Beginning the financial report to his youthful colleagues, Zach Wensel drew laughs as he matter-of-factly observed, “So, this past growing season wasn’t exactly the best.”
In addition to the reaction by a half-dozen members of the Black River Falls FFA Student Cooperative, Zach’s understatement prompted snickers from seasoned farmers among the Jackson Electric Cooperative board members who were sitting in on the student co-op’s annual meeting. The adult visitors knew, as Zach detailed the modest yield—189.6 bushels—from the student co-op’s eight-acre corn plot, that local high school teens were learning firsthand some of the hard lessons of production agriculture.
“These kinds of authentic, real-world opportunities for the kids are just so valuable,” remarked Brad Markhardt, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Black River Falls High School.
In 2009, Markhardt jumped at an offer from Jackson Electric Cooperative to use eight acres of idle land behind the co-op’s new headquarters building as a test plot for his students to raise, harvest, and sell crops. Four growing seasons later, evenly split between soybeans and corn crops, the acreage continues to afford practical instruction in both agricultural management and cooperative organization.
Co-op Model, Principles
“One of the neat parts of the project is the students started their own cooperative,” said Markhardt. “They organized it so that students would earn patronage dividends based on the amount of time they spend working on the project.”
Generous involvement from a number of local cooperatives clearly influenced the students’ thinking. “We looked at Jackson Electric and other co-ops in the community,” said Will Peasley, one of the students who helped develop bylaws and articles of incorporation to turn the test-plot project into a cooperative venture in December 2010, following the second growing season. “They’ve set a really good example in just helping us be involved in the community,” Peasley continued.
More than simply serving as an inspiration, cooperative businesses in the Black River Falls area embraced the experiment. Jackson Electric Co-op, Federated Cooperative (a farm-supply and marketing co-op), Hixton Fairchild Farmers Co-op (which last fall merged with Federation Cooperative), and Co-op Credit Union each donated time and resources to put the students’ project on firm footing.
“We didn’t do the project alone; it took all the cooperatives working together to get this thing off the ground,” said Jackson Electric General Manager Greg McFarland, noting the effort embodied two basic cooperative principles from the start: cooperation among cooperatives and concern for community. And, as the students advanced with their test plot and refined their organization along cooperative lines, it was clear another co-op principle—education on the benefits of cooperative business—came into play.
Real-world and Recognition
With bylaws, articles of incorporation, and elected officers, the Black River Falls FFA Student Cooperative mirrors an officially incorporated cooperative business in the way it’s organized and governed, though Markhardt explained that the co-op’s finances operate under a set of books kept within the high school’s FFA activities account.
“It might not be as ‘real-world’ as your co-op, but it’s ‘real-world’ for us,” Markhardt said.
Much of the financial risk has been underwritten through donations of seed, fertilizer, and work by Federation Cooperative and, of course, the land donation by Jackson Electric. But Markhardt said the student co-op is nearing its goal of creating enough capital so it can go through a growing season without so heavily relying on donations.
“We’re at the point where the board feels more comfortable about doing our patronage dividends like we want to,” said Markhardt.
Carol Blaken, communication coordinator at Jackson Electric, in 2011 accepted a national Community Service Award from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for Jackson Electric’s role spearheading the youth project. “If we can teach them about how a cooperative operates now, we’ve already got a head start on educating them as they grow,” she observed.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
It’s clear the teens have assimilated cooperative processes and thinking. The student co-op’s annual meeting—held during Christmas break to involve as many of the co-op’s 18 members as possible—featured all the elements of a typical co-op’s business meeting—reports by officers, elections of board members and consideration of new bylaw amendments (all using precise parliamentary procedure gleaned from FFA disciplines), guest speakers, a lunch, and door prizes.
Jackson Electric Co-op hosted the gathering at its office next to the test plot, a couple of miles northeast of the City of Black River Falls. The event took place on the same day as Jackson Electric’s monthly board meeting, so electric co-op directors joined the students’ business session. Among discussions they heard was one led by agronomist Eric Jacobson of Federation Cooperative, who advised the young co-op members of some options they might pursue for the coming growing season.
