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Fall attractions 'picking' up the pace despite year-long drought conditions

Fall is in full swing in Rock County, evidenced by people flocking to pumpkin patches and the season attractions built around the crop on some area farms.

At the tail end of a year-long drought, many pumpkin patches and fall-themed businesses have seen varying levels of crop production. Farmers are bracing for a high demand for the orange winter squash bound to be carved into countless jack-o’-lanterns.

At Skelly’s Farm Market in Janesville, Scott Skelly reported having a successful fall harvest and anticipates a significant turnout by people visiting his pumpkin patch. This time of the year is key to his bottom line, as October is peak pumpkin-buying season.

“We have a business that revolves around the Halloween holiday,” he said. “For us, our primary thing is pumpkins.”

Skelly’s harvest this year was relatively unaffected by the drought as his irrigation system compensated for rain deficits. But if he hadn’t irrigated, dry months are beneficial for growing pumpkins because the lack of standing water keeps disease and rot at bay.

Although it can be expensive to irrigate fields on a regular basis, especially when maintenance costs are factored in, Skelly said he looks at the risk-reward balance of artificial watering.

“It’s still in God’s hands, but at least you get some control of what you’re doing,” he said.

The downside of relying upon well water for irrigation is not all crops are created equal. For vegetables such as corn, summertime growing might consist of weekly waterings, whereas pumpkins can go at least a month without needing a significant soaking.

Water management is not the only consideration when preparing for a successful growing season. Other farmers who contribute to local agritourism did not fare as well as Skelly’s market and saw significant losses in crop production. To make up for inevitable financial problems, many considered making tough decisions.

Anthony Wahl 

Kylie Murphy places the second pumpkin into a cart after weighing each with her twin boys and partner Zeke Stutzman during a visit to Skelly's Farm Market on Tuesday, Oct. 12.

For Bryan Meyer, owner of Meyer’s Farm Market in Milton, an interruption in his planting cycle in June left him missing the growing season altogether when it came to some crops.

“We didn’t get our colored pumpkins planted this year and didn’t get our fall squash planted either,” he said.

While Meyer was able to grow “critical items,” such as traditional orange pumpkins, he also felt the pinch as the larger varieties were notably absent from the yields.

“We have a large volume of pumpkins, we just don’t have the variety because of those difficulties,” he said.

As a result of the lackluster yield of certain crops, Meyer said he incurred added costs due to supply shortages and had to cut staff.

“One (factor) is the sheer cost of production in general, which includes seeds and nutrients,” he said.

However, Meyer said this year’s struggles were not passed along to the customers and prices this year remained unchanged.

Meyer remained confident in his pumpkin output.

“We have a very good product and a large volume,” he said.

The next few weekends are when most pumpkins are sold.

“Fall tends to be a family function, so the weekends are important,” Meyer said.

Apple orchards affected, too

Another local attraction impacted this year is Lori Jenson’s Apple Hut in Beloit, where visitors annually visit to pick their own apples from Jenson’s 11-acre orchard. In an average year, the orchard’s 2,200 trees produce 17 varieties, including Cortland, Greenings, Jonathan and McIntosh.

This year, Jenson said her orchard had a lower-than-average yield of Jonathan and Cortland apples. Cortland apples took a precipitously sharp hit, dropping production to nearly a tenth.

“We typically pick over 400 bushels of Cortlands and I think we got around 50 bushels (this year),” Jenson said.

As for the Greenings, Jenson said the trees did not produce a single apple.

“They did nothing, absolutely nothing; it was pretty bizarre,” she said.

Diversification might be a saving grace for Jenson, as it is with other farmers attempting to regain losses: Apple Hut purchases pumpkins to sell onsite.

Anthony Wahl 

Bins of small pumpkins and gourds for sale are stacked outside Skelly’s Farm Market on Tuesday.

Drought conditions prove persistent

Apple Hut’s drop in apple production is also attributed to the statewide drought, with the effects particularly felt during the winter of 2020. Although parts of southeastern Wisconsin recorded higher than average snowfall, the U.S. Drought Monitor last year reported nearly 90% of the state experienced “abnormally dry” conditions.

Rock County this month has experienced more significant rainfall with around 4.7 inches accumulating as of Oct. 12. Even though this accumulation helps replenish the soil and chip away at the overall rain deficit, farmers find precipitation during harvest season to be more of a hindrance than an asset. Since fall crops are no longer in need of moisture, wet fields prevent farmers from getting combines to unharvested crops.

Additionally, rain largely keeps visitors from venturing outside and to the attractions, drastically impacting farmers’ bottom lines.

“If it rains on a Saturday, nobody wants to go out to the pumpkin patch and pick out pumpkins,” Skelly said. “I’d be happy if it is dry now through Halloween.”

Multiple factors contribute to difficulty restaurants are facing

Chickens only grow two wings.

That’s one of myriad factors Wisconsin Restaurant Association President and CEO Kristine Hillmer described in an interview Monday when discussing the product shortage affecting restaurateurs and most other businesses.

“There isn’t one fault and there’s not one solution,” Hillmer said. “After COVID-19, we are now seeing all the related ripple effects in the market.”

Unfortunately, Hillmer believes the product shortage is going to get worse.

Some of the most common shortages restaurateurs are struggling with are chicken wings and cooking oil. Other shortages or price increases are affecting pasta and paper products such as carryout containers, straws and drink container lids.

Restaurant owners are dealing with worker shortages and hiccups in the supply chain with many items remaining in cargo ships in ports, keeping supplies from getting to manufacturers or out for further distribution.

