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Getting ready for the big show

Pierce County's edition of Wisconsin Farm Technology Days is still 23 months away. But the countdown won urgency last week when local volunteers traveled across the state and saw firsthand the work to be done.

Six members of the Roger Peterson family and some 25 committee members boarded a charter bus Tuesday and traveled 250 miles to Green Bay for the night, then headed out early the next morning for the farm extravaganza sited at Country Aire Farms, a half-hour south of the Packer mecca.

The volunteers' mission was to see, touch, learn and ask questions of their Brown County counterparts to help shape planning for the Pierce show, scheduled for Tuesday-Thursday, July 20-22, 2010, on 2,100 acres about two miles south of River Falls.

The show is billed as the largest agriculture exposition in Wisconsin--a three-day outdoor event showcasing the latest improvements in production agriculture. Each year, it is held in a different Wisconsin county, on a different family farm.

Unfortunately, the Pierce volunteers also witnessed the risk of hosting a mega-event outdoors.

About 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the show was abruptly cancelled due to the threatening weather. Light rain began to fall and lightning flashed as thousands of vehicles began to exit the grounds. Within hours, more than two inches of rain had fallen and Brown County officials were forced to cancel the third and final day of the show.

"I want to reassure all of you that this is not the first time cancellation has occurred. However, this is a very rare occurrence and, from Brown County's perspective, the show is not a loss," said Greg Andrews, UW-Extension agricultural agent and executive secretary for the upcoming Pierce show.

Clearing the hurdles

Although a strong foundation has been laid for the Pierce County show, hurdles remain:

--Identify and mobilize some 1,500 volunteers able to give up three days midweek to serve food, direct traffic, welcome and shuttle visitors, provide security, collect trash, erect and disassemble thousands of feet of fencing, and more.

--Negotiate with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to arrange for show-time closure of Hwy. 29 to assure safety of visitors moving between displays.

--Raise funds necessary to help promote the show, present a complimentary meal for some 400 exhibitors at next year's show in Dodge County and help pay for infrastructure to transform the Peterson farmstead into a virtual state fairgrounds.

Committee members will staff an informational booth in the Round Barn during the Aug. 7-10 run of the Pierce County Fair. They'll be looking for hundreds of volunteers to help with preparations and assist with food service, field demonstrations, traffic direction and logistics during the 2010 show.

One message they'll want to spread is clubs and organizations can benefit financially from investing time at the show. Upon conclusion, proceeds will be pooled and split between the volunteers' sponsoring entities at a rate of about $5 per hour per volunteer hour worked. Past shows have netted thousands for groups like local Lions, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.

At Greenleaf, one food stand was staffed by 25 football players, parents and booster club members from Wrightstown High School. Their goal? Raise money to help defray the $450,000 bill to complete a new athletic complex at the Division 4 school.

Pulling in crowds

A number of vendors at the Brown County show said they thought attendance was down from past exhibitions. Some blamed fuel costs, others the weather, still others indicated the show's distance from urban centers.

Pierce County has never hosted the show. Organizers are hopeful they'll draw crowds from the Twin Cities metropolitan area and beyond as well as from throughout Wisconsin.

"One of the guys said, 'Take a map and put your pen on where the farm is, and draw a circle 90 miles out.' That's where the majority of visitors will come from," said Beth Ingli, vice-chair of the executive committee.

People will routinely drive four to six hours to attend the show, said Dan Matzek of Ellsworth, who will co-chair the field demonstrations with Brad Peterson, son of farm hosts Roger and Bev Peterson.

Matzek, a sales representative for Legacy Seeds, has attended and exhibited at about a dozen shows over the years.

"Traffic flow is critical. Exhibitors want a quick in and out," he said, recalling a show near Janesville where it took him 45 minutes to travel two miles.

Matzek's observation was validated minutes later when Glenn Thompson, general manager for Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, welcomed the group and reminded them, "People are happy if they're moving, even if it's three miles per hour."

Brown County's site was smack in the center of intense dairy country, Andrews explained as the bus departed Green Bay for the show.

Pierce County has approximately 19,000 dairy cows spread over its 45- by 50-mile square. By contrast, Brown has as many cows within a five-mile radius, with 3,250 at the host farm alone.

As the bus arrived, the visitors were immediately brainstorming ideas. As Ingli noticed a generic sign declaring "North Lot," she suggested Pierce consider more descriptive signs like "Hager City lot" and "Bay City lot."

A few minutes later, the group gathered with Thompson and Brown County's executive secretary Mark Hagedorn, who offered three pieces of advice:

"One, you never have too much help. Recruit lots of volunteers. Two, you can't over communicate. And three, start your prayers and well wishes for good weather right now."

Apparently, Brown County officials fumbled on that third directive.