Business Profiles

E3 Green Biz
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Fun and vehicle sales abound at Sleepy Hollow
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Driftless Fair Traders: From Around the World and Around the Corner
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Westby Creamery products sold near and far
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KVR provides beautiful tourism attraction
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Chaseburg Manufacturing diversifying beyond the Scrusher
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WDRT has hit the airwaves.
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Harvest Moon Farms distributes locally and beyond
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Vernon Telephone Company emphasizes local and pioneering technology
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The Westby House offers a premier B&B
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Vernon Memorial Healthcare listens to the people it serves
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VARC provides Dignity and Pride through Employment
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Valley Stewardship Network’s Food and Farm Initiative off to good start
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Vernon Electric Cooperative moved to new location north of Westby
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Krause Konstruction Keeps Steeples Part of Landscape
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E3 Geen Biz
by Gregg Hoffmann

Ten small communities in the Driftless Area have come together to form the largest Energy Independence Planning coalition in the state.  With the Crawford County Extension Office serving as a catalyst and liaison, and through the efforts of local energy independence teams, and Jim Olson, Todd Osman and John Fergus, who formed E3 (Energy, Environment & Economic Coalition LLC), the coalition members have received sizeable grants for planning and implementation of energy projects ranging from retrofitting of municipal buildings to solar and other projects.  Participating in the coalition are Crawford County, Fennimore, Ferryville, Gays Mills, La Farge, Prairie du Chien, Soldiers Grove, Vernon County, Viola and Viroqua.

“It is very difficult for any one community, especially if they are small, to put together a successful grant on its own,” said Olson, who has a background in residential and small commercial energy efficient development.  “There is fragmentation in the granting agencies on the various levels of government and elsewhere. It is very difficult for a farmer or laymen, or small municipalities to wade through it and find where they can get help.” Osman said it also becomes a matter of scale, with larger companies and agencies often working with larger communities and businesses.  “By coming together on a regional level, you gain some scale, and you can share knowledge with people from other communities,” said Osman, a designer and builder of “green” residences with 30 years experience.

The process involved in the effort started by the participating municipalities taking a good hard look at their energy usage. Energy Independence Teams were formed in each community.  Those teams have been working to “develop a regional plan that increases our energy independence and supports the statewide goal of generating 25% of electricity and transportation fuels from renewable resources by 2025.” These goals come from Gov. Doyle’s 25x25 plan.

The goal also is “to use an approach that is specific to our regional resources and needs and that engages local institutions, businesses and citizens.”  Funds for these projects have come primarily though the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EESBG) program. Focus on Energy and other agencies also have been very active with the coalition.  E3 LLC has played the role of consultant and coordinator to the coalition of municipalities. Laura Brown of the Crawford County Extension played a big role in serving as a catalyst and liaison with state agencies and remains an educational resource in the effort.

Business involvement is a key to the long range effort, Olson and Osman said. Private contractors will bid on the various retrofitting and other projects. Companies also can work with the E3 coalition on developing their own projects.  The local municipalities do make matching pledges when receiving grants. They often pledge to use some of the money saved by becoming more energy efficient to help pay some of the costs of the projects, and at times make “in-kind” matches of labor.  Some of the larger projects to receive grants so far include a $215,200 retrofitting effort in Vernon County buildings and facilities and a $204,400 retrofitting project in the City of Viroqua. In retrofitting, light fixtures and other energy units are updated and replaced with more efficient equipment.  Olson said a $150,000 solar project for heating water at the Vernon Manor, a retirement community, is one of the more visible projects being funded.

The coalition members received the grants earlier this spring, so members have been hustling to get projects in place. Olson said they hope to have all the retrofitting projects wrapped up by the end of this year, although the grant period for them does extend into 2011.  In the future, Olson and Osman hope E3 can apply for PACE (Property Assessment Clean Energy) grants, which would be available to middle income home owners for making their residences more energy efficient. They also want to do more work with companies developing wind, solar and bio-fuels.  “These are naturals for the area we are in,” Osman said, “and we believe we can accomplish more by working on a regional level.”

** Versions of the story appeared in www.wisbusiness.com and www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com.

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Fun and vehicle sales abound at Sleepy Hollow
by Gregg Hoffmann

They have a lot of fun and sell a lot of cars and trucks at Sleepy Hollow Chevrolet-Buick-Pontiac-GMC. The Viroqua-based dealer just learned it ranked as the second biggest GMC truck dealership in the state. President LaVon Felton estimates the dealership sells 1,500 to 1,800 vehicles per year. Felton also acquired the Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership, just up the road, in 2009 and is moving vehicles out of that dealership.

“We’ve been doing well in overall interesting times for car dealers,” Felton said in a recent interview. “It’s all a circle in our business. If you give good service, they’ll come back when it’s time to trade. If they buy from you and are satisfied, they’ll have their vehicle maintained with you. The key here is our people. We have 70 employees and they do a great job and provide great service. We do have customers come back. Our people can even make me look good.” Felton’s good humor, and fun loving attitude, is a big part of Sleepy Hollow. “We have a good work environment here,” Felton said. “My service manager, Nate Buros, has been with me for 20 years. A lot of our people have been here for several years. They are experienced and know their business. We have fun, but work hard.”

Sleepy Hollow takes it name from where Felton first started the business in 1986 -- off the family farm, Sleepy Hollow Dairy Farm near Readstown. LaVon’s brother still runs that farm, but the car dealership has had three locations since. It moved to its present location on Highway 14 in 2007. Felton does not forget his agricultural roots. “This area’s economy is still driven by agriculture,” he said. “When milk prices, go down it affects our business. When they go up, our sales go up.  You need to know your market, and ours is agriculture driven to a large degree.”

Vernon County has been a good place to do business, Felton said. “First, it’s where I want to be,” he said. “I can’t see living anywhere else. It’s also been a good place to do business. I’m optimistic about Vernon County. I think we can have economic growth yet keep the way we live. I think the next 10 years will be good years here.” Sleepy Hollow has shown increased sales despite the recession and negative news on the national and state levels about GM. Felton said he took a lot of ribbing about the GM bailouts. “We didn’t see any of that money,” he said with a smile. “It’s good they paid the government back and are moving on.”

The closing of the GM plant in Janesville means that Sleepy Hollow gets Yukons and Suburbans about three to four weeks later, because they are now built in Texas. But, it has not had an overall negative effect. Felton acquired the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership during some of the rough national times for domestic car manufacturers and dealers. He has brought back some of the original people in service and maintenance and is taking a similar approach toward that dealership as the one that has worked for his GMC dealership. “If you have a good plan, and carry it out, I believe you will have success,” he said.

Felton’s wife, Michelle, serves as vice-president of Sleepy Hollow. “She’s the boss, and let’s me work here,” Felton said. “She handles paperwork, taxes, so many business things, and knows the web, which has become a bigger part of our business. I don’t have an email account myself.” LaVon and Michelle played off that difference in technology knowledge in a TV commercial, which billed LaVon has knowing lot sales and Michelle the internet. The spot reflected that fun approach mentioned earlier. So do more recent TV commercials, playing off the movie character, Forrest Gump. In one, Gump shares his views about Sleepy Hollow with a lady on a park bench, just like he did in the movie. In another, he decides to stop a marathon run and go to Sleepy Hollow. And, in another he and a sidekick share details about work they’ve done at Sleepy Hollow.

