FRI AM News: “WisBusiness: the Podcast” with farm owner Sylvia Burgos-Toftness; Organic Valley reporting $1.2 billion in 2020 sales

— This week’s episode of “WisBusiness: the Podcast” features an interview with Sylvia Burgos-Toftness, a board member of the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association. 

Burgos-Toftness and her husband David started a beef farm nearly 11 years ago in Clear Lake called Bull Brook Keep, which now also serves as an agri-tourism destination in Polk County. She had previously worked as a public relations executive for more than 40 years, while he was a chiropractor. 

“We brought those health and communications ideals to the farm,” she said, explaining how they routinely host visitors for tours and other educational experiences. “We get visitors 12 months out of the year.” 

The discussion touches on the state’s agri-tourism industry more broadly, as Burgos-Toftness explains that trips to rural tourism destinations actually increased during the past year. Because visitors could have these experiences in an outdoor setting, that gave businesses like hers a leg up on typical tourism destinations. 

“We actually go walk the farm, so they can see why my husband and I have devoted ourselves to sustainable practice — what it means for the cattle, what it means for the land, and ultimately what it means for the flavor and nutritional level of the beef,” she said. 

Burgos-Toftness also details how the association works to promote Wisconsin’s farms and the products they sell. The organization’s newly redesigned website helps visitors to the state find opportunities for visiting and touring local farms, as well as other activities like corn mazes, fairs and local vineyard experiences. 

The association helps agri-tourism businesses stay current on regulations, including COVID-19 protocols, she said. And the group advocates for regulatory changes meant to benefit farmers in the state. 

“Certainly as we go into the future, we’ll be looking at different kinds of regulations so that more farmers can invite visitors onto their land, into their activities with assurance,” she said. 

Listen to the podcast here: 

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DATCP has a webpage with more than a dozen links to groups working to promote agri-tourism in Wisconsin. See the full list here: 

— Organic Valley is reporting $1.2 billion in sales for 2020, with an increase of $48.4 million in consolidated net income over the year. 

Headquartered in La Farge, the organic farming cooperative represents around 1,800 farmers across 34 U.S. states, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. A release shows the co-op saw a 4.5 percent increase in consolidated sales during 2020, despite industry challenges posed by the pandemic and other factors. 

“Farms continue to disappear at an alarming rate while the number of animals grows steadily, producing food in systems designed without regard for the long-term, holistic benefit of people, animals, and the environment,” Organic Valley CEO Bob Kirchoff said in a statement. “We are here to offer an alternative: an opportunity for organic family farms to thrive.” 

See the release: 

— The Wisconsin Dairy Business Association is urging passage of a bill that would commit $5 million over five years toward boosting state agricultural exports. 

The bill cleared the state Senate Wednesday on a 32-0 vote, and goes next to the Assembly. It was authored by Sen. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, and Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc. 

If passed, the export initiative would receive $1 million per year through 2026, with half of the funds allocated to dairy exports. Twenty-five percent would go toward meat, poultry and fish, and the remaining 25 percent would go toward crops. 

See the bill text: 

— Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is applauding the recent passage of Assembly Bill 336, which would end Wisconsin’s participation in pandemic-related federal unemployment benefits.

Assembly Bill 336 would end the $300-per-week payments unemployed Wisconsinites could claim from the federal government. In a written statement, WMC argues these benefits hurt businesses across the state because “they are being forced to compete with the government” as well as each other. 

According to WMC, Wisconsin’s ongoing labor shortage is largely due to high unemployment benefits, equivalent to claimants receiving nearly $17 per hour. 

Meanwhile, other groups are urging Gov. Tony Evers to veto the legislation. The Main Street Alliance of Wisconsin — the state chapter of a national small business coalition — is arguing that worker shortages are due to lack of access to health care and reliable transportation, as well as industry disruptions due to the pandemic, rather than UI benefits. 

See the WMC statement: 

See the Main Street Alliance release: 

— UW-Milwaukee is creating a new Fund for Diversity in Tech Education with a $2 million donation from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife, Anu Nadella. 

According to a release from the university, the funds will be put toward pre-college programs aimed at enrolling students from underrepresented communities in programming, computer science and other tech-related fields. It will also go toward scholarships for undergraduate students and other services such as mentoring. 

