Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center goes beyond dairyland

I hear that people want to know more about the origin of their food. We’ve shared these stories for many years, often casually and sometimes in shorthand.

One example: Car license plates began carrying the slogan “America’s Dairyland” in 1940, after the Wisconsin Legislature decided to promote our national leadership in dairy production.

Dairy farming remains a crucial part of our economy and identity, but that is just the start of it. Even if you grew up on a farm, it doesn’t mean you fully grasp the impact of agriculture in today’s world.

Less than 2% of Americans produce food for all the rest of us., but the work of many Wisconsin farms has nothing to do with milk. Some are industry leaders in other ways.

Three examples: Our farmers produce more cranberries (especially near Wisconsin Rapids) than any other state. Silver Spring Foods in Eau Claire is the world’s biggest producer and processor of horseradish products. The quality of ginseng from Wausau-area farms is considered the world’s finest.

We make tons of cheese, literally, but also are national leaders in production of snap beans and mink pelts. We are inching up the rankings for peppermint and spearmint as crops, turning these plants into mint oil.

One place to better understand the punch and personality of Wisconsin agriculture is the nonprofit and 36-acre Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, near Interstate 43 in Manitowoc County.

The $13 million complex, open since 2018, tells the story of family farms, the diversity of what we grow, environmental stewardship and the technology that makes it all happen.

Compare a day in the life of a dairy cow to that of a farmer. Compare the diet for a heifer (a cow that hasn’t given birth yet) to that of a dry cow (one not lactating).

Throughout the second-floor exhibit area are many questions to ponder, such as “will your vegetables be picked by a robot in the future?”

Even drones make an appearance. Learn how they help farmers in their work.

The facility is informative and engaging, a field trip planner’s dream. Here’s a part of what makes the attraction a talker:

A birthing barn. Time a visit right, and you’ll see a calf being born from behind a glass wall.

A nursery for newborn calves. Fact: They stand, on average, one hour after birth and will drink a gallon of milk.

Daily farm tours. Board a bus to Grotegut Dairy Farm, which milks 2,500 cows nearby and uses an anaerobic digester to turn waste into energy. The bus is driven through the barn, so there’s no need to disembark.

A simulator, so you can try maneuvering a combine through a field of grain. Fun for both children and adults.

A 20-foot-tall sculpture of a seedling, held in blue-collar hands. It makes a dramatic artistic statement.

Outside is an enclosed, roomy playground and a patio with tables for bringing your own picnic. Inside is a farm-centric gift shop and café with at least one dozen flavors of Cedar Crest ice cream (made just up the road), plus breakfast, paninis and burgers.

Best treat, when I visited: cherry-filled elephant ears (hand-held, glazed pies with a cinnamon swirl in the dough). One is big enough to share, but you might not want to.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, 7001 Gass Lake Rd., Manitowoc, is closed on Sundays. Admission is $16 ($8 for ages 4-18).

More destinations for lovers of agriculture and history in Wisconsin:

Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire: One major part of the roomy repository for regional history is a longtime and thoughtful “Farm Life” exhibit that demonstrates how much rural rhythms have changed since 1900. Chores, technology, farm size, rural neighborhoods and more are addressed. Admission is $7 (less for children).

Historic Farm Museum, Two Rivers: Explore replicated farmhouse rooms with 1800s furnishings and antique farm equipment that is housed in a former foundry. You’ll see vintage machinery to wooden butter churners and steel milk cans. Unique bonus: a farmer’s ag-themed collection of woodcarvings. Open May through September. Admission is free.

Old World Wisconsin, Eagle: On 600 acres is an open-air history museum that re-creates rural life in the mid 1800s. Costumed staff go about life – cooking, blacksmithing, plowing – as it was for average people back then. They tend to heritage-breed livestock and more than one dozen heirloom gardens. They work in dozens of historic structures in what feels like a real community. Walk the acreage or take a guided tram tour. Plan to spend the day. Open May to mid October. Admission is $20 on (less on most weekdays, less for children and senior citizens).

Stonefield, Cassville: A re-created ag community and farmstead from 1900 is a major part of this attraction, but so is the State Agricultural Museum. No place in Wisconsin has a bigger collection of farm machinery and tools. Why is it all here? Nelson Dewey, our first governor, lived here – and his country estate is an anchor for the campus of this state historic site.

For more about agritourism in Wisconsin: