Farm family grows a TV audience
By ANDREW DOWD
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram
OSSEO, Wis. (AP) — Like the breeze-billowing curtains in an open window, Inga Witscher effortlessly coasts from the garden into the kitchen.
Wearing knee-high green boots, a large straw hat and a blue dress shielded by an apron, she harvests rich red rhubarb with a few slices from a scythe.
Singing an old folk tune and carrying a bundle of tart plant stalks into the house with her, she makes cocktails for guests waiting outside in lawn chairs at her rural Osseo farm.
That series of scenes in a short Internet video Witscher made with her husband and father depicts the philosophy of local foods and farming that caught the attention of television producers, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported (http://bit.ly/1eAUn4c).
“We wanted to share what we’re doing on our farm,” Witscher said.
Already a collection of short videos on the Internet, “Around the Farm Table” is making the move in November to broadcast television in a four-episode season that will air in prime time on Wisconsin Public Television.
Like the videos already available online, the upcoming episodes filmed especially for TV will feature farms throughout Wisconsin and dishes that can be made from their foods.
“Basically, find good ingredients and you’ll have good food,” said Joe Maurer, Witscher’s husband and one of the show’s producers.
They’d been filming videos for their website for about a year when they decided this past winter to try to show “Around the Farm Table” to a wider audience.
After a few telephone calls, they got the attention of Kathy Bissen, WPT director of production. The show mixes WPT’s interest in celebrating Wisconsin life with the rising popularity of cooking shows.
“We know that there is a great interest, almost a resurgence, in cooking and natural foods,” Bissen said.
WPT already has a show called “Wisconsin Foodie,” which focuses on restaurants and foods found in southern and eastern Wisconsin. The program, now between seasons, will return early next year. Adding “Around the Farm Table” to the channel’s lineup covers food produced in northern and western parts of the state, Bissen said.
Witscher said she’s not a gourmet cook and her recipes are simple adaptations of dishes she learned from her mother or obtained from other inspiration.
“I’m not some chef,” she said. “I milk cows. That’s what I do.”
The show’s focus is on fresh ingredients from Wisconsin farms.
Deutsch Family Farm near Osseo provided lard and organic, humanely raised pork for a meat pie made in one show. Honey and buckwheat flour made at Honey Hill Apiary in Maiden Rock became part of a couple of recipes - including gluten-free pancakes.
Bissen finds Witscher’s warm, friendly personality helps her connect with audiences.
“She’s very personable,” Bissen said. “Not everybody can reach through a television screen and speak to a viewer.”
Witscher’s humility comes across in a web short of her visit to Rampfest, a festival near Viroqua that celebrates a root vegetable similar to leeks and garlic that grows in Wisconsin maple forests.
She starts the episode by professing she doesn’t know much about the plant but eagerly learns about it from a festival organizer. She concludes the video by enthusiastically sampling a dish made from ramps.
Before agreeing to air any episodes, the TV broadcaster requested a pilot show that would establish a template and test of how “Around the Farm Table” would work in a half-hour time slot.
Witscher and company made the pilot during winter. Scenes include ice fishing on Half Moon Lake in Eau Claire and a visit to learn about cheese made at Castle Rock Organic Dairy near Foster.
Lonesome Stone Milling in the southwestern Wisconsin village of Lone Rock provides flour for Danish rye bread, which gets sliced and topped with homemade butter.
Producing the four episodes took about 1 1/2 months, while they also were farming.
“We’re also milking cows and making cheese in between,” Maurer said.
They got help from their farmhand, Craig Speerstra, a UW-Eau Claire student originally from the Whitehall area.
By mid-September, most of the editing had been finished and Maurer was adding a musical score made of their original music.
Music is one of the hallmarks of the show as Witscher occasionally sings a folk tune she learned on the farm when she grew up or recalls a classic John Denver song.
Her husband said the music continues offscreen too.
“We sing nonstop,” Maurer said.
Rounding out the trio of musicians/farmers/show producers is Inga’s dad, Rick Witscher, who formerly ran a dairy farm in Washington state before turning it into a golf course. Later he moved the family to Virginia where they operated a bakery, creamery and cheese shop.
Rick Witscher still makes cheese, with his current product an aged Cheddar made from raw milk of grass-fed cows. The cheese is wrapped in cloth and aged for one year in a cave before it’s sold.
He’d bought the rural Trempealeau County farm to pass down to his children. Only Inga - who hadn’t previously run a farm - showed interest and began milking cows there in 2006.
She and Maurer married in June 2012, and Rick sold the farm to them a year ago.
Inga Witscher and her husband tend a herd of 15 Jersey cows on their 30-acre organic micro dairy using techniques passed down through the Witscher family.
“My first memory was walking fields with my father and intensively grazing cows,” she said.
She employs “rotational grazing” by moving the herd every 12 hours to a new part of their pasture to graze on naturally growing grass. Then they fertilize the recent feeding ground with composted cow manure and allow the grass to grow back before the cows feed on that section again.
Their decision to run an organic farm came from their beliefs, but also for practical reasons.
“It was also a way to cash flow a small farm,” Inga Witscher said.
Organic milk fetches a consistently higher price at market, and grass-fed cows do the work that farmers typically need a tractor or combine to accomplish.
Witscher’s brother gave them a tractor, but it doesn’t operate and they don’t have plans to get it running. Their farm has a practical mix of old and modern farming technology.
For example, Witscher uses a scythe for gardening but found the one modern machine the farm depends on is a skid steer.
“I think we embrace technology,” Maurer said.
His father-in-law quickly added, “But cow technology too.”
Both the show’s producers and the network are excited to see viewer reaction to the show when it airs in November on Thursday nights and likely in reruns in WPT’s schedule.
“We’re really enthusiastic about ‘Around the Farm Table,’ “ Bissen said.
Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/