Abram McDowell, the business manager of the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership, plays Gump, and has mannerisms and speech of the character down almost like Tom Hanks played him in the film. Kyle Olson, a sales consultant at the dealership, plays Gump’s sidekick. “I always thought Abram looked like Forrest Gump. He was in the military and has that crew cut going,” Felton said. “We decided to do it, and I wrote the script at home. Lonnie Sherry played the lady on the bench in the first one. Channel 19 shot it. We just kept going. They’ve been a lot of fun, and we’ve had a lot of feedback. It’s been all positive. We might do some others that poke fun at TV shows or movies.”

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Driftless Fair Traders: From Around the World and Around the Corner
by Gregg Hoffmann

You can buy items from around the world, and around the Driftless Region, through Driftless Fair Traders (DFT) in the historic Hotel Fortney in Viroqua. Established in 2006, and owned by Kile Martz, Kathi Irwin and Craig Anderson, DFT has been selling products from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Kenya, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Palestine and other Third World Countries since its inception.

Now through a spinoff business, called Rhubarb, right next to DFT in the Fortney, you also can find products ranging from maple syrup to jewelry, made by folks right here in the Driftless Area. “I believe it is a different model of doing business that will grow among certain market groups,” Martz said about the Fair Trade approach to business. “Why wouldn’t you want the suppliers of your goods to be able to sustain themselves?”

The Fair Trade movement aims to promote the social and economic progress of people in developing regions of the world by marketing their products in a just and direct manner. Two organizations – the International Fair Trade Association and the Fair Trade Federation – are coordinating and promoting fair trade practices on an international level. SERRV International, which markets fair trade goods around the world, lists its administrative office in Madison. Its operations office is listed in New Windsor, Maryland. Additional stores and vendors, such as Martz’s, have started in recent years at other locations around the state. “To my knowledge, we are the only Fair Trade store in the southwest part of the state,” said Martz. “There are other places that sell Fair Trade products, right here in Viroqua and elsewhere in the region, but aren‘t complete devoted to it.”

Rhubarb was established last year, after DFT moved to the front of the Fortney, where it has a more prominent presence on Main Street. “We needed somebody to move into our old space, and with the economy the way it was, the prospects were not coming,” Martz said. “So, we started Rhubarb because we knew there were a lot of people making great local products.” Martz and his partners currently are rejuvenating the old kitchen of the Fortney, to be used as a commercial kitchen for local food entrepreneurs, who then can market their products through Rhubarb and elsewhere.

Before moving to the Gays Mills area and opening his store, Martz, who holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, worked in the media and in the software industry. “I was tired of the corporate model of doing business and was looking for an alternative,” Martz said in a 2006 interview, shortly after opening the store. “This area is a great area for people looking for alternatives. The response from people who have come in here has been very encouraging. “I like the idea that the artisans and others who produce the goods we sell receive fair prices for their creations. I believe it is a more equitable way of doing business than just trying to buy goods at the lowest possible price.”

Martz says he still is as excited about the area as a place to business as he was back in 2006. He says the Fair Trade business has grown and survived the early, and deepest, months of the recession. “Things were just falling apart in the overall economy,” Martz said. “Every day was just more bad news. I sat around for weeks wondering what we were going to do. It became obvious that things were not going to go well that year. Things were falling apart at the height of the retail season, October through Christmas. “I basically put the entire store on sale. A lot of things were half off. That seemed to generate enough to boost our sales that year. So, we didn’t make money that year, but part of retailing is to have some type of cash flow. At least we generated enough cash to stay open, and it started to turn the corner. “I realized, and I made it clear to my business partners, that it would be at least two years before we could stop putting back into the business. That was just about how long it took before it started paying for itself.”

His business currently comes from about 60% local customers, and 40% visitors. “I don’t have any hard numbers on that, but we have had a blend of people,” he said. DFT also has a presence online at www.DriftlessFairTraders.com. “The e-commerce has been part of our business, but the bricks and mortar part of the business continues to be our main emphasis,” he said. Martz loves doing business out of the Fortney, which he calls “a jewel that just needed some love. It’s been exciting to come into an iconic building and help start to turn it around,” Martz said in that 2006 interview. “It was in pretty bad shape. It was a huge job to clean it up.” Martz said the owners found some “treasures” like an old table that they believe was used by tobacco buyers and an old American flag that might have flown over Main Street. “We continue to find things in the basement,” Martz said in the recent interview. “There were some amazing artifacts in the basement. It was sot of like going on an archaeology dig to get it out.”

While Martz is very excited about Rhubarb, and becoming part of what he sees as a growing local food and products movement in the area, he also still believes strongly in the Fair Trade business. He said the Fair Trade movement can offer an alternative to what he considers abuses under NAFTA and other free trade pacts that the government has negotiated in recent years. “Global trade is growing, but it’s a matter of an alternative that is fair to everybody involved,” Martz said. “I believe that somebody who buys a gift in my store is actually giving twice – a fine, well-made gift to their friend or loved one and to the artisan who made the gift somewhere else in the world.”

Gregg Hoffmann, a veteran journalist, publishes www.driftimagesinpixelsandprose.com, www.oldschoolcollectibles.com and www.midwestdiamondreport.com.

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Westby Creamery products sold near and far
by Gregg Hoffmann

Most Vernon County residents are well aware of the delicious curds, cottage cheese and other products from Westby Cooperative Creamery.  What they might not know is that some products produced at the Westby plant end up as far away as New York and elsewhere. “In addition to making products under our own label, we produce milk products for other labels, specialty and ethnic products,” said Pete Kondrup, general manager of the Creamery.  “We make some sour cream and other products for a group of Russian people in New York, who can’t get what they want there. We also produce yogurt and other products for a Polish market in Chicago.”

Westby-produced products also go under brands of Piggly Wiggly, Food Club and others. Milk from the Creamery also is used as an ingredient in products produced by other companies. At one time, Dean’s bought all its cottage cheese from the Creamery.  While on cottage cheese, Westby Creamery is the only producer of that product in Wisconsin.
“There’s a lot more to us than just the Westby label,” Kondrup said. In fact, he estimated that 200 or more different products are manufactured through the Creamery per year.  The co-op, which employs 70 people, had sales of $31 million in 2009 and produced 16.3 million pounds of product. That’s up from 6 million pounds in 2003, and the co-op estimates a 19% growth rate in the future.

Of course, Kondrup and others at the Creamery are very proud of the products they produce under their own label. The co-op is owned by more than 100 local farmers with a board of directors that numbers seven farmers.  “We are proud of our products,” Kondrup said. “I think the farmers are proud to see their milk go toward so many products. We also are very local-oriented. We want to contribute to the local economy because if it grows and prospers we also do.”

Founded in 1903, about 400 farmers originally contributed milk to the co-op. That was back in the days when almost every small community had its own creamery.  Westby has survived, and thrived, while others have closed in large part because of their farmer-owners willingness to change and adapt.  “We have kept up with a changing marketplace,” said Kondrup, who came to the Creamery six years ago after dairy experience in New Jersey, Texas and Illinois. “You have to keep adapting.”  The co-op’s farmers have been producing “rBST-Free milk” since before it became popular to do so. The co-op also started producing organic products about four years ago.  “Organic Valley (which the Westby co-op is not affiliated with) has done such a wonderful job of establishing organic dairy products in this region,” Kondrup said. “It’s a growing area.”

