Ag secretary gets first-hand view of Ellsworth successes, obstacles

Posted 3/15/22

Wisconsin Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection spent several hours recently touring the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and sitting in on a roundtable discussion …

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Ag secretary gets first-hand view of Ellsworth successes, obstacles


Wisconsin Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection spent several hours recently touring the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery and sitting in on a roundtable discussion with cooperative members and local business and community representatives.

Secretary Randy Romanski was impressed by the Ellsworth Creamery operation and offered insight and help on local issues and projects.

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery Chief Executive Of-


At left, Wisconsin Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection with Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery Chief Executive Officer Paul Bauer at a Feb. 25 meeting in Ellsworth. The two were UW-River Falls classmates. Photo by Jack McLoone.

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ficer Paul Bauer hosted the event the morning of Feb. 25. He recalled attending UW-River Falls with Romanski.

“Randy is an excellent advocate of Wisconsin on agriculture,” said Bauer.

Issues discussed included the need for better broadband service throughout the area and statewide, as well as issues affecting local and prospective local businesses, such as housing and the need to get products from growing operations to the table quickly and efficiently.

Romanski said agriculture is a $104.8 billion business in Wisconsin and employs one in nine people.

“Sometimes people don’t see that because it does come in different shapes and sizes,” he said. “We take every chance we get to go out and visit with farmers, businesses and community leaders so that we can use what we learn in visits like this to tell the story about the agriculture culture when we go back down to Madison.”

Romanski said that Gov. Tony Evers is committed to helping on the broadband issue.

“He looks at this as an investment in our state,” he said, noting that in addition to more than $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds being earmarked to broadband, the state budget signed by Evers contains more than $100 million for the next two years to help push broadband.

“It’s an expensive investment to build up broadband service around the state, but it’s a necessary investment. That’s why the state should be playing a role,” he said.

Warren Johnson, who sits on the Ellsworth Cooperative Board of Directors and lives in Osceola, said his farm is three-quarters of a mile from broadband fiber.

“We’re hoping within the next year, it’s supposed to come down our road. It affects everything, though. The service is getting worse every day. All our data that comes out of our parlor has to go to Madison to be backed up,” he said. “My adult children don’t want to come back to the farm. They want to buy a house in town.”

Bauer painted a scenario of the cost to a community of not having “fiber” serving all residences.

“The reality of it is not having fiber costs everyone, because your house that doesn’t have fiber is worth 20 percent less or more, and we end up paying more in taxes, because that doesn’t equalize the mil rate. Not everyone has the same thing. It’s just like saying ‘I don’t have electricity.’ What’s your house worth. Practically nothing, or whatever the cost to get electrical there,” said Bauer.

Nate Boettcher, CEO of Pierce-Pepin Power Cooperative and its new Swiftcurrent Broadband division reported on the major project underway to help get broadband to all homes in the area.

Boettcher said Pierce-Pepin with Swiftcurrent is undertaking a $32 million investment “to bring or to connect the rest of those that don’t have fiber access.”

“This is a highly residential area. If you drive around Pierce County, there’s not a lot of smokestacks. There’s not a lot of industry, which is OK,” said Boettcher. “Our board sat down, it was the winter of 2019-2020, right before the pandemic, and looked at what our big challenges are here in our area. Two big things that came out of that were affordable housing. I know that’s been a major concern for Paul and getting workforce that can support the industry here. And sort of the nature tie-in is broadband. People aren’t going to build homes here, developers aren’t going to develop homes here, if we don’t have access to high-speed fiber.”

In all, SwiftCurrent plans to provide fiber to 4,000 homes total with installation of more than 600 miles of fiber. Phase one is 175 miles of fiber that passes by 1,500 homes.

“We’re confident in what we’re doing and believe that these things will contribute to meeting some of the challenges that we have here in Pierce County,” said Boettcher.

Boettcher said the goal is for every Pierce County home to have access to broadband by 2025.

Housing problems

Bauer said that Ellsworth is considered a “wealthy” community, so grant dollars to spur housing development aren’t available.

“Right now, we’re stuck,” he said. “When it comes to housing, we don’t fit. We’re too rich, too close to the Twin Cities or wages are too high,” he said. “Fifty percent of our employment population does not live in our zip code. Most of our new hires or management new hires cannot afford to live in this area and live in Menomonie because that’s the closest spot for decent housing. Trying to overcome those barriers is astronomical. As we look at adding additional jobs, it’s tough to make sure we have places for people to live that are decent.”

Village President Becky Beissel echoed those concerns. “There’s grant dollars out there, and we never qualify for any of them,” she said. “It irks me. Just because there are people who live here who are wealthy, that doesn’t mean the municipality is wealthy. We’re not at all.”

Bauer pointed out that Pierce County has the biggest disparity of wealth of any county in the Chippewa Valley Technical College service area.

“Pierce County is the largest spread between the bottom 10 percent and the top 10 percent by a longshot. We have unique problems here. We have working wealth, and we have a lot of poor people. We’re shut out of grants,” he said.

“People and businesses want to relocate here, but we can’t help them. There’s no place for them to move,” she said.

Aquaponic operation

Bruce Carman of Controlled Environmental Farming Inc. has received initial Village of Ellsworth approval to put an aquaponic operation, as well as a large childcare center at the former Shopko Hometown building that the retailer vacated off Hwy. 63 at 598 W. Lucas Lane.

Carman said the operation will germinate/hatch, cultivate, harvest, process, package and distribute fruit, hemp, herbs, vegetables fish and shrimp. The basic idea behind aquaponics is that the waste produced by fish feeds the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish, producing one continuous cycle. This system is based entirely around the nitrogen cycle. When the fish produce waste (ammonia), bacteria break it down into nitrates.

Organic fertilizer will be cultivated, produced, packaged and distributed using the solid waste from the fish. The water is filtered after leaving the fish tanks and it goes into four holding tanks. Once the waste settles, it’s mixed with sawdust and sold as organic fertilizer. He plans to work with two local sawmills who have expressed interest, he said.

The daycare aspect of the operation will support employees and be available for the community. It would operate 24 hours a day.

“We were told there’s a need third shift for day care for employees of the sheriff’s department,” he said.

The business is a way to bring food production closer to the community.

“I came about this by saying, ‘Why don’t we move our food production operations into urban environments. Why are we trucking things 1,500 miles? That clearly is raising the cost of food. Why not create a sustainable operation with sustainable jobs in the community?’ I look at economic development as you take care of the community first, and then sell outside your community and bring the dollars back,” Carman said.

Carman plans to work closely also with the Ellsworth School District agriculture program and provide produce to the school district.

Carman is working at financing the operation and purchasing the building, as well as getting equipment ordered.

Romanski was appreciative of ideas brought up during the discussion and learning first-hand about initiatives underway and needs on the ground in Ellsworth.

“This has been so interesting,” he said. “You have a lot happening here. Paul keeps us up to date, but this is impressive.”