Tornado’s… January… Monopoly?

A young, 4-year-old Marty calls his insurance agent regarding an insurance claim during a game of Monopoly? Also, apparently, his brother Rob prepares to shoot him with a BB gun?

Greetings from the truly frozen tundra of Richland County. When I checked the temperature earlier this morning we were sitting at a “Winter Has Come” -27 degrees Fahrenheit. Schools, governmental offices, and private businesses have closed due to the cold. My heart goes out to those who still have to go out and deal with the elements such as our farmer partners, electrical linemen, emergency workers, and county road workers.

This reminds me as a child of a couple of times during the 70’s when we had winter storms hit. During these times farming operations go into kind of a “reduced operation” mode. You simply get done what has to happen. Cows are milked, barn is cleaned somewhat, snow is removed, and calves are fed. And if you are raising calves in outside calf hutches this is one of the most brutal of all jobs, because the calves don’t want to come out either! Many times you are forced to jump over the fencing and into the hutch to get them out to feed them, almost doubling the time it takes. In below zero temps it added significant time to complete the basics but once those tasks were accomplished, we were able to retreat back to the house.

Typically this meant we had time to entertain ourselves. I grew up, for the first 8 years of my life, as the youngest of 4, one sister and two brothers. (My sister Joy came along when I was 8 and she is, again, a whole other future blog article.) As brothers, we were true rough-housers. My oldest brother, Ron and I, were wrestlers from early ages until we graduated from high school. So the first entertainment we started with usually consisted of a wrestling match in the front room. (NOTE: Ron is 7 years older than me and outweighed me by a good 120 pounds at the time, but I still competed, somewhat. I remember in organized wrestling at school the joy I felt when I actually got to wrestle guys my own age and size. “What, there are weight classes? And we are at least 4 years within age? This will be cake!”

Our brother Rob wasn’t as aggressive or physical as Ron and I were. However, when it got a little too rough he would slide back to the safety of the sofa and suggest new and torturous wrestling moves for us to use designed to inflict maximum pain. (If Game of Thrones needs any suggestions on painful wrestling moves, Rob could definitely help.) Funny thing, by the time I was 12, I was bigger than Rob. He interestingly avoided any wrestling matches with me by that point. I did get my retribution however! Every time Rob went to Grandma Richards’ house, she would ask him if he was ok and self-diagnose him as sickly. She was convinced he wasn’t healthy due to his slight frame and height compared to Ron and I, and she would force him to always have a glass of prune juice. I loved witnessing this, Grandma had diagnosed me as healthy to the point I did not need prune juice so I was simply an audience encouraging her on.

Back to the wrestling matches! Eventually, we would knock over furniture or break something which would quickly earn a scolding from our Mom and a proclamation that all wrestling was done for now. During this time Mom and Dad were attempting to read among the chaos and our sister Annette hid in her room trying to avoid the wrestling match. Mom would then challenge us to do something fun but a little quieter and productive. The activity of choice was typically a board game, specifically Monopoly. I loved to play Monopoly and as time wore on some cousins, our daughters, and my siblings learned that I was quite adept at it.

I can remember one such winter storm in which this scene played out and we eventually started a Monopoly game, Annette included. I believe I was somewhere around 8 years old. The game went on for some time, it was a battle royale. I was doing quite well, actually very well! So much so I had several hotels and houses on my properties and plenty of cash in the bank. The game had gone so long that I needed to make a trip to the bathroom. I understood the nature of my brothers so for this trip to the bathroom I took my Monopoly money with me. (Money from my personal funds had disappeared during previous trips to the bathroom and you never know if you want to buy something on the way back, right?)

