Local Farm Tours Highlight Innovations & New Products in Marathon County’s Agriculture Industry

Written by Heather Schlesser and Brad Karger

Sunflowers captured via drone recordings taken at the 2018 Farm Tour of Sunny Maple Farm in Athens, WI.

I wonder . . .

When you think about Marathon County agriculture, what pops into your head?

For me, the first thoughts are of Holstein cows, milk, butter, ice cream, and cheese.

Certainly, dairy is still an important part of Marathon County agriculture. But what we are learning is that agriculture in Marathon County is quite innovative — We now see new emphasis on such things as:

  • Sunflowers & sunflower oil
  • Bees & honey
  • Vegetables & fresh, organic vegetable subscriptions
  • Grapes & wine

HOLY COW! What next?

Marathon County has long played a supporting role in agricultural innovation. The Marathon County University of Wisconsin–Extension is a long-standing partnership between Marathon County and the University of Wisconsin. Its role is to extend the educational resources of the university to the four corners of Marathon County, spurring innovation and helping producers find increased profitability.


In 2010, Marathon County joined with agricultural industry leaders — represented by the Partnership for Progressive Agriculture (PPA) — and North Central Technical College to open the Agricultural Center of Excellence farm in the Town of Maine. (Our “partnership” involved a $1 million cash donation to get the farm started.)

More than just educating traditional students, the NTC farm has opened its doors to producers to see new options like rotational grazing, robotic milking, and no-till fields. Much of our supporting role to the ag industry is simply to help producers see a broader array of options and then let their entrepreneurial spirt take it from there!

In the County’s newest Strategic Plan, Marathon County will be working to see that affordable, reliable, high-speed internet is available countywide. Katrina Becker, of Cattail Organics in Athens, emphasized the importance of meeting this need to ensure the competitiveness of ag businesses like hers.

Another top priority in the County’s Strategic Plan is helping to bridge the financing gap for new agricultural start-up businesses and to fund the transition to new technology by existing producers. MCDEVCO, a non-profit economic development agency closely affiliated with Marathon County, has been asked to take the lead to ensure that ag producers with innovative ideas and solid business plans are not blocked by lack of financing.

To learn more about ag industry changes that have already been made, those that are in the works, and those are envisioned for the long term, a group of community business leaders, public officials, and educators decided to jump in a bus and go out and talk to people in the agriculture industry.

And — WOW — did they come away with some important information about the emerging diversity of food production in Marathon County!

July 19 marked the 3rd annual farm tour that Marathon County UW–Extension and PPA have offered in an attempt to educate people about where their food comes from and how farms are changing in the 21st century . . .

The first farm tour in 2016 focused on the dairy and ginseng industries in the County. Farms toured included:

  • Van der Geest Dairy
  • The Agriculture Center of Excellence
  • HSU’s Ginseng processing plant

In 2017, the farm tours branched out to Langlade County. The tour included:

  • Schroeder Brother’s Potatoes

On that tour, participants were able to see how potatoes are harvested, sorted, and processed. You can see a video from last year’s tour here.

The goal of this year’s tour was to introduce consumers to the farmers that grow their food. As general consumers become more removed from agriculture, it’s important to educate them that their food still comes from a farm. This year’s tour featured three Athens businesses:

  • Cattail Organics
  • Sunny Maple Farm
  • Half Moon Hill Farm & Winery

With 40 participants, this was the largest tour held so far. Watch video footage from this year’s farm tour below. (NOTE: You may wish to skip to the 1:00 marker, when the tour action begins.)

A little about this year’s farms:

  1. Cattail Organics, owned and operated by Katrina Becker, is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm — meaning consumers are supporting the farm directly. With this type of agriculture system, you know who grew your food and they know who you are. CSAs are set up so an individual can buy various shares of the produce to meet the needs of their family. Becker also sells her products at various farmer’s markets throughout the growing season. She has been growing vegetables for 13+ years and thoroughly enjoys what she does. Becker farms Cattail Organics with her three kids and a few hired hands.
Drone footage of hoop houses taken during the 2018 farm tour at Cattail Organics.
  1. Sunny Maple Farm – Owned by Gary and Maureen Belanger. Gary has been raising bees for his entire life. Making syrup and honey is a natural part of the Belangers’ lives. Several years ago, Gary decided it would be fun to start making sunflower oil, so the couple bought a press and started making their own. The family’s granddaughter loves bees and talked with tourists about raising bees, including helping them find the queen bee in the observation hive provided for the tour by the Central Wisconsin – Marathon County Beekeepers’ Association.
Beekeeping and honey collection demonstration during the 2018 farm tour at Sunny Maple Farm.
  1. Half Moon Hill Farm & Winery — Owned by Gerrid and Sadie Franke. The couple bought their land in 2007 with the intent of starting a winery. After planting 150 grapevines, they decided that 32 acres would be a lot of grapes and pondered other options for the remaining land. They have since fenced in some of the land and added pasture-raised lamb, beef, and poultry to the farm. They also added raspberries, blueberries, currants, and gooseberries and now make ciders and mead, too.
2018 farm tour participants concluded the tour by viewing the farmstead and vineyards at Half Moon Hill Farm & Winery.

Everyone involved had a great time and provided wonderful feedback from the event, such as:

“Wisconsin has a lot more ag diversity than I knew about. New veggies I learned about. Loved the honey and sunflowers too.”

We all have a lot at stake in the success of local agriculture. We have 11,745 residents employed in agriculture in Marathon County. The economic ripple, positive or negative, will certainly touch us all.

Information about next year’s farm tour will be posted on the Marathon County UW–Extension website. If you’d like to be included on a list of “interested participants” for next year’s farm tour, email Heather.Schlesser@co.marathon.wi.us.

Heather_SchlesserHeather Schlesser

Director | University of Wisconsin–Extension

Heather Schlesser began her career in Marathon County when she joined the staff of the Marathon County UW–Extension Office. Since July of 2012, Heather has served as the county’s Dairy and Livestock agent. Heather works with the farmers of Marathon County to keep them educated on current research and farming practices. In July of 2016, Heather also took on the Department Head duties at UW-Extension. In her free time, Heather enjoys spending time with her family gardening or “playing” outdoors.  Email Heather Schlesser.

Brad Karger - Marathon County Administrator

Brad Karger

Marathon County Administrator

In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $165 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday.  Email Brad Karger.

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