“You could consider planting small grains such as oats, and even sell the straw,” he told them. “There are good margins in that.” Jacobson also suggested the students could consider planting tillage radishes after the oat harvest in late summer. “We could help build the soil that way,” he said, eyeing future years’ crop growth and sustaining the high school project for upcoming student classes.
Markhardt mentioned that the test plot has offered a chance to expose other school groups to up-close agriculture. For example, this past year he had students from his environmental management class come out to perform soil tests. “The more kids I can bring out to physically experience this, the better it’s going to be,” he said. “And it’s awesome to have adults working with students. We’re all working and learning together.”
According to Blaken, this past fall marked the third year that classes of 4th graders came to the test plot to learn about agriculture, a visit dovetailing with Food for America, an FFA-sponsored agricultural literacy program for elementary students. While there, the youngsters also saw an electrical safety demonstration put on by Jackson Electric lineworkers. “Involving the younger students will reap us benefits, too,” Blaken said.
Peasley, former student co-op president, served as principal guest speaker for the annual meeting, and he pointed out that fewer and fewer kids have the opportunity to grow up on a farm, making the test plot a valuable way to provide agricultural education in a hands-on fashion.
“The lessons learned on the test plot are tough, if not impossible, to replicate in the classroom,” he declared, admitting the experience he gained has helped him decide on a career path. He’s currently a sophomore at UW–Madison majoring in agriculture business management.
“A year or two down the road I’m able to better understand just how unique this opportunity was.” —Perry Baird
Extreme weather events—such as Superstorm Sandy last fall—highlight problems that utilities face in restoring power to an aging electric grid. However, thanks to innovative advances, electric cooperatives are leading the electric industry in modernizing their systems.
In late 2009, more than 50 electric co-ops and public power districts in 15 states captured $215.6 million in smart grid investment and demonstration grants from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), amounts that are being matched with local funds. The support, provided under the federal stimulus bill, has further cemented the status of cooperatives as trailblazers in crafting cutting-edge ways to bolster service, enhance reliability, and keep electric bills affordable.
The biggest DOE smart grid award to electric cooperatives covers half of a $68 million ground-breaking, coast-to-coast initiative coordinated by the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), a division of the Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) that monitors, evaluates, and applies technologies to help electric cooperatives control costs, increase productivity, and deliver better service to their members. The CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project―which includes 23 co-ops—comprises 10 areas of study, 225,000 components, and broad cyber security improvements.
“There has been plenty of hype about the smart grid; now we’re finding out what works and what doesn’t,” declares Martin Lowery, NRECA executive vice president, external affairs. “Co-ops in the CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project are tackling data, telecommunications, cyber security, and interoperability issues. The entire enterprise has put electric co-ops on the map as being extremely savvy in the way we think about research and research results.”
The five-year CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project represents the first nationwide test of end-to-end smart grid connectivity―from a power plant all the way to a consumer’s home. Co-ops involved are investing in more than 75 communication and automation technologies aimed at more effectively monitoring demand and system conditions on a near real-time basis.
Benefits of the study are seen in three key areas: reliability, affordability, and efficiency.
Many gadgets tested by the CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project provide utilities with an accurate picture of what happens at each meter, along their lines, and in substations. For example, data coming from two-way digital meters—smart meters—can help a co-op identify outages quickly and precisely. Software analyzing meter data and information from other “down-line” equipment can determine how well the system is working and, in some instances, predict outages before they occur.
Several cooperatives are testing self-healing grid schemes called smart feeder switching that automatically re-route power after an outage. In doing so, they isolate fault and minimize the number of residences and businesses affected by a problem. Wisconsin’s Adams–Columbia Electric Cooperative is one of the co-ops in the Demonstration Project testing the innovative switching gear.
Electric co-ops outpace investor-owned utilities and municipal electric systems when it comes to deploying smart meters. The reason? Having to cope with largely rugged, sparsely populated service territories, they stand to reap big rewards from the ability to retrieve data remotely.