Upon returning to the board game I immediately noticed all of my hotels and houses were gone. As you can imagine a serious line of questioning ensued and some pretty loud protestations. Eventually, the explanation was made clear by my oldest brother Ron, “Marty, while you were gone a tornado came through and destroyed all of your buildings.” What the heck? Since when are there natural disasters in Monopoly? He went on to explain, joined in by middle brother Rob, that absolutely there are tornado’s, hurricanes, and even earthquakes. But of course it can only strike once a game and unfortunately, I was the recipient of said one-time occurance. (I’m still trying to find this in the Monopoly rules, but they probably still stand by their claims.) And as our natural course would have it, this led to another wrestling match and the game getting upended to the point it was unrecoverable. Good times, good times.

I will say, those times as a close family, wrestling, playing board games, and working together did bind us together. We all still live within a 1 mile distance, almost all of us still on the family farm. We get together almost every Sunday for lunches with our parents and work together quite well to make sure they are healthy, happy, and their needs are taken care of. We have our issues, like any relationship with different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. But we do enjoy family gatherings, catching up, and still working together. We haven’t had a family gathering break into a wrestling match in a while, not saying it won’t, just that it hasn’t. I have to say our parents did a heck of a job raising a pretty remarkable group.

I encourage everyone today to unplug, connect with that person or people in your house or apartment. Do something that builds the intimacy that develops long-lasting relationships, truly communicate together at something everyone enjoys together. It doesn’t have to be a board game. My daughters and I loved to play Guitar Hero together. We routinely would do that at home and on road trips in the motorhome. But if it is a board game, and it is Monopoly, be careful. Ithaca rules state, (Apparently?) there are natural disasters that can suddenly wipe out every building on that player’s Monopoly board. I would inquire if this rule exists with your group, and if so, can you buy insurance against such devastation?

At least the wind has died down……..

Remember to plug that tractor engine block heater in before you try to start it this week or it will be a non-starter just like a planeload of concrete trying to take off.

If you are reading this as you sit in Wisconsin you completely understand how cold it is, has been, and will be for the foreseeable future. The good news, yes it’s cold but we are looking forward to about 5-8 inches of snow on Monday and Tuesday of next week. So we have that going for us……..which is nice.

I remember some of these days from back when I was a kid and we were milking cows. Cold weather and snow adds a whole different dynamic to dairy farming and makes a difficult job almost impossible. In Wisconsin, invariably, both items accompany each other. Usually, we get the 5-12 inch snowfall and then the arctic air follows it, (this isn’t Denver where it snows 5 inches and the sun comes out and melts it, you weaklings.) This is more of an Old Man Winter-Bataan Death March in which he throws everything at you in quick succession. The negative degree temperatures are simply hard on everything involved, tractors, manure spreaders, water pipes, cattle and people. Everything just simply isn’t designed to function in negative degree temps. A cold weather/heavy snowfall day for a farm kid in the 1970’s went something like this.

First, the night before you always got a little excited because the prospect of a large snowfall is exciting for everyone. However, as a farm kid, you quickly remember, if school is called off then you have to do more farm work. A school snow day was not a welcome event, it simply was another day for your father to find that dirty job he needs done. And guess what, special bonus, he still hasn’t forgotten that time you stayed out with the wrestling guys too late and came home after midnight. Typically it meant the unscheduled jobs such as bleaching the milking parlor, tearing apart the milkers, pitching out the calf pens you couldn’t get to last Saturday, scraping off the stall area where the cows lay down……………. I think you get it. Just think of the dirtiest, or the wettest, jobs imaginable. Side note: during these winter events I looked forward to wrestling practice because it usually got me out of the dirty work. (Yes, we still had wrestling practice back in the day, even if there was no school.)

One positive with these weather events as a kid of the ’70’s, we got to move snow! While this may not seem to be a big deal for you, it was one of the most enjoyable tasks during the winter, especially if you had a tractor with a cab. For several hours, or as long as you could continue to make it appear you were actually doing “work”, you would use the tractor and blade to move snow off the driveways and parking areas. It was fun, the cab had good heat and a radio, and actually shoving snow around is a little cathartic to the soul if you want to feel like you actually control something.

