As one of the most recognizable spokespersons for Wisconsin agriculture, Katie Wirkus, the 64th Alice in Dairyland, kicked off her role during June’s National Dairy Month by attending several dairy Breakfasts on the Farm and media events. As she continues in her role of Alice in Dairyland, Wirkus is eager to travel throughout the state promoting Wisconsin’s products and educating people about Wisconsin’s agricultural past, present and future. We had the pleasure of chatting with Wirkus about her background, memories and goals for the dairy industry. Not to mention, she shared with us two favorite family recipes to enjoy!
How was Alice in Dairyland first established?
The Alice in Dairyland program started back in 1948 as a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Centennial Fair. She was so well received at the fair that it turned into a full-time position through the Wisconsin Agriculture Department of Trade as an ambassador for Wisconsin agriculture. Throughout my year as Alice in Dairyland I will be traveling over 40,000 miles across the state, to over 300 events and over 400 media interviews, teaching people about the Wisconsin agriculture industry.
What is your background?
I grew up on my family’s dairy farm in Edgar, Wisconsin, just west of Wausau. I have countless memories of helping feed the cows and calves, milking and cleaning the pens. In high school I went to Athens, just north of Edgar. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin–River Falls this past December, where I double-majored in agriculture education and mathematics. Both fields will be very useful while educating the public about agriculture industry and the economic impact on the state.
When did you first want to be Alice in Dairyland?
It was when I was just four years old. I saw a picture of Alice in Dairyland in the paper, looked at my mom and said, “I want to be her someday.” At that age I thought it would be wonderful to teach people about living on a farm as I did. Little did I know I’d be teaching people all about Wisconsin’s 59-billion-dollar agricultural industry, nearly half of which comes from the dairy industry.
Any other memories that brought you to Alice?
Wisconsin’s dairy industry has always had a family focus. This held true at my home too. I remember having a desk right out in the barn where I would work on my spelling and math. My mom would have me trace the cows’ names, and that is how I learned to spell. [She laughs] Then for Christmas, as a young child, I got a shovel so that I could help my parents clean the barn, just as they did. Of course, I have countless memories of dairy days – county fairs, serving dairy breakfasts – my family hosted our county’s Dairy Month Breakfast on the Farm in June 2002. That was great fun.
What are some of your goals while representing Alice in Dairyland?
Some personal goals I have are to educate consumers about where their food comes from, particularly educating children. I will be visiting fourth graders in over 100 schools, and I plan on taking a very active role in teaching children in Wisconsin about all of the local foods available. We have so much great food here in Wisconsin – all the tasty berries that are in season, the meat industry, and the dairy and cheese industry. I want to show people that buying Wisconsin products not only supports the local vendors, but it also supports the entire state.
What are your plans after Alice in Dairyland?
I have a position as a middle school math teacher in my hometown of Edgar. They have given me the year off to represent Alice in Dairyland, as they understand the value of the experience.
Where do you see Wisconsin’s dairy industry heading?
The future is definitely bright for the dairy industry. Wisconsin dairy farmers have a strong infrastructure set up; there are numerous award-winning cheesemakers who continue to excel at the art; and consumers are becoming much more engaged with the dairy industry and the products that they are purchasing.
Of course we have to ask: What is your favorite Wisconsin cheese?
My favorite Wisconsin cheese is Muenster. I love the fresh creamy texture. I also really like shoelace string cheese, and of course, fresh squeaky Wisconsin cheese curds. We always have Wisconsin Cheddar, Muenster and Colby in our fridge at home. My dad’s favorite is always Wisconsin Aged Cheddar, so that has to be around!
Wirkus Family Recipes
Blueberry Dairy Dessert
1 1/2 cup blueberries
1/8–1/4 cup cornstarch
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 sticks butter, melted
2 cups graham crackers
2 8-ounce packages Wisconsin Cream Cheese, softened
2 tsp vanilla
6 ounces heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Combine blueberries, cornstarch, 1/2 cup sugar and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick. Set aside to cool. Combine butter and graham crackers. Press into a 9×13 baking pan. Next combine cream cheese, remaining 1 1/2 cup sugar and vanilla. Beat heavy whipping cream and vanilla. Fold into cream cheese mixture and then spread entire mixture on crust. Top with blueberries or your favorite seasonal fruit.
Serves 6–81 1/2 lb. ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
1 package taco seasoning
16 ounces medium salsa
2 small cans tomato sauce (16 ounces total)
16 ounces Cottage Cheese
3 eggs, beaten
8 corn tortillas
1 lb. Wisconsin Colby-Jack Cheese, shredded
Brown ground beef and onion. Add taco seasoning, salsa and tomato sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes. Combine cottage cheese with eggs in a separate bowl. Spray 9×13 baking pan with vegetable oil. Layer tortillas, cottage cheese mixture, meat mixture and cheese. Repeat layers. Cover and bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes. Serve with lettuce and tomatoes.