If you talk to most local customers of the Creamery, and very likely those folks in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, the popularity of the products often comes down to the fact “they taste good.”  “The production process we use allows us to make each product in small batches for high quality and great taste,” reads the Creamery’s web site. “Our products are never massed produced.  The milk we use is delivered daily to our creamery from our family dairy farms, making certain the freshest possible ingredients and the freshest products to our customers.”  Kondrup said, “We do concentrate on the quality of our products. While we do supply some larger markets, we also will make products for niche markets in volumes that Deans or Kemps would not want to bother with. Our value-added products are very important.”

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KVR provides beautiful tourism attraction
by Gregg Hoffmann

It could have been a mud hole called a lake, but the Kickapoo Valley Reserve instead is a beautiful place in any season -- and one of the top tourism attractions in Vernon County.  
The 8,600 acres in Vernon County once consisted of primarily farm land.  The Kickapoo River, loosely translated from the Native Americans as the river “that goes there and then here,” often flooded and eroded substantial portions of that land. 

So, the powers-that-be three decades or more ago decided to build a dam.  The federal government bought up 149 farms, sending people elsewhere and cutting local school enrollments in some cases in half.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started building an earthen dam that would also create a recreational lake.  Many thought it would be a boost to the economy of the area.  But, environmentalists argued that rare species thrived in the area that would be flooded by the lake.  The Ho-Chunk Nation expressed concerns about burial grounds in the valley.  Finally, an environmental study showed soils and slopes were such that the lake would instead be a mud hole.  The project was stopped in 1973.

The acreage stood virtually unused for years.  Legal disputes over it flooded the courts.  Some people dumped garbage in it.  Too few really appreciated what a wonderful spot it could be.  Then, in the early 90s, serious discussions started about the federal government turning over the land to the State of Wisconsin for an 11-member board of local people and the Ho-Chunk Nation to manage.  It would be an opportunity to develop the acreage into a reserve, specializing in various forms of eco-tourism activities.  The transfer officially happened on Dec. 28, 2000. Today, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, to be called KVR in future references, sits as one of the natural jewels in the state and an economic asset for the county.

“We had almost 14,000 visitors in 2009, and it keeps growing,” said Marcy West, director of the KVR. “That’s just visitors to the center. It’s almost impossible to count overall visitors because we have so many points of entry to the reserve.”  Permits from trails, camping and other uses total almost $30,000 per year. Another $40,000 comes from educational programs, and $45,000 from agricultural leases. The state also makes payments of “aids in lieu of taxes” to local municipalities and school districts of more than $336,000 annually.  Salaries for four fulltime, three part-time and five season employees total $288,000. All but one of those employees live in Vernon County and thus contribute to the local economy. The total annual balance sheet for KVR is more than $900,000 .

West said an annual triathlon and other events bring more visitors and can pack local motels and bed and breakfast facilities. “We were told there were no rooms available when we had out triathlon last year,” she said.  “Eco-tourism has grown. We know there is a ripple effect from visitors here on businesses in surrounding communities.”  An economic impact study was done about 10 years ago, but West said she hopes an updated study can be done in the near future.

This writer is now privileged to live near the KVR.  My wife and I hike in it year around.  We watch the blossoms emerge in the spring, enjoy its density of lush foliage in the summer, revel in its autumn colors and, yes, even enjoy it in winter.  In fact, winter can be such a wonderful season in KVR that the governing board holds an annual Winter Festival.  This year’s was held on January 9th and included a snow sculpture, horse-drawn sleigh rides, skating and skiing, warming fires, dog sled weight pulling contests, and many other activities.  The visitor center is always a central facility at the festival and at other times. It was funded through the state Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund and Kickapoo Valley Reserve Agency Funds to the tune of $2.5 million.  The main building utilizes geothermal heating and cooling and solar heating elements to save energy.

The KVR sits in the Driftless Area, a unique hilly region which either was untouched by glaciers or had the type of geology that eroded differently.  Geologists still debate what exactly created the terrain.  Sandstone outcroppings tower above the Kickapoo River, which is considered one of the best canoeing rivers in the Midwest.  In the summers, hundreds of canoers start along the river near Ontario, which is next to Wildcat Mountain State Park, and meander along the river.  No matter what the season, you might want to stop at the Rockton Bar, about halfway between Ontario and La Farge.  It offers a great place to have a cold one in the summer or warm up from Cross Country skiing in the winter.  You can find Amish crafts and artisans tucked away in these hills or in the small towns along the river like La Farge, Viola, Readstown and others.  The valley outside the reserve is home to many organic farms and the largest organic cooperative in the country, Organic Valley.

But, KVR primarily is about enjoying nature. Several species of endangered and rare plants can be found in the reserve.  Hemlocks, oaks, pines and other trees grow in abundance.  More than 100 species of birds, including some rare species, have been documented in the KVR.  Deer, coyotes, fox and many other animals are plentiful.  There have even been some reports of cougar near KVR in Vernon County, but the presence of the big cats has not been officially confirmed.  Trout fishing is excellent throughout the area.

No motorized vehicles are allowed on KVR trails, with the exception of snowmobiles in the winter on some.  From May 1 to Nov. 15, horse and bike trails are open.  Permits are required.  Registration for them is on the honor system, at the KVR headquarters and seven self-service stations throughout the reserve.  If you like to camp, don’t expect a lot of modern hookups.  Wilderness camp sites provide a real nature experience.  Put your cell phones away too because the terrain doesn’t make for very good, if any, reception.

History buffs have a wonderful opportunity to study Native American history and culture in the reserve.  The Ho-Chunks who have 1,200 acres of what was their indigenous land in the reserve offer education sessions during the year.  An estimated 10,000 people toured the KVR center in its first year of operation, according to a market analysis.  For years, this writer came as a visitor only; then as a part-time resident.  Now as a local, I want others to know how wonderful KVR is, respect what is here and enjoy KVR in all seasons.

Portions of this feature originally appeared as a Beyond Milwaukee column, which Gregg Hoffmann formerly wrote for www.onmilwaukee.com. Hoffmann now lives in Westby and publishes www.midwestdiamondreport.com, www.oldschoolcollectibles.com and www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com.

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Chaseburg Manufacturing diversifying beyond the Scrusher
by Gregg Hoffmann

What started with pails full of horseshoes led Chaseburg Manufacturing into worldwide sales of the Scrusher, a device that has been cleaning the environment one shoe at a time for more than 20 years.  When Bud and Marcia Meshbesher first started the company, they tried a variety of products with mixed results. As leftovers, they ended up with pails of horseshoes from area farmers.  As legend has it, those horseshoes, plus Marcia telling Bud to take off his boots before he came into the house, led to the invention of the Scrusher, a device for cleaning your shoes before you come inside.  “We used the horseshoes for the ends of the Scrusher,” Marcia recalled during an interview at the company’s headquarters in the Coon Valley Industrial Park. “What made the product unique in the marketplace was that it included something that collected the dirt after you cleaned your shoes on the bristles. Once we linked up with Standard Golf in Iowa, it took off.”  Today, the Scrusher can be found on golf courses all over the world. Other varieties of it also have been developed for use by farmers, industrialists, just about anybody who wants to “leave the dirt outdoors, not on your floors”, according to the product’s slogan.