The worst issue with the cold weather that followed the snowfall, like death, taxes, and the Minnesota Vikings always falling short in the Super Bowl or NFC Championship game, something would break. I believe when I meet St Peter, and God is making his judgment on my soul, I am going to ask them if there is a rule of the universe that states, Paragraph 3, Sub-Paragraph 13.2. “When cold weather strikes at any negative temperature Fahrenheit, vital farm equipment or a major machinery item must break thereby crippling the whole operation.” I think there is also a subrule that states: “It is also a rule, and extra points are awarded (if God keeps some kind of point system for testing us in life?), that such breakage must occur on Sunday morning or the morning of a family gathering, thereby delaying the family from making it to the appointed event on time.” I swear there is a rule of the universe that states this is fact.

It was simply fact that on the coldest morning of the year, usually on Sunday morning, or just before a family gathering, the barn cleaner would break, the tractor wouldn’t start, the manure spreader web would break, the water pipe would freeze, I think you get it. Something major would always happen and you would then waste a couple hours recovering from this issue, further stressing the poor farmer who just wants to get the chores done and get to church. And I can tell you as a survivor of many of these situations, by the time we got to church, or the family gathering, we weren’t very Christian-like by that point.

So, while we are hiding in our warm homes the next couple of days, snuggling up next to the wood stove or under 3 layers of blankets, (you know, those blankets your mother-in-law has been giving you for the last 4 years that you swore you would never need?) remember those who are out in this harsh environment. Think of those working every day, no matter the weather, milking their animals, feeding those animals, and keeping the feed trough full for their cattle as well, as keeping our food trough full. Thank a farmer this week for what they do, it hasn’t been an easy week this past week and it won’t be any easier this coming week.

I thank our partner producers for all they do and endure. I am weak and thin-blooded anymore, so there isn’t much physical “help” you want me to provide, but I am thinking of your day and the extra it takes to just get the basics accomplished. I will also focus on purchasing the products from our producer partners in the hopes this adds to the value and demand for the products produced. I encourage others to join with me and be mindful to find products from our producer partners this winter. Let’s be safe out there and we look forward to milder temperatures and farm tours in late spring!

So you take a left at Fran Schroeder’s, sister-in-law’s farm who went to college with Bob Collins.

“You can’t get there from here, you just take a left at the Old Brown Church, go over Bashford Hill, and then right down to Old Man Brown’s farm, you can’t miss it…..”

I was born and raised in the Ithaca area of Richland County. I have traveled every county and town road in my early years of carousing around……..or so I thought. Part of the beauty of Richland County is just driving down those back roads discovering what new property, farm, or rock outcropping exists around the next curve or over the next hill. It is full of undulating roadways with twists and turns that bring a great view, and sometimes a very unexpected surprise around the next corner.

Before you accuse me of getting old and now enjoying the one activity that I used to despise with my parents “The Sunday Drive”, I will admit………I now enjoy it. (Join in now group….”Hi Marty”) I now enjoy driving around the county to reminisce, discover the new properties people have developed, and the impressive views of the Driftless Region. Yes……..(deep breath)…….I am an old fart, I might as well buy a Tom Landry style hat and a houndstooth coat to drive around the county at 20 miles an hour on Sunday afternoon’s.

It took Teri and I traveling to other states and countries to understand the beautiful area we live in. Those who reside in Richland County and have not traveled to the plains states, metropolitan cities, or other countries with their compact urban centers, may take the Driftless Region for granted. We love to travel, we love to meet new people, and we love to see the land of other areas. However, we have found that we need to come back to the hills in Richland County after two or three weeks or we crave home, of course also by that point our Chocolate Lab- Miley-may bite us thinking we are home invaders if we don’t remind her who we are by that point. There is nothing better than traveling to other states or countries and then returning to the patio at our house to drink a couple Old Fashioned’s, have a small fire in the fire pit, and watch the hills and the wildlife.

