In the News

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The Culture of Farming

Alum helms new center that spotlights how food gets “from field to fork”

Jeanne Nagle | In the News | December 2023

Don’t let the giant potato masher out front fool you. The Food + Farm Exploration Center, which opened recently in Plover, is not static monument to Wisconsin’s standing as a top producer of the humble spud. Most accurately, the organization and its building can be described as an immersive cultural center—one that celebrates the culture of farming.

 

Located fittingly on Innovation Drive, the center is designed to showcase the various connections between food growers and consumers. “Our purpose is for our guests and visitors to meet the people, technology and machinery that bring food to our tables,” says the center’s executive director and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alumnus Andy Reitz ’94.

 

In addition to Reitz, several individuals with roots in the UWSP community have been tapped to fill key positions within the center, including its director of educational programming and the operations and exhibits chief.

 

The center was created by the Farming for the Future Foundation, established in 2018 as an outreach effort by area farmers dedicated to “agricultural literacy.” As well as connecting people with the food that graces their tables, the center also has as a goal of “encouraging people to consider a career in agriculture,” according to Reitz.

 

Construction of a physical location to further the group’s mission became a reality in 2022, when ground was broken on a 24-acre parcel of land donated by the Worzella family, of the specialty produce farm and potato/vegetable wholesaler operating as Worzella & Sons, Inc.

 

The price tag for the center was set at $41 million. Funding came largely through private and industry sources. In October of this year, organizers received $3 million in state grant money that precipitated the center’s grand opening on Dec. 2.

 

“We have about $5.5 million left to go to finish the campaign, and we will need annual support to keep the exhibits and educational programs fresh and mainstream,” Reitz says.

 

The center features “The Ag. STEM Gallery,” which is basically split in two. One part is filled with dozens of high-tech, interactive exhibits that cover everything from planting and tending crops straight through to harvesting, storing, processing, transporting and marketing the yield. “The Seedling Gallery,” an activity space with a youngster-sized kitchen, grocery store and food truck, occupies the other portion of the space.

 

Also housed in the building are classrooms for education programs, a teaching kitchen, dedicated meeting/event space, a café and a gift shop.

 

Exhibitions are great, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the real thing. The “Farm Tech Shed” is a cavernous room in which large farm machinery is displayed, such as the potato harvester that inaugurated the space when the center opened in December. In the Shed, visitors are afforded the chance to explore real-life farm equipment and other technology up close, whether it be taking in the view from a mezzanine-level observation deck, examining various components at ground level or even climbing up into the cab of a vehicle and imagining they’re at the controls of these powerful machines.

 

Outside, four one-acre demonstration fields dot the surrounding landscape, each offering the chance to see crop farming in action. The fields also have the ability to extend the center’s reach considerably. For instance, coinciding with three soft openings this past fall, a  handful of well-attended community “you pick” events were held at the site, replacing mere demonstrations with hands-on experience.

 

Cover crops, which affect soil fertility and viability, are planted in one of the fields at all times. The other three are expected to rotate through crops such as carrots, bean, corn and, of course—explaining the colossal masher at the entrance—potatoes.

 

“Our focus is on potatoes and fresh vegetables grown in the Central Wisconsin area,” says Reitz. “Eventually, we will expand into other crops that Wisconsin is known for, such as cranberries, mint or even ginseng.”

 

Reitz himself knows a thing or two about growing cranberries. As a high schooler, he worked in a cranberry marsh outside of Wisconsin Rapids. He also worked two summers as a research assistant for Ocean Spray as a college undergrad. Later, also armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry from UWSP, he parlayed those experiences into a career with companies such as Northland Cranberries and, most recently, Mariani Packing Company. Throughout his working life he has dealt primarily with crop scouting, managing marshes, grower relations, fruit sourcing and industry involvement in the field.

 

“My role in the cranberry business was always on the ag operations side,” he says.

 

While on a funding-committee call through the Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association earlier this year, Reitz learned more about plans to open the Food + Farm Exploration Center, and was intrigued. He sent in his resume to be considered for the executive director position, which he was later offered, starting with the venture in mid-April.

 

“One of the reasons that really attracted me to this opportunity and organization is the mission,” he says. “There is nothing more noble than helping people understand where our food comes from and the people that make it happen.”