The line of Scrushers remains the bread-and-butter of Chaseburg Manufacturing, and has allowed the company to maintain a workforce of 15 people and a second building in Chaseburg itself. But, by no means, has the company rested on its laurels, or its Scrushers.  “We have adapted and diversified,” said Jay Fields, the Meshbesher’s son-in-law and business manager for the company. “The Scrusher remains our main product, but that market is steady and does not have potential for much more growth. So, we’ve come up with other products and moved into other areas.”  Chaseburg Manufacturing makes steel products as small as decorative mail box toppers to large buckets for tractors and other heavy equipment. Some of its other products include the Handy Hitch, a trailer alignment system that allows a person to hitch up trailers, etc. quicker and easier; a dairy barn cart, scrapers for barns, post pounders, portable fire rings and adjustable gate wheels.  It also does fabricated steel work for Brickl Brothers and other large construction companies, repairs equipment made of steel and will customize products for customers as diverse as people involved in the wind energy business to the Amish. It also will sell discount steel directly to other companies.

The company has averaged $1.5 to $2 million in sales for the last few years, in part because of the combination of the Scrusher and new products and services.  “I learned a long time ago that you have to adapt and diversify to survive in any business,” said Fields, who joined Chaseburg Manufacturing after serving as a district manager for Home Depot in Minnesota. “We are constantly coming up with ideas for new products and services. Some work out very well for us and some don’t.”  Bud still is listed on the company’s web site as the founder and CEO, but no longer is involved in the day-to-day operations. Marcia serves as president, and Fields has that business manager title. But, everybody who works for Chaseburg Manufacturing is part of an extended family and knows various parts of the business.  “Our employees average nine-plus years with the company,” Marcia said. “I think the key to what we have been able to accomplish has been our employees. They are very good workers and know this business.  Vernon County has been a great place to do business from, and has provided dedicated, hard working people for our company.”

Fields said the employees of the company share some of the entrepreneur qualities of its founder. “Our plant manager, Jim Stafslein (who has been with the company for 21 years), is very creative in making the products and designing some of them,” Fields said. “Many of the products we manufacture were thought of by the very people who work here.  When I first came here, I wanted to spend time in the plant first. I wanted to get to know what is done there, and what ideas the people who create our products have.”

Of course, it still starts with the Scrusher. Models of the device include the original for golf shoes, the Big Boot Scrusher, a deluxe model, a decorative model and personalized models. Accessories for the Scrushers also are made and sold.  Horseshoes at the ends of the device have been replaced by sturdy manufactured steel, but the care and quality that Bud put into those first Scrushers remain. As another slogan for the product reads, “too bad it only cleans shoes.” 

“It’s been very rewarding to see this business develop and grow,” Marcia said. “I remember our girls coming here at night and helping label boxes and prepare shipping after school. After a while, they’d be saying, ’can’t we go home’, but they kept working.
“Our workforce has kept working and adapting. We’re proud that even during this down turn in the economy we have not had to lay any of our people off. We‘ve found this area a good place to do business.”

Gregg Hoffmann, a Westby resident, publishes www.midwestdiamondreport.com, www.oldschoolcollectibles.com and, as of Feb. 1, www.driftlessimagesinpixelsandprose.com.

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WDRT has hit the airwaves.
by Gregg Hoffmann

It’s a long journey from an idea about a community radio station to putting programming on the air.  Jim Hallberg, David Klann and a group of volunteers have launched on air programming at WDRT 91.9 FM.  WDRT’s web site says it was born on “24 March 2009.”  That’s when the FCC granted the station’s founders a construction permit. Now studios have been built at 311 S. Main Street in Viroqua. The station has hit the airwaves and is commercial free, independent and run by volunteers.

“I moved here from California in 2002 and there, community radio was pretty significant,” Hallberg said in a recent interview. “I was hoping somebody would start one here.”  After attending some forums sponsored by the Valley Stewardship Network, Hallberg realized there were others in the Driftless Area who felt like he did. So, he, Klann, who has a journalism background, and several of those “others” became the collective somebody to start momentum for a station.  They incorporated as a non-profit organization and held a fund-raiser in the summer of 2003. People responded, and that momentum continued to build with help from people in the area and also people from across the nation who had expertise in community radio and the legalities necessary in starting a station.  For almost three years, programming was webcast and they are continuing that now that they are on the air too.

The over-the-air programming from the 480-watt station should cover a 20-25 mile radius from Viroqua, although Hallberg said that is a rough estimate. Webcasting could bring programming to “some of those valleys” where any radio signal is hard to get, Hallberg noted.  “We’re committed to bringing listeners local news, airing a broad mix of music and talk unavailable elsewhere on the dial, providing a forum for all residents to discuss public issues, and teaching the art of broadcasting and audio production,” reads the WDRT web site.

“One of the best things about this is to see people learn the skills needed in broadcasting,” Hallberg said. “We think it has potential for people of all ages, but especially young people from our area schools.”  Some of the programming in the early stages of the station may be syndicated from services geared to community radio, but Hallberg hopes that eventually most of it is being done by local people.  “We want to broadcast quality programming, and have as much of it come from local people as possible,” Hallberg said.  Response from local folks has been good so far. Not only have volunteers helped with construction of the students, but they also have supported the station financially.  One week after starting a fund drive for studio construction, the station met its goal of $91,900 in capital funds. Now, it is seeking donations for an operations fund to pay for programming, a music library, studio space, training and the electricity needed to broadcast and transmit a signal.

“Frankly, we weren’t sure how the community would respond to our fledgling station, and we’re thrilled by your enthusiasm,” WDRT’s web site reads. “Thanks for believing in us. This is an exciting time for anyone interested in community radio. I hope you’ll stay turned to our progress, stop by the studio and send us your ideas.”  Anyone interested in more information on the station, volunteering or donating can send an email to info@wdrt.org or go to the station web site at www.wdrt.org.

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Harvest Moon Farms distributes locally and beyond
by Gregg Hoffmann

Bob and Jennifer Borchardt have entered second careers through their work developing Harvest Moon Farms Organic Products since 2007.  A promotional film maker based in Chicago, Bob now handles primarily the marketing and transportation of their vegetables, herbs and other value-added products from their 20-acre operation on the south fork of the Bad Axe River.  After years in publishing, Jennifer studied organic agriculture and how to farm and, according to Bob, “primarily handles the agronomy and growing” of the products.  “We started (in 2007) with just vacant land,” Bob explained in a recent phone interview.  “We built our buildings and prepared the land. We started from scratch and have learned a lot along the way.”  The Borchardts looked for land within a 250-mile radius of Chicago, where they were based at the time, and kept being drawn to Vernon County and Viroqua. “The growing conditions were the best here,” Bob said. “The people were progressive in the organic farming area. Viroqua had a lot to offer, so we came here.”

Harvest Moon lists a Chicago office, as well as the farm, on its web site and in other promotions. The company has five drop locations for summer produce and four drop locations for winter produce in the Chicago area, and is interested in expanding to markets in Wisconsin and this region.  The Borchardts also offer vegetable garden consulting and design, and customized growing programs for chefs and food professionals.  In 2009, Harvest Moon also joined with six other area farms in the Harvest Moon Farms Producers Guild. All the farms provide certified organic and certified naturally grown produce.  “Creating the Guild will help us better serve our clients and CSA shareholders by offering larger qualities and varieties,” reads the Harvest Moon web site. “It also served the farms by allowing us to share resources and collaborate on transportation and distribution, which in turn reduces our collective carbon footprint.”

Social responsibility and a loyalty to this area become very evident when you look at Harvest Moon’s promotions and talk with the owners.  “We’ve created jobs through the development of the farm, construction and through our operation,” Bob said. “We want to continue to do so and contribute to the organic movement in Vernon County and to rural and small town life.”  The Borchardts are very interested in becoming part of a processing, storage and distribution effort that could be based in the former NCR building, now owned by VEDA.  A facility that handled those functions could play a big role in providing CSA packages throughout the year, Bob said. Harvest Moon already offers Winter CSA Shares and, along with other area organic farmers, would like to expand those.  Harvest Moon vows to plant a tree for every CSA share reserved.  Bob and Jen are also working with a magnet school in Chicago, the Academy for Global Citizenship, and are helping to develop a curriculum for grades 1-6 that includes starting seedlings, planting a school garden and using the product in the school cafeteria.

In the first two years of Harvest Moon’s operation, Vernon County was hit with two floods. While the farm suffered some losses, Bob said they were not devastated and, in fact, continued to grow and operate.  “We were able to get through it, and are still going in the recession,” Bob said, expressing optimism for the future.  Bob’s film work has been closely tied with the advertising industry, and especially the marketing and promotions in the food and wine industry. He will continue to use his skills in that field to help promote organic products.  You can watch Harvest Moon Farmcast/Podcast videos via links on the web site at http://www.harvestmoon-farms.com.  “I’ve been all over the world doing projects,” Bob said. “I definitely think my skills in that area can help promote not only the farm, but what is going on in Vernon County and beyond with organic farming.”

Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, publishes www.midwestdiamondreport.com and owns Old School Collectibles, which he operates at A-Z Furniture and Collectibles in Westby, the Antique Center on Third Street in La Crosse and at www.oldschoolcollectibles.com.

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Vernon Telephone Company emphasizes local and pioneering technology

By Gregg Hoffmann

Emphasizing strong ties to communities as the local communications provider, and staying on top of cutting-edge technology, have kept Vernon Telephone Cooperative competitive in the rapidly changing telecommunications industry.  VTC actually is much more than its name implies. While phone service to more than 7,800 customers in several Vernon County communities is still a foundation of the business, VTC also provides Internet Protocol TV (IPTV), internet services, a variety of business communications services, contracts with other telephone companies to provide technical services and even supplies IPTV services for an American military base in Yakoda, Japan.

“A lot of things happen in this little building,” said VTC marketing manager Howard Sherpe. “We have tried to stay on the cutting edge of our technology and services, while also emphasizing that we are your ‘local’ cooperative.”  Just this fall, general manager Rod Olson announced a new service, called VTC Consulting, which allows customers to further customize the services they receive.  “The emphasis from large companies is to up sell services, even though you are calling to complain,” wrote Olson in the Fall issue of Vernon TeleCommunicator newsletter. “They can talk you into contracts that in the end cost you more money, with services you would never use.  Vernon Telephone takes a different approach. We are up front with you, and will help you decide what is right for you. If it doesn’t fit, we won’t try to put a square peg into a round hole just to make a sale.”

Organized in 1950 by a group headed by Ole Traastad, VTC incorporated several small, community telephone companies into a co-op that could offer more. The emphasis has always been to offer rural cooperative members the same, or better services, than could be received in urban areas.  VTC was one of the first to offer an exchange in a rural area with all private lines in the Yuba exchange in 1968. Switching became all digital in 1987, well ahead of the so-called digital age.  In 1994, VTC partnered with other area telephone companies to form Midwest Telnet, to provide internet services. In 2001, VTC formed Vernon Communications to provide certain non-regulated services, like long distance and television.  VTC also became the home to Midwest Telnet’s IPTV headend.  It was the first of its kind in the U.S. and VTC also developed the first commercially deployed IPTV television network in the U.S. and one of the first two in the world. VTC is constantly working to upgrade its network and transport to an all Ethernet platform.

Other telephone companies and the provider of the TV service in that U.S. base in Japan contract with VTC for its technical expertise in the areas of IPTV and other services.  Locally, Channels 14 and 15 provide local TV, ranging from church services to parades and other community events to local sports. Simulcasts with WVRQ radio also are shown.  “These channels have become very popular and in some ways are our best marketing tools,” Sherpe said. “It’s also another way we can stay close to our communities. We encourage people to videotape activities in their organizations and clubs that they would like to see on our community channels.”

Customer service is very important to VTC. A Network Operations Center (NOC) offers 24/7 technical support. “If you call during regular office hours, you’ll get a receptionist, and even if you call during off hours you’ll be routed to a real human being who can help,” Sherpe said. “About 80% or more can be taken care of right here in our building, and if not we’ll send people to your house or business. Our customers are our members, so service to them is very important.”

One of the biggest projects for VTC this year has been expansion of its fiber optic project in the City of Viroqua. Construction on the west side of town was completed in the fall of 2008. Work on the east side of the city is nearing completion.  VTC also has offered its members SecureIt, a virus and spy ware protection program for computers, and recently added a 24/7 weather channel, produced by WEAU, pm Channel 12.  “There has been a lot of talk on the national level about expanding broadband and telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas,” Sherpe noted. “We feel we are already doing that.”

VTC also offers scholarships and internships, and helps support video courses and efforts in local schools. It has long been one of the most generous sponsors of community events.  “Staying in touch with our communities and customers is very important in this competitive market,” Sherpe said. “If we had remained just a phone company, we probably would be counting our days. But, we provide much more, and do it as the local co-op.”  Sherpe and VTC have been big supporters of “thinking local, buying local” in general. In the Summer 2009 newsletter, an article reported that if the 7,501 families in Vernon County (according to the 2000 census) would spend $25 per week at locally-owned, independent businesses, instead of businesses from outside the county, it would equate to $187,525 per week that would remain in the local economy. Over a 52-week period, one year, that would grow to almost $10 million.  The article concluded by saying, “Vernon Telephone Cooperative is locally owned and operated, and you are each a member of the cooperative. Think locally! Invest locally!

Gregg Hoffmann, a Westby resident, is a veteran journalist and publishes www.midwestdiamondreport.com and www.oldschoolcollectibles.com.

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The Westby House offers a premier B&B
by Gregg Hoffmann

Marie and Mike Cimino had similar professional backgrounds, but the couple admits they came to own the Westby House bed and breakfast along slightly different paths.  Both had spent most of their working lives in the food and hospitality business -- Marie with restaurants and hotels, including the Pioneer Inn in Oshkosh, and Mike in food service sales, selling to restaurants and institutions around the country. They met when Marie came to work for Mike’s company.  Sounds pretty similar to this point, right?  But, Marie dreamed for quite some time of opening a bed and breakfast, back in her home state of Wisconsin. Mike, on the other hand, “had never stayed in a B&B until I met Marie.” 

“When we first started staying B&Bs shared bathrooms were the norm,” Mike recalled. “When I made my 3 a.m. walk to the bathroom, I didn’t want to have to knock on the door. I thought ‘this has to go’.”  That’s one reason you’ll find all private baths in the five guest rooms at the Westby House as well as the Guest House Jacuzzi Suites and The Guest Lodge. You’ll also find beautifully appointed rooms with internet access and an excellent lunch restaurant and tea room.  The Westby House has a seasonal occupancy rate of 60-70%, considered good by most facilities in more urbanized areas. Weekend occupancy often is 80-90% during the April through October season.