Oh, and that road sign pictured above, yeah about that. No photoshop was used in the production of that picture, this sign exists and yes it is as confusing as it appears at the crossroads of only 2 named roads, but pointing out that somewhere, out there, is Round Barn Rd and Gault Hollow Rd. Somewhere, in that general direction, you know, just go past Goplin’s rabbit farm, over past the old Frank Mill, and down the Louis Hill. You can’t miss it.

Through our tours we are going to strive to connect visitors and residents with the beauty of the area. During a Ridge and Valley Tour you will get to enjoy the settler’s stories, their legends, (perhaps a couple stories that are more believable than others) and some real honest-to-God postcard views of the Driftless region. Oh, yeah, and we are going to have fun doing it too.

I encourage you join us on a tour this summer, leave the driving, and the navigation, to us and just enjoy the views.

It’s all about the people…..

The Orlen and Alice Richards (Willow Valley Farms) circa 1968, when I was still just throwing legos down the heat ducts in the house. Any real damage I was about to cause wouldn’t start for another 7 years.

So a couple weeks ago we announced our plans to start up a tour company. Not a tour specifically of a city, or one that included historic monuments with a built in attraction, but one of the Driftless area of Southwest Wisconsin. We will visit the people, the farms, the unique businesses and yes, microbreweries and wineries. But the key component to the experience is the people.

It has been interesting meeting partners willing to join us on this adventure and talking with those who can steer visitors to the opportunity. An absolute constant with every discussion is the unique story each one has. I have always believed everyone has a story to tell and our business is founded on just that, sharing everyone’s stories.

Through our website, this blog, but ultimately on the tours, we will be telling you the stories of the Driftless area, the geology, the history, the people, and their businesses. We ultimately hope to educate and we plan to have a ton of fun along the way. One constant that continues to come through from each of our partners is the resilience required to develop, manage, and then ultimately survive the difficulties thrown in their paths. But also an overriding theme is how strong their relationships have become through their experiences.

I am not unfamiliar with difficulty and the need to be resilient. I was born, and raised, on a dairy farm just a mile north of the suburban metropolis of Ithaca (I don’t know what the sarcasm emoji is now days, but that “metropolis” comment was sarcasm). For the first 18 years of my life I lived and worked on a dairy farm. Days started at 6:00am and typically ended sometime around 8:00pm. We didn’t know it was hard work, it was just the life we lived. For many years my parents operated in a 70-cow stanchion barn, with 4 of us kids as cheap, but also somewhat inconsistent, labor. That was until our sister Joy joined us 8 years later raising that number to 5, (Joy requires her own story, an adventure I will share with you in it’s entirety, but individually. Joy deserves her own entry and even that may not be enough to fully describe the person she was).

We survived many challenges; seasonal storms, my brother Rob being driven over by a tractor my Mom was driving while raking hay, my sister Annette getting hit by a car while crossing the road, a shed fire, one or two BB gun fights in the hay mow, a roll-over truck accident in which all 4 of us were in the truck together and finally another head on collision (in which my brother Ron and I were in) with the farm truck and another car. Thankfully we survived all of that but our ultimate farm story will sound very familiar to those of today, That is a story to be shared down the road.

During a Ridge and Valley Tour you will meet interesting people and hear their stories. Many of those stories are very unlikely. Seriously, how do you decide one day to raise Yak’s, or how does a couple, who really don’t know anything about goats, decide to start a goat dairy,? But the most common story, the extreme hardships and setbacks such as a barn or sales/processing building, burning down and the process of picking up the pieces to move on and recover even bigger and better. The people of the Driftless area are tough, resilient, but also positive and a joy to talk with.

