Blog Posts

Portage County Farmers Market

The economic strengths of a diverse agricultural community — Portage County.

By Portage County Business Council

Okray Family Farms, Inc. has been around since 1905 when Joseph Okray started a trading company on the Public Square in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Like many families in the early twentieth century, Joseph did a small amount of farming to help support his family. By the 1940s, Joseph was a large-scale farmer. Today, his family farm is recognized as one of the American Vegetable Growers’ Top 100 Growers and its 7,500 acres in Plover, Wisconsin produce everything from sweet corn, soybeans, rye, wheat, and green beans to maize, oats, cranberries and four varieties of potatoes — reds, yellows, whites and russets.

Joseph’s grandson, Dick Okray, embraces his agrarian lifestyle — and he believes it’s the most attractive feature of Portage County. “I think Portage County is a fantastic place to live and work and raise a family because it’s an agricultural area. Far too often there’s a stigma attached to growing up on a farm, but I respectfully ask people to recognize that Portage County is an agricultural community and embrace that.” He continues, “We have a tie to the land, the seasons and production agriculture. Nothing is more exciting than to see the change of seasons and to see the productiveness of this area. We are feeding the Midwest and we should all be proud of that.”

Diversity is our strength.
One of the strengths of the Portage County agricultural community is its diversity. “We produce such a wide array of agricultural products — from buffalo and dairy products to cranberries and sod. We have organic growers in the area and we have conventional growers,” explains Okray.

Okray notes that it’s important to recognize the interconnectedness of area businesses to agriculture. Agriculture has been a driving force behind job creation and economic opportunity in this region. “We have major food processors like Del Monte, Intevation Foods, Golden County Foods, and McCain — the largest frozen potato manufacturer in Wisconsin. We have fertilizer companies like Jay-Mar Inc., and packaging companies like Warner & Warner Inc. There are businesses like Mid-State Truck Service, Inc. that keep our equipment up and running. Area paper mills are related to agriculture — they’re producing byproducts from trees. Implement dealers, grocery stores, Roundy’s Corporation — the list goes on and on. They all add value to the agricultural enterprise.”

But you can connect the agricultural dots even further within the community. Okray notes that one of the most recent developments has been the push for sustainability. “The Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) and the College of Natural Resources are right here in Stevens Point. That provides our community with so many opportunities. Together, farmers are working with researchers on sustainable technologies that can help us generate electricity and heat.”

Okray is energized by agricultural-inspired grassroots projects such as the Central Rivers Farmshed Greenhouse Project in Stevens Point. Thanks to volunteers, the former Sorenson’s Garden Center is being transformed into a 35,000 square foot community food center that is intended to house an 11,000 square foot production greenhouse, community kitchen, gathering space, and learning center. “This is an incredible project and I really believe we can grow fresh veggies year-round in this greenhouse. They do it in Canada – miles and miles of vegetables ground under roofs in all seasons. We can do it too,” exclaims Okray.

Agriculture has even played a role in the development of the Green Circle Trail and recreational areas in Portage County because of the largesse of landowners who donate lands for recreational use.

Agrarian-inspired philanthropy.
Does this level of cooperation surprise Okray? Not at all. Okray notes that the region has — to its benefit — a diverse group of people living here. And, as he notes, they’ve adopted “old time farming community values” — kindness, forgiveness, and the willingness to help one another. He cites the region’s donations to United Way. “We’re a smaller community than others in Wisconsin and yet we raise more money than so many of them.” He credits that generosity to values established centuries ago in farming communities wherein people had to help one another in order to survive. “When you’re raised in an agrarian lifestyle you take care of each other. We see that in business and in philanthropy.”

Sharing information with a global audience.
Okray also appreciates the sharing of knowledge. He recently attended the World Potato Congress in Scotland. “Any time you can bring a large group of people together who have the same agricultural background it is a huge win for everyone involved.” This sharing of knowledge not only helps his own farming enterprise, but brings recognition of Okray Farms to a global audience.

That transfer of information will also be key at the Wisconsin Farm Technology Days to be held on area farms August 5-7, 2014. Wisconsin Farm Technology Days is a three-day event that showcases the latest developments in production agriculture, including research and technological innovations. The event, to be hosted at Portage County Blue Top Farms and Feltz Family Farms, is the largest agricultural show in Wisconsin and will bring in an anticipated 60,000 attendees. “We are very excited about this event,” notes Okray. “It brings revenue to the community, it provides us with the opportunity to promote agriculture in this region and it indulges a farmer’s curiosity about technology. One thing farmers like to do is peek over the fencerows and see what the other guy is using. This show will let us do just that.”