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Waseca couple finalists for national young farmers award
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Tina Schoenfeld never thought she would be a farmer. Then she met the man who would become her husband at a Waseca street dance.

Her cousin worked with Gary Schoenfeld’s sister and thought the two of them should meet. By 2011, just a few years later, they were married and working together on the farm west of Waseca that the previous three generations of Gary’s family has operated.

“I grew up in the country, in Duluth, but it’s not a farming community in that area,” she said. “When I married him is when I started learning about farming.”

“So everything she’s done she learned in the last decade,” said Gary.

Gary and Tina, who raise soybeans, hay, beef cattle, and sheep, are one of eight 2021 finalists for the National Outstanding Young Farmers Awards, the oldest farmer recognition program in the United States.

“The Schoenfelds have integrated precision planting, grid sampling, and no-till farming practices to increase their efficiency and conserve soil and nutrients,” the organization said in the announcement. Though the 2021 Awards Congress has been cancelled, the four winners will be announced in February at the 2022 Awards Congress in South Carolina.

“That’ll be the farthest east I’ve ever been,” Gary said.

For Gary, a fourth-generation Waseca farmer, his present occupation would not have surprised his younger self, though it would have given him some relief, working full-time on the farm is what he’s always wanted. Financially, though, it was not guaranteed to be possible. For farmers who don’t work on big farms, “off-farm jobs” are often necessary to supplement income collected from working in the field.

Until the fall of 2015, Gary worked a number of off-farm jobs in manufacturing and mechanics. He worked as a seasonal mechanic at Seneca Foods in Montgomery for 10 years, and for five years as a welder at Delta Truck Bodies. At the same time, he and his brother had been renting land to farm on since 2000, when Gary graduated from high school. When his grandmother passed in 2016, they bought the home farm.

Like the achievement of many career goals, though, getting to own and operate a farm is anything but an opportunity to relax, especially during the spring when they’re planting and the fall when they harvest.

“Usually we’ll drop the kids off at school, and then we’ll come out here, 8:30, 9 o’clock, and start going,” Tina said, illustrating a typical spring day for them. “Then, usually, I’ll have my cousins or his mother watch the girls when they get out at school, while we’re in the field. Usually we get out of the field between 10 and 11, but if it’s gonna rain, or if we have a field to finish up, sometimes we’ve been out till 2 in the morning.”

This continues for months until planting season is over. For Gary, this grueling schedule is the hardest part of being a farmer, a slog that caffeine carries them through. When the rain comes, they are grateful for the break it provides.

New technology and innovative farming techniques, as mentioned in their NOYF Awards biography, have helped them quite a bit. Being able to use the GPS while planting, Gary explained, prevents them from missing their mark in the dark, and helps plant seeds individually. Grid sampling, which he and his brother started experimenting with in the early 2000s with an agronomist, works by making a grid of a farm, and finding the areas where nutrients and minerals are most needed. It’s more efficient to not have to apply nutrients at the same rate for the whole field一and advancements in technology keep shrinking the grid areas, allowing for even greater precision.

Tina is committed to not miss out on any of this.

“I’m planning to go back to college here to major in agribusiness production, so I’m excited about that,” she said. “They have years of learning from experience, so I would like to have a little more background knowledge. All I’ve learned is from these guys.”

The long hours during planting and harvesting season, plus raising three kids, might give the Schoenfelds a pass when it comes to community engagement. But they both volunteer at the Janesville Food Shelf. Gary is an elder at church, and Tina teaches Sunday school.

“We’ve been helping with Ag in the Classroom, teaching the third graders,” Gary said. “I’ll take my shear in there and tell them how the shear takes the wool off the sheep, how it’s like getting a haircut.”

The animals are Lisa’s favorite part of being a farmer.

“I’m the reason we have as many animals as we do,” she explained. “I like to just watch them in their natural environment to see how they act. I never dreamt that this would be my life, but I love it.”

Waseca City Council divided on parking spot removal
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A parking stall will be removed at the southeast corner of Elm Avenue and Second Street Southwest to help driver visibility at the intersection.

The Waseca City Council approved its removal in a 4-3 vote Tuesday. Waseca Police Chief Penny Vought, interim Waseca County Engineer Al Forsberg and the Waseca Planning and Zoning Commission recommended the removal of the parallel parking spot. However, the council received a letter from a downtown business owner opposing the parking spot’s removal, stating that there’s already not enough parking spots downtown.

The Council’s decision to remove the parking stall was not an easy one. Although all councilors agreed that it is an unsafe intersection, they also voiced concern over the premium on parking for businesses in the downtown area.