I encourage you to stay connected by subscribing to our blog updates, you can ‘follow’ by the link on the top-right side of this post. We plan to play out this adventure in the public eye, the challenges, the victories, and unfortunately sometimes the failures. This is much like farming after all, it is very real and in the open for all to see. The tour schedule will be developed and announced early in 2019, of course we need to buy an actual shuttle so we can have a tour as well, more on that later, but I promise we will own a shuttle by the first tour.

I hope we see you this summer to learn more about the people of the Driftless on one of the Ridge and Valley Tours!

What I did during my “Gap Year” that turned into a “Gap Week”.

(FYI, while this post says it was written by Teri, it wasn’t. Much like an 8 year old driving the tractor for the first time I am pretty sure she wants to keep her hand on the wheel that is Marty blogging.)

For the last 17+ years I have done the same thing for work, I have been a Worksite Benefit Consultant (your reply, what the heck is that?) providing financial and retirement savings education to Wisconsin public school educators and managing relationships with approximately 80 public school districts in Wisconsin. A few of those districts are the largest school districts in Wisconsin such as Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and others. 17 Years doing the same work, I struggle to understand how that came to be. I can remember one day when a veteran colleague told me how he had “forfeited” unused vacation days, I was baffled because I had never worked for the same employer long enough to get more than 2 weeks a year and I would use that as soon as possible. Ultimately, I would somehow forfeit over 100 hours of vacation time myself….how the heck does that happen?

You see I have a bit of undiagnosed attention deficit issues, it has helped me to be a very productive individual who can manage many tasks simultaneously. I am constantly on the search to meet new people, try new things, and experience new places. I have had careers in radio, retail sales, membership organizing for a lobbying group, in a casino, real estate sales, foundry production and industrial engineering, insurance brokerage and retirement and investment services. But strangely for the last 17-ish years, I have managed to work at the same place, doing somewhat the same thing. Fortunately, my work at Member Benefits was multi-faceted and working with Milwaukee Public School members always brought a new challenge each week. This work also gave me the ability to feed the one skill set that I have to use. I absolutely love presenting to a group of people. I have presented to groups in varying sizes from 600 to 6. I am in the .00005% percentile of Americans who actually love to publicly speak to large groups.

In the past 3-5 years  I have become restless, I wanted to do something else. I swore I would never continue in a career which started to get stale or I didn’t fully enjoy the work. Unfortunately the past couple of years I could feel the staleness settling in and the need for a new challenge. Back in early October, with encouragement from my wife of 31 years Teri, I let my employer know that I would be leaving the first week of April 2019.  There was the usual celebration you would expect from the folks at Member Benefits, (hey, I apparently wasn’t the easiest guy to work with?) but what was a little unusual, I didn’t really have the next step ready. We seriously did not know what I would do next. I have never had a problem finding something to do, I have an internal mechanism that doesn’t allow me to sit around very long, so I didn’t worry about it. The most enjoyable careers I have had typically find me, I haven’t had to look for them.

I had planned a “Gap Year”, you know just like college students. I even had listed 3 options:

#1. Backpack across Europe. Teri and I have had 6 German and Swiss exchange students over the years and they have become very much family, our daughter Laurel lives in Italy and I could have made an easy trip from Italy to Finland to visit everyone over the course of several months. (I actually might still do this, but only if Teri can find the time to join me.)

#2. Emerge from the basement of my Son-in-law and daughter’s home in Spokane everyday at noon, scratch my belly, and ask “whats for lunch”, after sleeping off a Devils Lettuce induced haze. (Marijuana is legal in Washington after all, all the cool kids are doing it, but I will struggle to grow the required dreadlocks to go with that lifestyle apparently?)

#3. Live on a beach in Puerto Rico, finish that “Relationship Management” book that I am working on (seriously) and try to drink the Bacardi folks out of rum. (This idea too is still a viable option for the winters, still selling Teri on it.)

