When Inga Met Alice
Alice in Dairyland (and nine of her predecessors) gather around public TV's Farm Table
When Alice traveled through the looking glass, she discovered a land populated with talking flowers, living chess pieces, and Jabberwocks.
When Inga traveled through a 21st century looking glass into her own TV program, she discovered an Alice.
And another Alice.
And another! There were 10 Alices in all – 10 women who have held the title of Alice in Dairyland, all gathered to record an episode of Around the Farm Table, the charming Wisconsin Public Television program hosted by dairy farmer, cook, and straw hat aficionado Inga Witscher.
On a warm June afternoon, the newly crowned Alice, Ann O’Leary of Evansville, joined nine of her predecessors at Chippewa Valley farm in an episode celebrating June Dairy Month. The program will be broadcast as part of the fourth season of Around the Farm Table, which will premiere on Wisconsin Public Television in September.
Around the Farm Table – which stars Inga Witscher and is produced by her father, Rick Witscher – highlights farmers and food makers from across Wisconsin and the Midwest, specifically those who use sustainable practices. In addition to hosting the TV show, Inga milks 15 Jersey cows on a 30-acre organic dairy farm, St. Isadore’s Mead, in rural Osseo.
“We just kind of wanted to celebrate them, because what they do is really amazing, not only for the dairy farmers of Wisconsin but for all of Wisconsin agriculture,” Inga said of the Alices.
A YEAR AS ALICE
Each year, a new woman – typically a recent college graduate with experience in agriculture and/or communications – is chosen to serve as Alice in Dairyland. This isn’t a ceremonial title: When she puts on the sash, the new Alice becomes a full-time spokeswoman for Wisconsin agriculture and an employee of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. O’Leary – who was chosen in May to be the 69th woman to hold the title – expects to give more than 120 interviews, make 100 classroom visits, and attend scores of events across Wisconsin in the coming year.
“I just learned a lot about the sheer diversity of Wisconsin agriculture,” O’Leary said of her first few weeks on the job. “There’s so much more to Wisconsin agriculture than dairy and cheese.” Wisconsin’s ag economy, she noted, is worth an estimated $88.3 billion. While 58 percent of that is dairy-related, Wisconsin produces countless other agricultural products, from ginseng to cabbage to mink pelts (all of which Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in, by the way).
While she showed dairy cattle at fairs in her youth, O’Leary grew up in town, not on a farm, and she thinks that will be an asset in her role. “I want to leverage my urban background to showcase that agriculture is for everyone. It affects us all in Wisconsin,” said O’Leary, a 2014 graduate of Carthage College in Kenosha.
In a way, Around the Farm Table has a similar goal: Promoting Wisconsin agriculture – particularly smaller, more sustainable producers – in an engaging and fun way. “We really wanted to communicate the positive story of agriculture in Wisconsin,” Inga said of her program’s overriding goal. “From The feedback we’re getting, we’re doing that.”
For this episode, the literal farm table is beautifully arranged in a 1903 barn on the Tom Johnson farm, just down the road from Inga’s place. The barn, which is used for parties and weddings, is a storybook setting for a storybook scene: This being an Alice tale, a tea party is obligatory (although the Mad Hatter and March Hare are nowhere to be found). Against a backdrop of hay bales, Inga serves homemade goat milk cheesecake, strawberry cupcakes, and rosemary shortbread cookies to her guests. (She and her mother, Cynthia, do the cooking). As the camera crew collects shots from different angles, the Alices chat amicably and wait patiently to sample the goodies in front of them until the appropriate time.
Shaded by pink umbrellas, the Alices rode a hay wagon around the picturesque, sun-drenched farm, and later in the barn they were serenaded by the upbeat sounds of Klezmazel, an Eau Claire Klezmer band. In addition to the segments with the Alices, the Dairy Month-themed episode will feature Bifrost Farm near Boyceville, which produces goat milk cheese, and the Agricultural Research Station in Spooner, which studies dairy sheep.
Rick Witscher said the fourth season of Around the Farm Table is about half complete. In addition to the Dairy Month episode, viewers can expect to see Wisconsin-made caviar and sparkling wine this season, as well as a craft cocktail party with Chippewa Valley-based chef Nathan Berg using spirits that include state-distilled sorghum whiskey and potato vodka. “We’re meeting so many amazing people,” Rick Witscher said.
The new season of Around the Farm Table won’t premiere until the fall, but you can stream past episodes of the program free online at wpt.org/watch. To learn more about the show, visit aroundthefarmtable.com.
The ex-Alices gathered for the Around the Farm Table taping included women who held the title during the 2000s, the ’80s, the ’70s, and even the ’50s. In the latter case, the eldest Alice was Mary Ellen Jordal, who earned the crown in 1953. At the time, she was Mary Ellen Jenks, a 19-year-old Chippewa Falls native studying at UW-Eau Claire. At that time, Alice served as a nationwide spokeswoman for Wisconsin agriculture, so the job took her from coast to coast promoting Dairy State products as part of “Wisconsin Cheese Weeks.” More than 60 years later, Mary Ellen fondly recalls “the pleasure of meeting people from all walks of life, from the dairy farmers to the major television stations all over the United States.” The experience of serving as Alice in Dairyland helped create her career path. She remained in the food industry and eventually became a vice-president at Minnesota-based Pillsbury Co., for whom she co-hosted the Pillsbury Bake-Off with Bob Barker. (She also hosted her own TV show in Madison during her post-Alice days, so she’s no stranger to cameras.) While she now lives in Edina, Minn., Mary Ellen still makes it a point to stop at the legendary Olson’s Ice Cream in Chippewa Falls whenever she’s in the area. She also attends the annual crowning of the new Alice. As the current Alice, Ann O’Leary, explains, “It’s a sisterhood.”
WHO IS ALICE?
Alice in Dairyland is a one-year, full-time public relations professional employed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Each year, Alice in Dairyland travels more than 40,000 miles throughout the state, promoting Wisconsin agriculture to various audiences. Additionally, she conducts hundreds of media interviews, speeches and school presentations.
During a single year, Alice develops and delivers at least 60 TV interviews, 150 radio interviews, 1,000 social media posts, 60 print articles, and 100 tailored speeches. During her year of service, Alice also provides educational programming, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, to 10,000 fourth graders.
To learn more, visit datcp.wi.gov and search for “Alice in Dairyland.”