Though no councilor explicitly proposed leaving parking as it is, some suggested a compromise: changing the first and last of the five parking stalls along the south side to compact parking only. This would reduce the length of the stalls by two feet each, giving a driver at that intersection four extra feet of visibility, and a little more reaction time if a car were to come out from behind a parked car at that corner. Plus, compact cars at the ends of the block wouldn’t obstruct visibility as much as larger vehicles.

Councilor Ted Conrath was in favor of this compromise, saying it’s the best way forward and he’s heard from an equal number of people in favor of its removal and opposed to its removal.

During the public hearing before the Council’s vote, Personalized Printing owner Mark Buker acknowledged the importance of safety, but expressed concern about the impact that parking removal would have on businesses.

“We keep taking away parking,” Buker said. “I’m just curious on what we can do on getting more parking in Waseca.”

Beyond resistance to worsening the dearth of downtown parking, some councilors said that this intersection’s problems were not the worst ones in Waseca.

“There are many, many other corners in this town that are much more dangerous,” Councilor John Mansfield said. “I think of Eight Street and Old (Hwy) 14. I’ve had three accidents in front of my house and one car in my driveway before, getting T-boned.”

Councilor Jeremy Conrath agreed.

“This is not our worst intersection in town. Our worst intersection is Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue Northeast, because you can see nothing right there. And how that’s not a complaint and this one is, is shameful.”

Mayor Roy Srp said he agrees that other intersections in Waseca are dangerous.

“However, tonight, this is the one we’re dealing with. If we need to go into some of the other ones at a later date, we are certainly able to do that.”

Elm Avenue center turn lane

Later in the meeting, the Council declined to take action on removing the center turn lane on Elm Avenue West between Fourth Street and a half block east of Second Street.

The issue was on the Council’s docket due to concerns that traffic was coming too close to the on-street parking. Elm Avenue is a County State Aid Highway and neither Waseca County nor the Minnesota Department of Transportation were recommending the change, but the Council directed city staff in April to investigate the turn lane’s removal. Staff was not recommending the removal of the turn lane Tuesday because it would come at a significant cost to the city.

Mansfield voiced his opposition to the county and MnDOT’s advice, saying the center turn lane makes for an unsafe situation and someone will be seriously injured getting in or out of their car at some point.

“I understand that MnDOT, they look out from their ivory tower, from the satellite image, but in reality, downtown, it’s dangerous getting out of your car, because there’s just not that much room,” Mansfield said.

City Engineer Nathan Willey explained in an email to the Council that the removal of the center turn lane would require input from impacted residents and businesses, would further restrict driver visibility from Second Street Southwest, and would require a study which would cost the city $5,000 or more. If this study took place, it would then be reviewed by Waseca County, which could reject the change based on its results, because the road is under their jurisdiction.

Forsberg also expressed his opposition in an email to Willey that was included in the Council’s meeting packet.

“The road was designed to State Aid standards and reconstructed using state funds. The design was approved by the city, county and state. State funds were invested in the roadway as designed and constructed with the left turn lane. Therefore the state would need to be reimbursed at least a portion of the construction cost even if the county did approve its removal,” he wrote.

Matson Strong Benefit planned for Saturday

Postponed more than 14 months, the Matson Strong Benefit will finally take place.

Gates open at 10 a.m., Saturday at the Waseca County Fairgrounds and a multitude of events — Miss Minnesota singing the national anthem, a silent and live auction, a car show, gun raffle, fireworks, and more — are scheduled to take place. All proceeds from the benefit will go to the Matson family.

Originally planned for a few months into his recovery, the benefit honors Waseca police officer Arik Matson, who was shot in the head and critically wounded in January 2020 while responding to a report of a suspicious person.

Canceled due to COVID-19, the Matson Strong Benefit was first planned to take place in March 2020 at the VFW.

“It’s really a blessing in disguise,” said Molly Kopischke, who is on the board for the benefit, referring to the benefit’s initial cancellation. “The VFW wouldn’t have been able to host as many people as would have come.”

The Matson Strong Benefit is far from the first fundraising effort for the family of Arik Matson. According to Kopischke, there have been many others, including events, GoFundMe pages, and even a vehicle that was donated to the Matson family from a dealership. More than that, a drive around Waseca reveals blue lights shining from residents’ homes in honor of Matson and other law enforcement.

This benefit, though, will be the biggest so far. Thousands of people are now expected to come. This includes local residents, members of law enforcement from all over the state, and others from even further away, including a face painter from Ohio who is married to a police officer and wanted to be part of the event.

