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Ready or not, FTD countdown is at 12 weeks

Dairy farmers Roger and Bev Peterson stand by their mailbox on Hwy. 29 near County Road E in the town of River Falls. In the background is their farm's new milking parlor. From July 20-22 their land on both sides of the highway will be used to host the state's annual Farm Technology Days that's predicted to draw 80,000 people and 800 exhibitors and vendors.

Soft-spoken Roger Peterson shakes his head and murmurs, "There's never a dull moment around here. But what's coming will be way different."

The lifelong farmer is not talking about 23-year-old daughter Tracy. Her wedding is June 19 and the family will have a big tent reception for her on the family farm.

Roger's wife, Bev, admits that Tracy's graduation from Chippewa Valley Technical College in May, her bridal shower and wedding plans are nice distractions from the monster event that the Petersons are preparing to host: Wisconsin Farm Technology Days.

FTD is the state's largest agricultural exposition. The three-day event spotlights the latest improvements in farming. Each year since 1954 it's been held in a different county at a different host farm.

Thirty-eight Wisconsin counties have hosted FTD. This will be the first time for Pierce County.

Bev admits that when she allows herself to dwell on hosting such a colossal event, "My stomach just goes into knots and I'm ready to throw up."

So why did this modest, unassuming couple apply to host the 2010 FTD?

"We didn't go looking for it," Bev said. "It was suggested that we should apply. Later, when we saw the 2007 (FTD) show in Green County (near Madison), I thought, wow, there is so much to do and to see, and it would be so cool to have it here and showcase Pierce County and our part of the state."

Roger agreed, saying, "It's just kind of a neat thing to attend, and we'll probably never have it happen again in Pierce County, so it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host it."

The Peterson's town of River Falls farm straddles both sides of Hwy. 29, which will be closed for traffic during FTD.

While bringing FTD to Pierce County has meant three years of preparation and fundraising, hundreds of volunteers, forming dozens of committees and spinoff subcommittees, Roger said all that effort will pay off.

"I like it because it's brought a lot of people throughout the county working together," he said. "The big thing is the leadership needed to pull this off. It gets people talking to each other and coordinating, so it brings out those qualities."

Roger says hosting FTD sends a message.

"For younger generations, especially, it refreshes them about the importance of farming in our area," he said. "That image has deteriorated. Farming's just taken for granted. But agriculture is still a big thing in our county. It generates a lot of revenue and it deserves to be showcased."

Like Roger, Bev says that having FTD in Pierce County has generated a "strong, volunteering spirit"

"This is big, it's special, and it's taken a lot of people to get involved," she said. "The event will bring in a lot of money that is spent in our county, and there are local church and service groups selling food will keep the proceeds, so that's another benefit that stays here."

Bev said the FTD show is about variety.

"It's worth seeing for many reasons," she said. "There's an arts and crafts tent, a family living tent with entertainment and music, a booth telling the history of Pierce County, equine performances with horse trainers, there's a longhorn steer that does tricks, 4H and youth tents, a tractor driving contest, catered food, educational exhibits on native plants and soil conservation, plus lots of freebies handed out, like notepads and Frisbees.

"And it's only $5 to get in. If the weather is good and it's sunny, it's just a great time to be out, walking around, enjoying the sights, getting fresh air and spending the day socializing with your friends."

Farm expansion is their own initiative

Soon after earning the FTD host bid, the Petersons made another key decision. Two of their adult children, Brad, 27, and Michelle, 25, were unhappy at their jobs and wanted to join the family farm operation.

The decision wasn't made overnight. It was discussed for months and then took planning to enlarge the farm to support two more people.

In August 2009 the Petersons incorporated as Peterson Family Dairy. After working on the farm for a few years, Brad and Michelle will likely buy into the business as part owners.

Brad's specialty will be crops and machinery, while Michelle will oversee dairy and bookkeeping. Another son, Kevin, a River Falls High School junior, has also shown interest in joining the farm operation someday.

Meanwhile, the Peterson farm has grown from 70 to 260 milking cows, has a new free-stall barn, milking parlor, sand-manure separation system, 250-long blacktop feed pad for cows, and a 2.8-million gallon manure storage pit, plus an addition soon for the calf shed.

The goal is to have everything new finished by June.

Roger and Bev say they've been asked if their larger farming operation is related to hosting FTD or being financed by the nonprofit FTD organization.

The answer, they say, is that hosting FTD has nothing to do with the improvements, nor is FTD money paying for it.

"It makes you wonder how people can think that. We're financing the expansion on our own and not to impress anyone, including Farm Technology Days," Roger said. "This is what we want for our family.

"I'm just hoping that hosting this doesn't cost me too much out of my own pocket. With the land set aside for vendors, our crop rotation is affected. I've had the corn silage moved way off and have to haul manure farther away, so there's been inconvenience getting ready."

Bev says, "We're certainly not making anything from (FTD). Looking back, I kind of wish we'd waited with the expansion so that people didn't have that impression that we're somehow benefiting.

"We didn't want to have the farm torn up this year for (FTD), so we had the choice of speeding up our plans to expand -- which we ended up doing -- or wait until after Farm Technology Days was over and begin in August of this year or in 2011.

The Petersons say having their children join them on the farm not only justifies the expansion but is a source of pride.

"The kids have said, we don't want to just work here, we want to own this place," Bev said. "It's a big honor. They not only haven't gotten sick of us yet, the want to work with us, keep the farm in the family and be successful at it.

"That means Roger and I can fade out eventually, kick back, do things we haven't been able to do more of, like traveling. Farming is a 24/7 job."

Bev said turning the farm over to the next generation and keeping it prosperous is no longer a given. That's another reason, she said, to host FTD.

"There are no more dairy farms from here all the way down to Red Wing (Minn.) on County Road E where it turns into Highway 35," Bev said.

Roger said having two of his grown children join him is rewarding.

"Farming isn't the easiest thing in the world to do," he said. "It's nice to have them fall into your shoes and take over someday.

"So many small farms have gone by the wayside, been sold off. There's no one to take them over. The tendency is to get bigger, like we have, to grow and stay healthy.

"That's progress. Sometimes you wish things would stay the same, but you either got to go with the changes or stay behind. Change isn't bad."