“European tradition is what first brought people to B&Bs,” Marie said in a recent interview. “But, the public also changes over time, and wants things like private baths, Jacuzzis, internet access and other amenities.”  The Ciminos have been combining the traditional with the modern needs since 1998, when they bought the Westby House. Originally built in 1886, as the home of Westby’s first pharmacist, Erling Ramsland, who had emigrated from Norway, it had been operating as a B&B when Mike and Marie found it but needed updating, including those private baths.

In 1999, they bought a two bedroom house next to the main house and converted it into guest suites. Then in 2001, they built The Guest Lodge in response in part to the demands of trout fishermen who wanted a “rustic feeling with some luxury.”  Just last year the Ciminos opened Ole & Lena’s Kafe Huis, a coffee, ice cream and sandwich place in the former Westby Pharmacy building, just down the State Street block from the main house.  “The customer is always right,” Marie said. “Most of these additions were in response to feedback from our customers. We kept filling niches.”  Mike agreed that the expansions have been in response to customer’s feedback and added, “if you maintain the status quo, you’ll be passed by. You need to keep growing and adapting.”

Between the lodging facility and restaurants, the Ciminos employ up to 10 part-time people during peak season time.  The Ciminos take a community and regional approach to marketing their businesses. Both have been very active in the Westby chamber and the Vernon County tourism groups.  “Westby is not a destination point,” Mike said. “You have to work to get people here and have them want to come back.”  Marie emphasizes tying the area in with the greater La Crosse area and overall Driftless Area. “A lot of our customers come from people who are driving through,” she said. “Ten state highways pass through Vernon County. A lot of people are coming and going elsewhere, but if you can get them to stop, and let them know about the silent sports, Norwegian heritage, Shrine of Guadalupe and other things in the area, they are more likely to come back.”

The Ciminos also make big use of the internet. “If you don’t have a good internet site, you might as well close the doors these days,” Marie said. “Most of our customers have used the internet to either find us, make a reservation or at least find out about the area.” The business web site is www.westbyhouse.com. 

After 12 years, the Ciminos are not really surprised by things in their business anymore, but both admit they were originally surprised by just how much running a B&B can consume your time.  “I anticipated a lot of what we have experienced, but I guess I didn’t see late check-ins and the need to be on the premises as much as you have to be,” Marie said.  Mike said, “People have no idea how much work is involved. For the first eight months, we were just getting our feet on the ground. Then, as you develop your own style, and procedures, it gets easier. But, there still is a lot of work.”  Especially, if you listen to your customers, and do your best to fill the niches they express interest in. The Ciminos continue to do just that to this day.

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Vernon Memorial Healthcare listens to the people it serves

by Gregg Hoffmann

Good people, and listening to patients and “customers,” have been keys to the healthy growth of Vernon Memorial Healthcare (VMH).  “We wouldn’t be where we are today without our customers, our patients, and without our staff,” said CEO Garith Steiner in a recent interview. “That’s what has made it what it is today, and it’s been a fun thing to see.  Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time listening to our customers and patients about what they would like to see us become. We’ve spent a lot of time making that happen.”

VMH provides more than 500 jobs for health care workers and more than 200 jobs indirectly through health care purchases, and 175 jobs through employee activity. That makes VMH the largest employer in Vernon County.  The health care system accounts for about $93.5 million in total economic activity, with a direct effect of $55.9 million. It also contributes $44.8 million in total income to the community.  Growth in total operating revenue has grown more than five times since 1994, and net worth/assets has increased almost eight times. 

But, those numbers tell only part of the story. They have developed from a strategy that is based on listening to the people VMH serves.  “People told us what they needed,” Steiner said. “Back a few years ago, we were pretty much a stand alone hospital. Now, we have quite a few other entities out there in the community.”  VMH owns Vernon Memorial Hospital, five clinics and three retail pharmacies. The influence area includes Viroqua, Westby, La Farge, Soldiers Grove and other areas.  Steiner said the impact area has grown from about 20 miles to 35 for many patients, but an increasing amount come from farther away. Some, especially those seeking certain surgeries, come from all over the country to seek a couple specialists who have joined the staff.

While it is an independent organization with its own board, VMH works closely with Gundersen Lutheran. That has allowed VMH to provide additional skilled staff, equipment and other services.  “Our relationship with Gundersen has certainly boosted our image and helped us provide many of the services we have today,” Steiner said.
Those services range from a state-of-the-art kidney dialysis facility to physical therapy. In 2004, a state-of-the-art surgery suites facility was opened. In 2006, a Medical Office Building opened and provides a variety of medical and community services.

VMH is ahead of the curve in some of the things you now hear are keys to providing reasonably priced health care.  It has a Wellness Center that is highly respected and has increased out-patient care at the hospital and its various clinics.  The Wellness Center provides fitness center facilities, strength training, use of cardio equipment and a variety of classes.  In 2008, the hospital had 1,649 admissions, including newborns, 6,408 out-patient clinic visits, 59,601 ancillary department out-patient visits and 47,794 rural health clinic visits.

As for health care reform in general, Steiner said he could react once the details of a plan are known.  “The devil is in the details, and we don’t have all those yet,” he said. “I think what you see with some people’s reactions is the fear of the unknown. Once we have the details, I can comment more on how it will impact this organization and community.”
Rural health care systems, like VMH, can be keys to any reformed system. They have to provide quality care, however, and overcome some stereotypes.  “Some people think you’re a band aid station as soon as they see you’re in a small town,” Steiner said. “I think our people have overcome that image. They are skilled and provide quality care. I think 99% of the people who come here leave thinking they received care as good, or better, than any other place.”

Steiner has lived in Viroqua for 30 years, and worked for 27 years with the hospital. A registered nurse with his degree from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, he started at the hospital in a nursing role, worked for the county for a while and then returned to VMH, eventually becoming the CEO.  “Our children were born at Vernon Memorial,” he said. “I think a lot of what has worked here has come through those connections. Relationships and connections with people have been keys.”

Gregg Hoffmann, a Westby resident, is a veteran journalist and owner of Old School Collectibles (www.oldschoolcollectibles.com). He writes the Biz of the Month feature monthly and also contributes blogs to the VEDA site.

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VARC provides Dignity and Pride through Employment

by Gregg Hoffmann

Work need not only bring a person a paycheck.  It also can provide dignity and pride, especially when a workplace is “committed to quality and excellence.”  The Vernon Area Rehabilitation Center (VARC, Inc.) helps provide those things to about 240 clients, who are “people with varying abilities.”  The work is a big part of overall rehabilitation services that are provided to more than 300 clients.  According to its web site, VARC employs more than 300 people, including clients, 80 staff and 60 production workers.  Its headquarters is a facility in the industrial park of Viroqua, but it also has facilities in Reedsburg and Richland Center.  Those numbers make VARC one of Vernon County’s largest employers.
VARC contracts with over a dozen national and international companies for assembly and packaging services.  The organization actively sells its services to businesses.  “We want to give the people who work here dignity & pride,” said VARC Vice-President Dawn Simonson.  “We emphasize that we can deliver the service on time and with quality and excellence.  We want a company contracting with VARC because we provide what they need.”
President /CEO Anthony Ugo and Vice-President Simonson head up a dedicated staff, which over the years has been very innovative in the approach to rehab.  Formed in 1975, VARC was created by a group of parents and others who were concerned about what might happen to people with disabilities “after special education in high school.”  VARC operated initially out of the abandoned Vernon County Home.  It incorporated as VARC in 1979 and has gone through several expansions, to the point where it now has production and warehouse facilities in its three locations totaling 160,000 square feet.  Ugo says he and Simonson, as well as others on their staff, have “grown up with this place.”  They too take pride and dignity from the work they do with people of varying abilities, who consistently surprise them with just how much ability they have.
A tour of the Viroqua facility showed an immaculate work area where people were busy working on packaging mouth guards, knee wraps and other sports medicine items for a major industry.  Some were working on assembling parts for numerous other customers.  Finished products are shipped back to the companies or warehoused at VARC and shipped directly to Wal-Marts and other outlets.  VARC maintains a three-phase quality assurance program on all jobs to meet customer specifications and a standard of excellence.  “Committed to Quality and Excellence” is emphasized at the top of the VARC web site and on much of its promotional material.  Ugo said the recession has slowed work from some of the companies that contract with VARC, but not dramatically.  On an average day, up to five semi-loads of products move in and out of VARC.

