NEWTON — The Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center allows visitors to simulate driving a combine at harvest time, lift a faux block of cheese, learn how yogurt is made and discover more about mink, fish, poultry and bison farms in Wisconsin.

There is an interactive exhibit that uses kinetic sand, lights and a computer program to simulate what happens when land and water are altered. Other displays showcase farmers markets, soil, honey, automatic milking machines, robotic feed pushers and drones that can spot weeds.

But when it comes to learning about the birth of a calf, the $13 million Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, which opened last year in Manitowoc County, skips the simulators and props.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

The $13 million Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center near Manitowoc was built with a $5 million state grant and $8 million in private donations. 

Instead, the 29,000-square-foot museum has opted for the real deal.

An octagon-shaped birthing barn next to the museum allows visitors to watch calves being born each day. The animals, shipped from a nearby farm, are behind a fully enclosed glass wall. The audience watches from stadium benches tiered in a half-circle. A video screen and camera are also on hand just in case the mother cow decides to turn her backside away from the crowd.

The whole idea is to give a population that increasingly is removed from the day-to-day workings of a farm an immersive experience on how food goes from farm to table and to showcase the state’s diverse and evolving agricultural industry.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

The birthing barn is where visitors at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center near Manitowoc can watch as cows give birth. The pregnant cows are shipped daily to the center from a nearby farm.

“Everybody used to be on a farm or a generation removed,” said Roger Sinkula, who helped lead efforts to create the center. “We’re at that point now where we’re three to four generations removed from a farm.”

But agriculture is still key to Wisconsin's economy.

The state’s ag economy includes equipment manufacturing, research at its universities, apples grown on The Ridge near Gays Mills, cherries picked on the Door County Peninsula and potatoes harvested on the sand flats of Portage County.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

David Dvorak, a board member of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, shows off an interactive exhibit that explains how different crops like carrots and ginseng go from the field to the table.

The state leads the nation in the production of cheese, snap beans, cranberries, ginseng, mink pelts and milk goats. The state’s 1.28 million dairy cows in 2016 produced over 30 billion gallons of milk, or 14.2 percent of all milk produced in the U.S., according to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, formerly known as the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. That ranks second only to California.

But while milk production remains robust, thanks to increasingly larger farm operations that can milk thousands of cows a day, milk prices are down, there are concerns about tariffs and small dairy farms are vanishing across the state. According to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, there were 7,722 licensed dairy herds in Wisconsin as of June 1. In July 2004, there were 15,488, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The losses, combined with more automation, mean fewer people are working on farms. The Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, located on 36 acres along Interstate 43 south of Manitowoc, is designed to help bridge the gap between producers and consumers. Officials hope to attract school and tour groups, families and tourists making their way to and from Door County, Green Bay Packers games and northern Wisconsin.

There are other museums around Wisconsin that focus on specific agricultural products like cheese and cranberries or on historical farming practices. We have breakfasts on the farm events, county fairs and the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis. The Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center is a year-round destination designed to be all encompassing and looks at agriculture’s past, present and future and the state’s wide swath of products.

Besides the birthing barn, a visit also includes a bus tour of nearby Grotegut Dairy Farm where about 2,500 cows are milked daily. Passengers remain on the bus during the tour but are guided with on-board video presentations. The bus also makes two passes through the barn.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

Angel Johanek, left, director of marketing and development, and Melissa Bender, director of education and programming, at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc County, try out a tabletop topography exhibit that uses kinetic sand, light and a computer program to simulate the affects of changes to land and water. The Augmented Reality Sandbox was designed by researchers at the University of California-Davis.

“The cows don’t seem to mind. I think they thought we were going to feed them,” Lauren Rose Hofland, then the center’s executive director said in 2018 . “About 98 percent of the people are fed by 2 percent of the population. We are so far removed from where our food comes from that it’s become a real issue.”

Grotegut, about two miles southwest of the museum, is also providing the pregnant cows. They are shipped to the museum’s birthing barn daily in a trailer after being evaluated by farm staff. After giving birth, the cow is returned to the farm and the calves, for a short time, placed in the birthing barn’s nursery, which is also behind glass.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

David Dvorak, right, watches as Roger Sinkula tries out a combine simulator at the new Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center near Manitowoc. Dvorak's now late father, Norval, came up with the idea of the center after a 2010 trip to Fair Oaks, Indiana, home to Fair Oaks Farms, often referred to as "the Disneyland of agriculture." David Dvorak and Sinkula are both members of the center's board of directors.

The museum building includes a theater, gift shop and cafe plus a conference center for up to 300 people on the first floor. A 20-foot-tall sculpture in the museum’s lobby shows a plant sprouting from a globe of the earth which is being held by a pair of hands. The sculpture is the entry point to the second floor, home to an impressive array of hands-on and interactive exhibits broken down in six topic areas. They include displays on the state’s diverse agricultural products, a day in the life of a cow, how vegetables go from the field to a dinner plate, balancing farming with the environment, advances in ag technology and science and the many careers available in the industry.

In addition, an adjacent facility also has classrooms for Lakeshore Technical College’s Dairy Herd Management and Agribusiness and Technology programs.

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

A styrofoam sculpture in the lobby of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center near Manitowoc shows a plant sprouting from earth, which is being held by a pair of hands. The center is designed to be an educational museum that tells the story of the state's diverse agriculture and how food goes from the field to the table.

“This is exactly what he was envisioning,” said David Dvorak, whose late father came up with the idea for the discovery center. “He’d be happy but he wouldn’t be amazed that it got done because he knew it would.”

Norval Dvorak died in 2015 at the age of 93 after an innovative and long career in agriculture. It included teaching veterans who had just returned from World War II about farm practices, helping to create what would eventually become Land O’ Lakes Dairy Cooperative, developing high-quality Holstein beef and creating farm cooperatives in eastern Europe.

The longtime Manitowoc-area farmer came up with the idea of the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center after a 2010 trip to Fair Oaks, Indiana, home to Fair Oaks Farms. The 25,000-acre farm experience center has thousands of its own dairy cows, scores of pastures, pigs, live births, its own food products and educational exhibits. It’s often referred to as “the Disneyland of agriculture.”

Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center

Volunteers and employees set up the gift shop area at the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center in Manitowoc. The facility also includes a cafe and a conference center for 300 people.

At Norval Dvorak’s urging, a committee was formed in 2011 by agriculture leaders in Manitowoc County. The first meetings were held in Dvorak’s basement and later moved to a conference room of the Manitowoc County UW-Extension office. That led to two feasibility studies and the creation of what is now a 20-member board of directors. Fair Oaks was used as a model, a process that included trips to Fair Oaks and Fair Oaks officials visiting Wisconsin.

Officials initially thought they would need $9 million to $10 million for the project, but it grew to $13 million. Fundraising began in 2015 and received a big boost when the state kicked in $5 million in grant money. Private donations covered the remaining $8 million. It includes a $1 million gift from Land O’Lakes and $500,000 each from Country Visions Cooperative and CP Feeds, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Farm Credit System and the Ruth St. John and John Dunham West Foundation. Five others donated $250,000 each and 14 contributed $100,000 each. Construction began in spring 2017.

“It’s really amazing how the state and the community came together to build this facility,” said Melissa Bender, the center’s director of education and programming and a former high school ag business teacher. “Norval really wanted this to educate.”

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Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.