June 1, 2016
An agriculture education center aimed at school groups, families and as a tourist destination is nearing the capital campaign goal in the Manitowoc area.
"We could break ground late this year or early next," says Melissa Bender, executive director of the planned $11.6 million Wisconsin Agriculture Education Center. "But it depends heavily on the capital campaign."
In addition to a 21,000-square-foot Discovery Center, there will be a 200-person conference center, an outdoor playground and a cafe and country store featuring Wisconsin products.
More than 70% of the funds needed for the development are in hand and the public phase of fundraising has yet to begin, Bender points out. The State of Wisconsin and agriculture industries have been major supporters to date. The Non-State Agency Grant of a matching $5 million has been supplemented by gifts of $1 million from the Land O' Lakes Foundation, $500,000 from Country Visions Cooperative and CP Feeds, $250,000 each from Investors Community Bank, Riesterer & Schnell Inc. implement dealers and John C. and Kate Miller, former owners of Miller-St. Nazianz, and their children, and $100,000 each from Dairyland Seed, BouMatic and project designer/builder Bayland Builders.
The center will be an interactive, state-of-the-art facility to "provide visitors with the opportunity to connect to the industry by better understanding where their food comes from and why agriculture is so important to them."
Melissa Bender is executive director of the planned $11.6 million Wisconsin Agriculture Education Center.
The center will include a Discovery Center that features hands-on learning opportunities through many displays, and an opportunity to tour (nearby) Grotegut Dairy Farm, which focuses on sustainability and best farming practices while still milking 2,400 cows three times a day. A highlight for visitors will be the chance to view the live birth of calves in the center's birthing barn. In addition to the 21,000-square-foot Discovery Center, there will be a 200-person conference center, an outdoor playground and a cafe and country store featuring Wisconsin products. Tickets, food and product sales will support the center financially, she says.
Bender and the center's 18-member board of directors expect 12-18 months of build time on the 18-acre site along I-43, between 10 and 15 minutes from Manitowoc and Cleveland, home of Lakeshore Technical College. The college has a strong ag program and will conduct some classes at the center.
"You'll be able to see the center from the Interstate," Bender says. She's been part of the project since May of last year and sees the entire year as "a big turning point to move forward. We were able to purchase the land, begin creative development with the exhibits and begin the capital campaign."
Meanwhile, Bender remains a staff of one but praises the help of a lot of volunteers and the board which is actively involved. Many board members have been involved since 2010 when the idea for the center was proposed by a group of local people with strong interests in agriculture. The late Norval Dvorak, a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Meat Animal Science Hall of Fame, renowned for his work in cooperative organization and leadership, led the effort.
"Norval encouraged a number of individuals to be involved," Bender notes. "This group put a lot of research into the agricultural education center. They had a feasibility study that showed a project like this could happen in this area of Wisconsin."
Ultimately, she hopes to work with various farm and commodity groups in the state.
"We really hope to partner with them. I believe we need those voices in our project."
Bender, a Montello native and UW-River Falls graduate with B.S. and M.S. degrees in ag education, had been program coordinator for the 4-H Special Interest Club in Illinois and before that taught ag and was an FFA adviser for five years in Wisconsin high schools. She is involved in every aspect of the center project, from the capital campaign, to developing exhibits and working with the building committee.
A full range of exhibits is still in the planning stage and will be announced later this year, she says, explaining that it will "focus on all areas of agriculture - cranberries to changes in agriculture to how food gets to our tables. There are so many amazing topics in agriculture to address. We hope we will be able to give that voice."
Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac.
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