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  • Writer's pictureLee Murray

Breakfast on the Farm

On one side of the gravel driveway, tiny corn seedlings bob in the hot breeze, shaking in laughter at the hordes of townies roused early from their beds on a Saturday to come to the farm. We’re in the heart of rural Wisconsin, at Dane County’s Annual Breakfast on the Farm, an event first held in 1979 on a farm just west of here at Token Creek.

It’s a simple premise: the Dairy Promotion Committee lures in the townsfolk with the promise of a hearty home-cooked farm breakfast, and then deviously sets about debunking the idea that milk comes solely in cartons. Farm tours, machinery displays, and product samples showcase the state’s signature industry, with hayrides, face-painting and live bluegrass adding to the atmosphere. I could say that as a Kiwi, I was interested in comparing dairying practices, but in truth, I push my husband out of bed, clip the directions from the Wisconsin State Journal, and herd my yawning family into the car because our two year old is passionate about tractors and cows.

To get to the farm of Dale and Diane Helt we take the beltline highway north from the state capital, Madison, up to the crossroads known locally as Springfield Corners, then follow County Highway P before turning east onto Lavinia Road. We needn’t have worried about finding the place. Diane Helt’s front alfalfa paddock has been enlisted as a temporary parking facility and the vehicles of more than 4500 would-be breakfast goers have already marked a botched corn circle in the foot-high alfalfa.

While we queue for a park, the cars lined up like a roll of gumdrops, I examine the scene through my window. It’s a traditional postcard farm: rolling green paddocks to the horizon, and in the centre a pretty white washed farmhouse, a red painted barn with an hexagonal white roof, and a number of scruffy tin outbuildings set against ice-cream silos in a background of endless sky.

“Come on, Mum!”

For just $4 for adults and $2 for kids, the Helts are serving traditional farm fare: eggs, ham, pancakes, freshly baked bread rolls, milk and Wisconsin’s own cheese. But at 8am the queue to the circus tent is already four townies wide and 150 yards long. Suddenly, we lose our appetites. There is no way we will get breakfast here. Not before lunchtime. Instead, we wade across what is left of the alfalfa to take a look at the farm.

We opt for a horse-drawn wagon ride. There’s just enough space on the over-sized apple crate to squash thirty Wisconsinites and four Kiwis, all ruddy and sweating in the early humidity. Kids, their faces sticky from cinnamon bun frosting, lean over the sides in excitement. Already bored with it all, sixteen year old Mary-Beth hardly needs to guide the pair of Clydesdales on their lazy plod across the trampled alfafa and back again.

Clambering down from the wagon, we follow giggles and shouts to petting zoo where the town kids are given free rein to poke at the livestock: a sleepy pig, some bleating black lambs, and calves and cows in makeshift wire pens. My husband gives me a nudge. He’s spied the newly-crowned Alice in Dairyland, a former TV anchor, picking her way across a boggy bit where the alfalfa paddock joins a grassy area on the outskirts of the farmstead. As Wisconsin’s agricultural ambassador and a dairy industry spokesperson, she’s appropriately dressed for the farm in a soft apricot suit, pantyhose, tiny black pumps and her 9-day-old sparkly tiara.

“Look at that queen, Mum,” says Celine.

I snap off a quick photo of the kids with the lambs, then muster them off to tour the milking sheds where the Helts milk 350 Holsteins twice daily. There are 20,000 herds in Wisconsin and most are 150 to 350 head. Only a handful of herds number more than a thousand. It’s easy to see why, since these Holsteins live indoors year round, housed in a vast ventilated barn called a milking parlour  ̶  back home we’d call it a shed. The parlour is curtained in beige canvas, although pink and white poplin would surely have been prettier, and raising and lowering of these curtains allows the temperature of the barns to be regulated for heat and also severe cold. The Helt’s milking parlour is ventilated by ten fans: each the size of a large picnic table, they’re mounted vertically from the roof and probably draw the equivalent of New Zealand’s entire electricity grid. The ventilated air blows into our clothes and permeates our hair. It’s a nice heady mix of chaff, haylage, and corn, together with the body odour of 350 sweaty Holsteins and the inevitable effluent made by the same! At least, Diane Helt has a valid excuse to use her clothes dryer. Our kids seem not to notice.

“Mooo,” screams Robbie, leaning forward and pointing at the cows. “Cow, cow!” And, there are 350 of them, remember. From the barn, we are dragged along behind the children who want to see the babies. They demand we lift them up so they can go “ooh” and “ahh” over the gangly calves sleeping in stalls in the newborn unit.

Outside, we’re handed free ice-cream cups topped with fresh strawberries. We sit down to enjoy them on the Helt’s back lawn alongside a life-size 80-pound cheddar cheese carving of Wisconsin’s mascot, Bucky the Badger. Our ice creams drip in the heat, and so do the members of a group of dancers in purple flounced mini-dresses who strike up a skirt-swishing foot-stamping fiddle-playing ho-down on the back of nearby truck. Since the median age of the dancers is around 60, and those dresses are very short, Dave limits me to one photo.

Our ice-creams finished, we move on to look at the tractors. The Helts have heaps, built in 1936, 1955, and 1995. Made by John Deere, a plow manufacturer who set up in mid-west in the 1830s to escape bankruptcy at home in Vermont, the latest model is colossal, seating my family comfortably in its yellow wheel rim. These tractors reveal the true difference between Wisconsin and Kiwi dairy farming. In Wisconsin, the farmer must grow the feed, silage, corn and hay, then harvest it and haul it all in on his tractor to serve up to couch potato cows who sit on their tushes all year in climatised barns. In New Zealand, our cows are raised to be independent, going out into the world to get it for themselves. It’s why when you take a road-trip across America’s Dairyland there are hardly any fences and even fewer cows, a shock after two decades living in the Waikato. The kids climb all over the tractors and we take some pictures that their grandparents will show off to their friends.

Celine wants to go back and have her face painted at a table on the front lawn. She asks for a hundred and one Dalmatians please, but has to console herself with a butterfly motif instead. Meanwhile, Dave and Robbie take a manly look at a monster truck that has been installed by the breakfast tent to block the wind from the cooks.

Breakfast is still is full swing. Since 6.00am volunteer cooks have scrambled 10,000 eggs with ham and cheese using plastic dustpan spatulas — and still the queue of unfed breakfast hopefuls is 100 yards long.

Shall we stay and wait for breakfast? Naah! We pick our way back through the alfalfa to the car. By this time, there are only a couple of thousand cars to pick from, and since only 10% of these are red Ford Windstars, it’s relatively easy.

Corn seedlings bob goodbye as we head back for breakfast in town.

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