For clients who have limited tolerance to work, or can put in only part-time days, other rehab services are provided through well-trained staffers.  VARC contracts with 21 counties for various rehabilitation services, according to its web site.  “Our backgrounds are in rehabilitation services,” Simonson said.  “We provide residential, recreational and educational services as well as employment.  Clients are referred to VARC through county facilities, special education programs and several other sources.  Demand for rehabilitation has grown right along with expansion of the production facility.  Because of the primarily rural area, getting clients to and from the facility could be a challenge.  So, VARC has developed a fleet of more than 20 vehicles to transport  clients and trucks to transport products.  VARC’s transportation system is a model for the future development of transportation in Vernon County and surrounding areas.
Simonson mentioned that the relationship between staffers and clients, and among the clients themselves, are some of the most rewarding parts of working for VARC.  “They do really seem to develop somewhat naturally, as people work together toward a common goal,” she said.  “People look out for each other.  The Counties of Vernon, Sauk and Richland have been very supportive and are great places to operate businesses.

Gregg Hoffmann, a veteran journalist, publishes Driftless, a web site about the Driftless Area, as well other web sites and print publications, and sells collectibles at the Highway 14 Antique Center, the Antique Center on Third Street in La Crosse and online at www.oldschoolcollectibles.com.

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Valley Stewardship Network’s Food and Farm Initiative off to good start

by Gregg Hoffmann

The Valley Stewardship Network’s effort to develop farm-to-food business in Vernon County and the surrounding area has gotten off to a good start.  Ken Meter, CEO of Crossroads Resource Center, said in a May presentation that the local effort, called the “Food and Farm Initiative” (FFI), could end up becoming a model for the region and even the country. The effort also was cited for a Star Award by the Vernon Economic Development Association at its annual meeting in May.

This month, VSN is releasing its Community Food Assessment (CFA), called “Linking Farmers & Community for Sustainability.”  Everyone involved with the initiative freely admits there is a long way to go, but the last couple of months have given every indication the time is right for the effort.

A Farm to School program has been one of the highlights of the local effort. Five schools currently are working with a nutrition educator and local food procurement coordinator on creating a healthy eating curriculum.  School food service directors also are being connected with local farmers to ensure local, farm-fresh foods are served in school lunches. This effort is aided in part by an Americorps Farm to School Grant.

Viroqua Elementary School has a Pilot Project, 5th Season Harvest Project, which provides ratatouille made from local farm products.  Viroqua, Westby, North Crawford, DeSoto, and La Farge School Districts are involved in the Farm to School program so far.  More are invited.

Last September, a Community Harvest Dinner was held by VSN and the Viroqua Food Coop. The event was coordinated with the statewide Wisconsin Eat Local Challenge, in which 10% of the food budget is spent on locally produced food items for 10 days. 
Farmers contributed produce and meat for a 90% local menu created by chefs Macon Luhning and Monique Hooker and a team of volunteers. More than 250 people enjoyed the meal.

A directory of direct marketers for Vernon County also has been compiled and is a growing list. Another project, the “Kickapoo Harvest: Gleaning for Healthy Communities” is planned for this summer. Area youth will be recruited to harvest “left-overs” from farm fields that are not suitable for grocery or market outlets. Harvested produce will be boxed and delivered to participating residents at Park View Manor. Local chefs will provide cooking demonstrations and recipes to Park View residents. Any extra gleaned food will be processed for use by Viroqua Area School District for future local menu items. More details on that program will be released later.

In the CFA report, several longer team initiatives and programs are recommended. More Farmland Preservation Initiatives are proposed.  Several of the recommendations deal with the distribution, storage and marketing of food stuff.  Improvements in cold storage capacity in the county, especially for area food pantries, are needed.  A community food processing facility and an incubator kitchen are other needs. More farmers’ markets and more market days are encouraged.  A farm to institution purchasing program also would make it easier for county and other facilities to purchase local food stuff.

Of course, all these programs need funds. “Programs like our Food & Farm Initiative require substantial funding,” according to a recent VSN Newsletter. “So far our efforts to acquire USDA funding support have been unsuccessful.  Programs like this will continue to depend on community support in the form of monetary donations and volunteerism.”

The CFA presents some pertinent statistics about farming in the area. For example, 222 farms, encompassing 16,838 acres, currently are being used for organic farming. Another 104 farms and 4,312 acres were being converted to organic at the time the report was compiled.  More than 60 farms sold directly to consumers when the report was compiled. That number has increased since then. Thirteen Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements existed in Vernon County in January of this year.

Local farm to food programs can boost farm income as well as provide healthy meals. There’s a need for that in Vernon County, where 38% of school children are eligible for free or reduced rates meals and 14% of the population lives below the poverty rate.  Twenty-six per cent of children lived below the poverty rate in 2005. The state average was 15% that year.           

In his May presentation, Meter was very praiseworthy of the effort in Vernon County. “The discussion here has been one of the more advanced I’ve had on local food anywhere in the country,” he said. “With the success of CROPP and other organizations and people, you have a lot of foundation to work with.”

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Vernon Electric Cooperative moved to new location north of Westby
by Gregg Hoffmann

In the summer of 2009, Vernon Electric Cooperative (VEC) moved to a new facility on Highway 27 on the north side of Westby.  The move allowed the cooperative to consolidate its operations in one 50,000 square-foot location and become more efficient with gas use, and other tasks.

“We had three buildings, which creates some logistics problems at times,” said Dave Maxwell, VEC Director of Marketing and Communications. “Moving to one location into a new, energy-efficient building improved our efficiency. We also are not landlocked now, in case we need to expand in the future.” VEC serves about 10,000 customers in Vernon County and parts of surrounding counties. Readstown is the only incorporated municipality that gets electricity from VEC.

Formed in 1938, after the Rural Electrification Administration was created by the federal government, VEC has always aimed to serve the rural area, which might be bypassed by other for-profit electric companies.  “We have about five customers per mile while companies in incorporated towns might have 40-60 customers per mile,” Maxwell said. “That makes our rates a little higher because of maintenance costs, but many for-profits would not find it profitable enough to serve rural areas.”  VEC is not-for-profit, so after its employees are paid and expenses met, funds are funneled back into the service to its customers.

The co-op also keeps costs down through a variety of techniques. For example, the use of automated meter reading devices keep the costs of recording electric use down. The AMR system was started in 2003 and completed in 2005.  VEC also used automated detectors for lines that are broken or compromised by weather. Linemen then are sent out to fix the problem the “old-fashioned” way, but do not have to regularly monitor lines from the road.  “We’ve tried to be at the cutting edge in technology that can help us better serve our people,” Maxwell said.

In addition to these cost-effective technologies, VEC is at the cutting edge of alternative energies, and not just in their new building. The co-op will work with customers who want to install wind turbines or other alternative energy technologies, and buy back any excess electricity at retail rates.  Customers also can opt to receive their electricity from alternative-production for a slightly higher fee.  VEC receives its electricity from Dairyland Power Cooperative. Along with 24 other distribution co-ops, VEC actually owns Dairyland.

“Over the years, VEC also has been a great business neighbor, providing aid for economic development projects, scholarships and other services to Vernon County. That has continued under general manager Joe McDonald, engineer and operations director Craig Buros, and other employees and the co-op’s board.  The move to the new building keeps VEC at the cutting edge and helps the co-op continue to better serve its customers/owners,” Maxwell said.

You can follow completion of the building at the VEC web site at http://www.vernonelectric.org. Additional information also will be provided through VEDA web site blogs.

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Krause Konstruction Keeps Steeples Part of Landscape
by Gregg Hoffmann

STODDARD– Church steeples are part of the landscape in Vernon County and just about everywhere in the Midwest.

You can bet that a fair amount of those steeples have been repaired, and in some cases even built, by Krause Konstruction, based near Stoddard with a warehouse in the industrial park of nearby Coon Valley.

Larry Krause, and his wife, Sharon, founded the company 32 years ago. Their son, Jason, has been groomed to take over the operations once Larry decides to retire.

Over the years, Krause does about 50-60 steeple jobs per year, ranging from $500 to $500,000, according to Larry’s estimates. The company’s territory primarily includes Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa and some in northern Missouri. At one time, it was even more extensive.

“As far as actually specializing in what we do, we probably are the only one in the country,” Larry said in a recent interview. “Some local roofers will do some of this work, but we offer the full range of work for steeples and churches.”

That full range includes tuck pointing, painting, roofing, caulking, waterproofing, lightning rods, gold leaf work and ornamental fabrication. The company works in tile, slate, copper, rubber, vinyl and wood.

“Our workers (13 on a regular basis and up to 20 at peak times) pretty much are trained in all the skills and materials,” Jason said. “A lot of our fabrication work is done in our warehouse and then brought to the site to be fitted.”

In fact, Krause has spun off another business that sells fabricated soffits, vents, ornamental work and others products to other companies. In the last couple of years, the company also has done more high end residential homes, especially with copper gutters and ornamentation.

The repair and construction work is done by Krause crews on site, using cranes and booms, but also ropes and hoists. It can be high altitude, dangerous work, but Krause has had only one major accident in its more than 30 years of operation.  “A cousin of mine fell 40 feet and died a number of years ago,” Larry said. “Otherwise, we’ve been lucky. We do take safety precautions.”

An old world craft approach, combining engineering skills and artistic qualities, has helped Krause earn its reputation. Modern technology also has been added over the years.

“Our cutting and bending of the metals are all computerized now,” Jason said. “It makes for more precision, and is easier than the days when it all had to be done strictly by hand.”

Old World Teacher

Larry learned his craft from an “Old World” teacher in Norbert Kolb, who ran Norbert Kolb & Sons in Northbrook, Illinois.  “I was a rebel and didn’t finish school,” Larry said. “I was living in the Northbrook area at the time and figured I’d better learn something if I was going to work the rest of my life.  Mr. Kolb had come to America from Germany to become a priest, but ended up doing this church steeple work. He took me under his wing and taught me the business.”

Krause went all over the Midwest and elsewhere during his 11 years of working for Kolb. Then, he and his wife decided to start their own business and move back to his home area of southwest Wisconsin.  “We started it right from our home near Stoddard,” Larry said. “My wife used to help tie paint buckets and do other things when we first started. We carved out a niche and have grown in those 30-plus years.”

Krause is glad to see Jason stay in the business. “He worked on his first steeple when he was 14,” Larry said. “He’s learned the business from the ground up.”  Jason said he finds the work rewarding. “It draws a lot of attention from parishioners and others in a community when we work on a church,” he said. “Churches are often prominent in many communities. People care about them.  Not just anybody can do the work we do. So, people don’t see it every day. We still do a lot of the work with ropes and up in the air.”

Both Larry and Jason said they take a great deal of pride in the craftsmanship that goes into the steeple work, especially when it includes some of the ornamentation and artistic work.  “No two churches are identical,” Jason said. “So, you do get to customize a lot of the work.”

Prominent Jobs

Just some of the more prominent jobs done by Krause in Wisconsin include St. Gesu Catholic Church in Milwaukee, the Diocean Chancery in Madison, Viterbo College in La Crosse, St. Vincent De Paul in Oshkosh and historic St. Joseph’s in Prescott.  “The domes can be the most challenging because of their size and the configuration,” Larry said. “But, every job is unique and has its challenges.”  Krause lists more than 300 churches and other buildings in Wisconsin. The lists for Minnesota and other surrounding states are similar in length.

Edwin Kaatz, building superintendent for St. Bede Priory in Eau Claire, wrote in a testimonial: “St. Bede Priory is a convent and retreat center that was built in 1963. It was built in the stule of an old European monastery and is faced with a soft brick. Maintaining the building is, to say the least, a challenge and a constant battle with the elements.  Krause Konstruction Company has helped us to set up a long-term maintenance program, finishing one section at a time. They are covering the old roof caps with copper, forming a drop edge, installing standing seam roofs over the pillars and windows to replace the flat concrete caps, removing decayed brick, tuck pointing the loose and decayed mortar joints.  Mr. Krause and his crew are truly professional and versatile in their work. They are fast, accurate, and pleasant to work with.”

Larry said repeat customers, like St. Bede, have been rather common, and he likes to keep track of how former customers are doing.  “It drives my wife crazy, but when we are traveling I’ll drive 30 miles out of our way at times if I know I’m near a church we worked on,” Larry said. “I like to see how things are doing.  In fact, at times, if we see some shingles off or something, I’ll tell our crew to stop next time they are in that area and replace them, at no charge.  We’ve been lucky to have carved out a niche in this area. I think we’ve been able to maintain it through our service and doing quality work.”

Portions of this story originally appeared in WisBusiness.com.

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The next Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club meeting is Wednesday, December 13th at the Food Enterprise Center, 1201 North Main Street in Viroqua. Networking starts at 5:30, program begins at 6:00 pm.

This month’s topic “Product/Service Show and Tell” will give inventors and entrepreneurs an opportunity to showcase their products, inventions and services, share questions with peers and receive feedback and suggestions to improve your design, evaluate uses and explore new market connections. Bring whatever you would like to sample or share with the group. Be ready to learn some new tips and we’ll celebrate your ideas.

The club meets the second Wednesday of every month at the Food Enterprise Center starting at 6:00 p.m. and everyone is welcome to attend. 


Click here for more info on the I&E Club

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Quick VEDA Contact Info

Susan Noble
Executive Director, Vernon Economic Development Association
1201 North Main Street,
Suite 6, Viroqua WI 54665
608.638.8332
snoble@veda-wi.org