Several CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project co-ops are making it possible for their members to access personal electric use data through an online web portal or in-home displays. With these capabilities, co-op members can monitor their own individual consumption patterns, compare the amount of energy used by an average member, and take steps to become more energy efficient. Armed with this information, a co-op and its members can work together to diagnose what might be causing high bills, such as a faulty water pump.
Some participating co-ops are already discovering unexpected benefits. One co-op member was able to pinpoint the time of day when his vacation cabin was broken into using meter data. A spike in energy use emerged after a window was broken.
The needs of not-of-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives differ from those of large, profit-driven and stockholder-controlled big city utilities. As a result, the CRN Smart Grid Demonstration Project hopes to offer a glimpse into a future where co-ops can monitor the state of their systems in real-time, fix many concerns without human intervention, deploy line crews with greater speed and accuracy, and give members access to their own energy data. To get there, co-ops in the demonstration project are sharing notes on how well their technologies work—and how benefits relate to costs. Lessons gleaned will be made available to all electric utilities.
In the end, an electric grid that is more resilient and efficient will help reduce the damage caused by Mother Nature.—Tracy Warren, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Photos by Keith Wohlfert, Adams–Columbia Electric Co-op.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson accepts NRECA’s distinguished service award at the group’s 2006 Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C.—the gathering where Wisconsin co-op leaders were first introduced to the Missouri lawmaker. Emerson was named new CEO of the national organization, effective March 1.
During his 33 years managing Eau Claire Electric Cooperative, Virgil Dufeck (see p. 7 story) was known to have an abiding fear of dogs, a trait his colleagues lampooned at his 1981 retirement party. There he received a cartoon (shown below) depicting him up a pole while a tiny, angry dog eyes him from below.
In a letter written later, Dufeck elaborated on the source of his canine anxiety. He explained that years before his employment with Eau Claire Electric Co-op, one of his first jobs was with an investor-owned electric utility, where he marked locations for new poles and electric lines—most of them extensions to serve rural customers.
“This required contacting the farmers in person and I never found a farmer who didn’t have a dog whose primary purpose was to guard the property,” Dufeck related. “One time I had an experience I’ll never forget. The lady of the house was talking to me with only a screen door between us. She had a huge German shepherd by the neck whose teeth were bared and he was struggling to knock open the screen door. She was no match for the dog, and when it became clear that she was losing the battle, I terminated the conversation and ran for the car.”
Danger Beyond the Muzzle
Dufeck recounted another experience near Fairchild when was talking to a farmer. “I didn’t get out of the car until his two Doberman pinschers responded to his commands to leave me alone. When I finally got out of the safety of the car, one of them kept nipping me in the heel and the only reprimand to the dog was, ‘Queenie, don’t do that.’ I guess the dogs know I fear them.”
Later working as an engineer with the Rural Electrification Administration and managing an electric co-op, Dufeck knew well the dangers inherent to the industry—and it wasn’t just dog bites. The numbers of fatalities and injuries to lineworkers caused electric cooperatives to form comprehensive “job training and safety” (JT&S) programs in the 1940s, in which Dufeck took an active role soon after being hired in 1947 by the electric co-op.
From actions of the Wisconsin JT&S Committee sprang another, related venture that’s an enduring legacy for Dufeck and other on that panel.
Insurance Top Dog
In the mid-1950s the committee explored possibilities for Wisconsin electric co-ops to begin self-insuring for workmen’s compensation claims. Large, commercial insurance carriers thought cooperatives were not a good risk, so the rates they charged co-ops were 50 to 100 percent higher than for investor-owned companies, and some co-ops were unable to obtain coverage at all.
Armed with a study showing co-ops’ losses were actually below the utility-industry average, Dufeck and others began the lengthy process of establishing an organization to take advantage of the excellent safety record and insure only cooperatives. Their efforts paid off when Federated Rural Electric Insurance began writing policies in 1959, and Dufeck’s co-op was among the first to sign up. He served on the insurance company’s board from 1960 until he retired in 1981.
Now called Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange, the company is the leading provider of property and casualty insurance for electric co-ops in 42 states.