Other reasons to rejoice the benefit’s original cancellation, Kopischke explained, is that Arik Matson’s wife, Megan, and his mother have been able to get involved in its planning. In addition, Arik will be able to attend, to walk around and connect with those who have contributed, traveled and supported him and his family.

Much of the funding to host the benefit has been donated. The fairgrounds, where the event will take place, was donated to be used and the Waseca Area Foundation contributed $2,000 for fireworks.

“The beauty of the Matson story is how much help the family’s been given,” said Kopischke. “It wasn’t the family pushing to do this event, it was everyone pushing to support the family. The donations have been coming in like mad for over a year. It’s really to honor the family, to celebrate Arik as he goes through his recovery, and law enforcement from around and outside the state.”

Kopischke encourages people to come at 10:30 for the opening ceremony, adding that there are a couple of surprises planned for the ceremony.

“We’re crossing our fingers for good weather, but rain or shine, we’re gonna do it,” she said. “And the community will come.”

Waseca County continues COVID-19 vaccine education as vaccination rate lags
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Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry said they’re continuing to educate residents about the COVID-19 vaccines.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are down statewide and the number of confirmed cases is down, but the positivity rate is fluctuating, Berry told the Waseca County Board Tuesday. That means people are less likely to be tested for COVID-19, as well as quarantine, and the county can’t rely on the case count as solidly as it could six months ago, she said. The seriousness of the situation is improving as long as the COVID-19 variants remain predictable, she said.

“As soon as we get a variant, and it probably will happen, that creates a more severe illness and if we’re in this habit of not testing and not (quarantining), we will have a lot of people ill rapidly if we don’t have the right vaccine coverage and immunity,” Berry said. “We’re in a spot where it looks good and we’re on the right path, but there’s still some ambiguity that we want to keep an eye on.”

Slightly more than 52% of Waseca County residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine compared to 61% statewide, Berry said.

Waseca County is lagging behind its neighboring counties in the percent of residents who have been vaccinated. Berry said she’s not sure why that lag is occurring. Some of it may be due to where vaccines are available. She said Public Health staff has also heard from some Waseca County residents who weren’t aware that the vaccine was available.

Berry said she’s planning to mail vaccine information to residents so that they understand it’s available.

Waseca County Public Health doesn’t currently have any clinics scheduled to administer the first dose of the vaccine, Berry said. However, Public Health is considering holding vaccine clinics in the outlying areas of the county in June.

Residents can still receive their COVID-19 vaccine at the Thrifty White and Walmart pharmacies without needing an appointment, Berry said.. The state’s mobile COVID-19 vaccine bus will also be visiting Bird’s Eye in Waseca at 10 a.m.-2 p.m. May 26, which will be open to both Conagra workers and the public to receive their vaccine.

Only the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for ages 12-15. The pharmacies occasionally receive the Pfizer vaccine, and Hyvee, CVS and Walgreens in Owatonna and Mankato are also options to receive the Pfizer vaccine, she said.

The Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton school district requested a vaccine clinic for students and while Public Health doesn’t receive the Pfizer vaccine, the Mayo Clinic Health System is in the process of figuring out if it has enough doses for a clinic.

Commissioner DeAnne Malterer said a resident told her they were waiting until the vaccine was no longer under emergency use authorization and had gone through the standard approval process. Berry noted that some parents feel that way and they’re not sure how quickly that will happen. The information she has received indicated that standard approval could occur in the fall.

Malterer responded that her concern is that everyone wants to return to life as normal.

“Well, going back to normal in school is going to look like having a lot of kids vaccinated,” Malterer said.

Malterer said it’s going to be another “logistical nightmare” when all children older than 2 years old are cleared to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Berry said they’re preparing for school vaccination clinics when vaccine use is expanded to a wider age range of children because that will be the fastest way to vaccinate that population.

Commissioner Doug Christopherson questioned whether younger children need to be vaccinated if there’s hardly anyone hospitalized for it anymore.

“We still have measles outbreaks so yes, we do still need to vaccinate,” Berry replied. “We will still have breakthroughs and COVID will not be eradicated. It will be something we manage through vaccine and, for some period of time, through isolation and quarantine.”

Malterer said she thinks a lot of people have it in their mind that if the community can get to a certain point, COVID-19 will go away. She pointed out that large amounts of residents don’t get measles because they were vaccinated as children.

“We tend to think this is a different thing. It really isn’t. It’s a virus just like these other things we have typically vaccinated our children for,” Malterer said.