However, somewhere between October and December, as we talked about the different opportunities and possibilities, there were a couple ideas and thoughts that consistently came up. First, I was adamant that whatever I do next must offer the ability for me to tell stories or to publicly speak to groups. I love telling stories (some factual, some embellished, I will let you figure out what’s true and what isn’t but my personality has put me in some situations that some pretty unusual events have occurred. )

Secondly, we don’t need to get rich doing it, we just need to cover the expenses and pay for my Old Fashioned’s and other drinks. Ok, that cost is pretty substantial so yeah, we agreed it needs to have some financial reward. But really, more importantly, we needed to make sure it was something more flexible than my current work. With all of our daughters aiming to locate in the Pacific Northwest, that naturally is where the Grandchildren will be. I have learned that one of the greatest roles I will get to enjoy in the back half of my life is that of a Grandpa. The work will need to be somewhat seasonal and allow me to schedule as the need arises, with the girls and more so with the expanding ranks of the Grandchildren.

Through this process of discussion, it became clear that owning our own business of some sort would make sense, and I started to think about what I have enjoyed the most as we have traveled all over this country. I quickly remembered many of the local tours we have taken in Seattle, Washington DC, San Diego, as well as the international tours we have taken in Japan and South Korea. These local tours gave us an excellent taste of the area and brought out some hidden features and history that we wouldn’t have found on our own. I also remember how the Seattle Walking Tour guide we had was the owner and following our tour he gave me a standing offer to come work for him, (his tour was very historically accurate and several times he was asked a question he didn’t know the answer, after he couldn’t answer I offered several explanations that always started with, “Its a little known fact……) 

So with that in mind, we have decided to start a tour company in Southwestern Wisconsin. While that may sound a little strange to residents of SW Wisconsin it was obvious to me there is a call for this type of connection to the biggest draws in this area. Through my discussions with people in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and Kenosha areas, many people know of Carr Valley Cheese, but they couldn’t find the place unless they get lucky. Many are surprised to find out there are two wineries within 20 minutes of each other and there is a microbrewery knocking it out of the park another 20 minutes away. 

But the real draw, that 90% of those I talk with say, “It is so beautiful in that part of the state”. They go on to talk about the different cattle on the rolling hills, the crops, and people. However, when I would ask them if they have ever been to the area many mention they simply haven’t gotten off Hwy 14 because of the intimidation factor of navigating town and county roadways, specifically with the hills and the lack of trustworthy cell service for reliable turn-by-turn navigation. Those of us who were born and raised here take it for granted, but yet many are intimidated by traveling on public transportation when we visit (if we visit) the city, imagine someone very familiar with public transportation and city streets coming to an area void of the population and business density of the bigger city. We also take for granted the beauty of the Driftless region, it truly is relaxing and beautiful here. We have noticed in recent years an expanding group of people escaping Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago to find the peace and quiet of SW Wisconsin. Try to look up at the stars some night anywhwere in the city, it is impossible due to the light pollution.

Our goal is to connect those from outside of our area with the hidden gems of the Richland County area. We will deliver a true farm-to-fork experience with visits to farms, to the cheese factories, fruit producers, wineries and micro-breweries. We will also work to connect visitors with the history of the area and the families who farm and produce for the nation. The major uniqueness of our offering, we plan to connect visitors with on-the-farm experiences through visits to cow and goat dairy operations. Every year between 3-4,000 visitors come to the Richland County Dairy Breakfast, I know because for the past umpteen years I talk to most of them as I guide them off the bus and to the food. There is a love of farming and an enjoyment of seeing the process. We hope to bring an education to those who don’t understand, or have never seen, a dairy operation up close. 

So, it is somewhat a dream come true for me, I will have a captive group of people who have to listen to me, but I get to tell them all about the features of an area I have called home for 55 years. I will also get to connect them to some pretty interesting and friendly people and their products. Look for more information as this moves forward, we intend to share the victories and the challenges along the way. We already have had some very interesting discussions and meetings as we met with our business partners along the way. I look forward to helping you meet them as well.