketing any of these products.”
The result could be something that puts a unique Kewaunee County mark on the big show, Ebert said.