Responding to my question, Federated CEO Phil Irwin confirmed that among its many services, the company has indeed covered dog-bite claims by co-op personnel and would continue to do so. Virgil would be satisfied.
For old-fashioned winter fun the
whole family can enjoy, you just
can’t beat snow tubing. It’s the ultimate
equalizer in winter activities;
snow tubing requires no real skills,
no expensive equipment or high-tech
clothing, and—thanks to the proliferation
of snow-tubing hills outfitted with
lifts—not much in the way of fitness.
However, don’t let the modest
athletic standards lull you into thinking
this activity is too simple for more adventurous
souls. Today’s snow-tubing
facilities bear little resemblance to
the backyard hills your grandparents
might have sledded down. In recent
years the state has exploded with
multi-chute, state-of-the-art facilities
built expressly for snow tubers at
downhill-skiing sites. These are tall
hills for snow tubers who like to go
fast. And with lifts that take riders back
up the hill in no time, these modern
snow-tubing facilities allow guests to
pack in a lot of high-speed runs in a
According to Wisconsin Department
of Tourism statistics, the state is
scattered with about 20 sites developed
specifically for serious snow tubing.
Most have snow-making capabilities
that ensure guests can swoosh down
snowy chutes through the entire winter
season, even when natural snow conditions
are less than ideal. For safety reasons,
most snow-tubing hills require
guests to use the facility’s
own tubes. Many of the facilities
also offer group rates
for parties as well as special
holiday times and rates.
To help you plan
a fun family winter
adventure, we offer
a few recommendations
of some of our
For a real thrill ride, we
suggest Sylvan Hill Park in Wausau,
home of the state’s biggest snowtubing
hill at 1,200 feet. Sylvan Hill
Park offers six snow-tubing chutes on
a pair of lighted hills with 133 feet of
elevation. Two wire tows whisk riders
back up the hill for a quick repeat turn.
Guests can snow tube at
Sylvan Hill to their hearts’ content and then warm
up by the fireplace in the
chalet, where they can
enjoy refreshments from
the snack bar.
Cascade Mountain in Portage
provides another high-tech operation
for thrill-seeking snow tubers. At the
facility’s Snow Tube Park, four 800-
foot chutes drop snow tubers 90 feet
to the bottom; a surface lift system
takes them quickly back to the top. A
chalet offers warmth and refreshments
between tubing runs.
For hours and information, visit
www.cascademountain.com or call
For more of an old-school experience,
albeit with a modern-day twist,
visit Badlands Sno-Park in Hudson, a
family-oriented facility that caters specifically
to snow tubers. Badlands offers
four lighted runs on old-fashioned
open slopes with drops that vary from
30 to 150 feet. Folks of all different ages and excitement thresholds will
find a ride that suits them here. There’s
a bunny run for beginners; a long,
curving run for those content with a
milder experience; the “big hill” for
those who prefer a wilder ride; and
the newest run designed for “turbotubing,” the ultimate snow-tubing
experience for the most adventurous.
For a hometown, family-friendly
environment, head to Christie Mountain
in Bruce, which has a snow-tubing
park separate from the rest of the skiing
and snowboarding facilities. Six
groomed chutes offer snow tubers
rides varying in intensity from a gentle
glide down a steady hill to a fast-paced
thrill ride over bumps and jumps.
A cozy log cabin in front of the
tubing area gives snow tubers a respite
from the cold between runs. Concessions
are served here as well as in the
main chalet. Christie Mountain even
has a cabin on site available for rent
to guests who want to make an overnight
getaway out of their visit. This
guest cabin comes with a full kitchen,
gas fireplace, and room to sleep seven
people. Bedding, towels, and dishes
are also provided.
This is just a sampling of the
many snow-tubing opportunities our
state has to offer. Find a facility that
suits you, then grab a tube, hang on,
and enjoy the ride!—Mary Erickson
For more information about
Wisconsin’s snow-tubing facilities,
visit www.travelwisconsin.com/Sledding-Tubing.aspx. Be sure to
check on snow conditions by clicking
on the Snow Conditions Report tab
before planning your trip.