Senator Joni Ernst tours WW Homestead Dairy as part of her annual 99-county tour

Senator Ernst returns to WW Homestead Dairy ... U.S. Senator Joni Ernst talks with (left to right) Tom Weighner, Paul Weighner and Liz Murphy of WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon during her tour of the facility Wednesday, September 2. Returning to the operation after her last tour there in 2016, Ernst visited the locally owned and operated dairy as part of the annual 99-county tour she is conducting during her time in office to hear concerns and ideas from Iowans across the state and relay that feedback to her legislative colleagues in Washington, D.C. Standard photo by Joe Moses.

by Joe Moses

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst continued her annual 99 County Tour with a planned stop Wednesday, September 2 at WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon.

Tom Weighner, a co-owner of the business, provided a tour of the production facility and retail store and discussed a variety of industry trends affecting WW Homestead Dairy and the dairy industry in general during the COVID-19 pandemic. Weighner said the recent purchase of a milk truck has made the company more self-sufficient relating to transportation by reducing dependence on outside trucking companies to distribute their products.

Weighner told Ernst that other revenue streams have been found for the business, including the sale of excess milk to cooperatives. He discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the business, with approximately 60% of the company’s business being generated through sales to restaurants and schools, which have all experienced reduced demand for product during shut-down and other mitigation measures.

Weighner advised that, due to COVID-19 and wanting to limit shared locations, some colleges have moved away from bagged milk and are choosing to offer small 8 oz. single serving cartons per government recommendations, with WW Homestead’s production equipment currently designed to produce 16 oz. single serving cartons.

Weighner suggested that this may be a temporary trend during the pandemic with a return to 16 oz. single serving cartons and bagged milk being likely for colleges after the pandemic, but options may be available to retool current production equipment if this became a long-term trend or a niche market chosen to be pursued.

Liz Murphy of WW Homestead Dairy and Director Ardie Kuhse of Waukon Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) discussed the company’s reach into other markets including the Des Moines area through the Iowa Food Cooperative. Kuhse indicated that her son and daughter-in-law living in the Des Moines area have been pleased to receive WW Homestead Dairy cottage cheese and butter through that online ordering system. Weighner also mentioned the Field to Family Farmers Market in Iowa City, which has provided online distribution of the company’s products in that area.

During the tour, Ernst touched on several COVID-19 related topics including the importance of supporting small businesses in local communities during the pandemic. Ernst also discussed the benefits of tele-health options in safely treating the elderly or those with underlying health conditions who may be reluctant to visit clinics or hospitals during this time.

Ernst shared that she and Senator Chuck Grassley are working to improve visitation options available at nursing homes for elderly residents and their families, one of several topics recently discussed at tele-town hall meetings focusing on aging issues. Ernst also suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many to recognize the need to be self reliant and responsible within their own local communities and that ties into a broader push for resources to be created here in the United States rather than abroad.

In conclusion, Ernst shared with The Standard that it was a great visit at WW Homestead Dairy and that she appreciated the feedback received relating to challenges being faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ernst said that she had previously visited this facility a few years ago, in 2016, and that this latest visit further highlighted the business’s innovative ways of operation.

Ernst also talked about visiting two locations earlier in the day including the Plant Peddler in Cresco and Humble Hands Harvest Farm, an organic vegetable farm near Decorah. She said that this stretch of her 99 County Tour is known as Home Grown Week, which ties into the importance of supporting agriculture. Ernst advised that the next planned stop later that same day would be in Cedar Rapids for a meeting with Senator Grassley and non-profit and community leaders to discuss derecho-related recovery and what challenges still exist in that area.

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