Hillmer said one of the factors contributing to a meat and milk shortage goes back to the early days of COVID-19 when schools and restaurants were closed. Farmers dumped their milk as they ran out of capacity to store it as end users—schools and restaurants—were shut down. Further complications emerged when there were COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants. Cattle ranchers faced similar dilemmas with fewer customers and continued costly upkeep of raising animals. Some farmers began to cull their herds.

“Farmers cut back on their dairy cattle because they were expensive to feed and keep and they didn’t have a market for the product,” Hillmer said. “They are building their herds up now and that will take time.”

Area eateries scrambling to cope

Restaurants in the area are dealing with not only worker shortages, but supply shortages, causing some to run out of favorite meal items.

During the past year, many family farms and some smaller processors closed as issues arose with shortages of truck drivers, cargo ship workers and rail workers and further cost increases.

“All of that is combined to create a really difficult situation in the restaurant industry and throughout the economy,” she said.

Prior to COVID-19, Hillmer said there was already a growing global worker shortage driven by a lack of available childcare and a decline in the working-age population in the state.

“We know that in the state of Wisconsin our population growth is slack. The number of available working-age adults is flat, and it’s predicted to go negative,” she said. “We don’t have enough working-age adults to take jobs, so competition will be fierce.”

She said Wisconsin Department of Tourism statistics show the state lost 22% of its hospitality workers amid COVID-19. Many of them are permanent losses as other sectors such as manufacturing, retail and health care kept hiring. The loss of hospitality workers coupled with baby boomers continuing to retire exacerbates the shortage of restaurant workers.

While some retired baby boomers had part-time jobs in the hospitality industry in the past, many of them aren’t returning to the workforce after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teenagers aren’t working as much as in past decades, either. It used to be common for young people to get their first job at age 16, often in restaurants. Today, many teens are doing more extracurricular activities, and having family time and have a decreased interest in working.

With so many challenges to restaurateurs, Hillmer said the Wisconsin Restaurant Association is helping members become preferred employers.

“If you can retain your employees and if they are happy in that job, they will find friends to come work with them. That’s half the battle,” Hillmer said.

The association is looking at training to build skills and identify potential people to enter the workforce. The restaurant industry, she said, is a second-chance industry offering opportunities to adults who might have been out of the workforce for a time for various reasons and need to restart or begin a career.

“There are countless examples of people who started out as a dishwasher or busser and worked themselves up to manage or own their own place,” Hillmer added.

Hillmer said many restaurants are making tough decisions regarding hours of operation. While many restaurants traditionally are closed on Mondays, they are adding a Sunday or Tuesday off to give employees two days off together for a weekend.

As restaurant owners and staff navigate this challenging time, Hillmer said it’s important for consumers to continue to support them and to be patient, kind and compassionate to those who have been working so hard to provide dining experiences.

“Patience and understanding go a long way as restaurateurs try to figure out short- and long-term strategies to remain open and give you great hospitality,” she said. “Communities are only thriving if they have restaurants.”

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Janesville School Board sets metrics for moving to mask-optional operations


The Janesville School Board approved linking future changes to the district’s COVID-19 mask policy to Rock County’s COVID-19 transmission rate and/or the vaccination rate of district students and staff by a 6-3 vote during its meeting Tuesday night.

The framework the board approved, which had the backing of district administration and the Janesville Education Association, will require mask-wearing inside district buildings until either 80% of staff and students in the district are fully vaccinated or Rock County achieves a low transmission rate based on rates laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rock County Public Health Department. Rock County on Tuesday night had a high transmission rate, the highest of the CDC’s four transmission levels.

Under the new system, “nobody is required to do anything” as far as getting vaccinated goes, Superintendent Steve Pophal said. He added the health department had reviewed the new policy and supported its implementation.

Board members Cathy Myers, Jim Millard, Karl Dommershausen, Lisa Hurda, Elizabeth Paull, and John Hanewall were in the majority voting yes while Greg Ardrey, Michelle Haworth and Kevin Murray voted no. The current mask requirement runs through Oct. 28, so the new policy will be in place starting Oct. 29.

In presenting the new mask policy strategy, Pophal talked about how far the district had come since the pandemic began in spring 2020.

“Throughout the whole process, decision after decision, we’ve used the best information that we had under the circumstances,” Pophal said. “We’ve done that with the best of intentions and asked for grace along the way.”

Pophal said in September that a total of 53 students had tested positive for COVID-19 and that during the first days of October, there had been 44 new cases reported for a total of 97 positive cases so far.

“I can tell you that with 97 cases, if we weren’t masked, we would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 kids,” Pophal said.

Groans and chatter could be heard from the lobby outside the meeting room where residents were watching the meeting on a TV set after Pophal’s statement.

When the superintendent’s presentation was over, Murray moved to postpone the vote on the new policy until the Oct. 26 board meeting, but the motion failed 5-4.

Murray, referring to hundreds of students in a cheering section at a football game at Monterey Stadium on Friday night, asked how that situation can go on without masking but then students have to mask up for classes come Monday.

Colton Measner, a junior at Craig High School, addressed the board before Pophal gave his presentation and opposed the new policy.

“I would like to have a normal senior year, and we can’t have that with masks on our face,” Measner said. “We can’t call this our new normal. Today, there are 17 students and two staff members with COVID-19 in the district. The hypocrisy is that you don’t have to wear it during contact sports where we aren’t socially distant, but we have to when we are socially distant.”

Board President Myers explained her yes vote.

“I believe masks work,” Myers said. “I believe that our low numbers are the goal, and the masks are contributing to that. I believe that health and safety has to be a priority for our students.”