Nadella is an alumnus of UW-Milwaukee and graduated with a degree in computer science in 1990. He went on to become the CEO of Microsoft in 2014. 

“I still carry the lessons learned at UWM with me, and Anu and I are honored to contribute to expanding that same opportunity I had to a broader group of students,” he said in a statement. 

See the release: 

See a recent story on Milwaukee’s tech scene: 

— A Madison nonprofit organization is getting a $448,000 state grant to support a new housing development including units set aside for low-income residents and senior citizens. 

The Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program was awarded this grant by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and is partnering with the Madisonian Development LLC on the project. The two planned buildings will include 64 apartments for seniors and six two-story townhouse units, a WEDC release shows. 

Fourteen of the units will have rents set at or below 30 percent of the area’s median income, while 28 will have rents at or below 50 percent of the median income. Seven will have rents at or below 60 percent of the median income and 21 more will be set at market rate. 

Both of the structures will be financed with low-income housing tax credits through the Wisconsin Economic Housing Authority. The project has an estimated capital investment of $17 million and is slated for completion in June 2022. 

See more on the project: 

— Local government proponents are backing a bill that would put in place guidelines on how the state should handle lawsuit settlements from opioid manufacturers.

But Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, in an Assembly Committee on State Affairs public hearing said local governments do not want to get involved in the bill’s more politically divisive aspects giving more power to the GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee.

The bill would require any settlements on the suit between the AG and local governments and opioid manufacturers, marketers or distributors to first be approved by JFC.

“There may be a dispute on that particular item between branches of government,” he said. “But while we are having that dispute, we still have a gigantic problem called opioids. It would be a travesty for us to not utilize those dollars as quickly as possible because we’re having a political fight.”

See more in the WisPolitics PM Update: 

— Two former governors from opposite parties, Scott Walker and Jim Doyle, appear together in a new UW Health public service ad to urge state residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The 30-second spot, called “Best Idea,” features the two connecting through a video call and agreeing on the need to remind Wisconsinites to get vaccinated. Walker suggests to Doyle they should partner on a commercial to that effect and Doyle responds, “That may be the best idea you’ve ever had.”

Walker agrees after taking a sip from a Wisconsin-themed coffee cup that reads “You Betcha” on the side.

Dr. Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health, then joins the video chat and delivers the final message: “It looks like everyone agrees, it’s time to get vaxed Wisconsin.”

In a release, UW Health emphasizes the bipartisan nature of the ad.

“It’s a good reminder that COVID-19 is not a political issue, and we really do have broad agreement,” Pothof said in a statement. “We want everyone to get the vaccine to keep themselves and the community safe so we can end this pandemic.”

The ad will run on television in all markets across the state, according to a UW Health spokesperson.

Watch the video:

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— A Madison-based e-commerce platform has announced the addition of the retailer Fareway to the GrocerKey Retail Media Network.

GrocerKey has a platform for brick-and-mortar retailers to sell products online and build a greater virtual presence. The platform currently works with companies based in the United States and Canada.

Embedded into the GrocerKey platform, GK Retail Media aims to increase revenue for retailers through brand recognition growth and customer engagement.

See an earlier story on GrocerKey: 

— RSVP for Tuesday’s – – Wisconsin Technology Council “From dairy to tech: How smarter immigration policy can help the Midwest workforce” virtual event.

Four speakers will talk about the prospects for immigration reform under the Biden administration and within Congress, and how bipartisan changes might help solve workforce problems in some of Wisconsin’s largest economic sectors.

Participants are: Reid Ribble, a former Republican member of Congress from northeast Wisconsin and chief executive officer for the National Roofing Contractors Association; Ankit Agarwal, president and CEO of Imbed Biosciences Inc. in Madison; Jay Heeg, of Heeg Brothers Dairy in Colby and a former president of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin; and Kelly Fortier, an attorney with the Michael Best law firm. Tom Still, president of the Tech Council, will moderate.

The program is set to run via webinar from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, June 15.



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– Democrat Jim Doyle and Republican Scott Walker team up for PSA to encourage COVID-19 vaccines


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– Spring Green’s American Players Theatre gets $10 million donation


– Nearly two years later, Jerry Kelly will defend his AmFam Championship title


– Wisconsin Veterans Museum to reopen in July


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