WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- When a company celebrates 50 years in business, you figure they must be doing something right. Actually, Lake Geneva Country Meats has been doing a lot of things right, including providing support for local youth in agriculture.
John Leahy began as a butcher in a grocery store, before establishing his own meat packing company in Lake Geneva in 1965. Before long, his wife Rita joined the business. The Leahy family grew to include four daughters even as the Lake Geneva Packing Company grew throughout the decades.
What began as a a meat packing company providing processing for local farmers evolved into a full-service retail store with locally sourced meat, cheese, produce and other products including groceries, craft beer and wine.
Today, you’ll find Kathy (Leahy) Vorpagel, her husband Scott and from the next generation, their son Nick Vorpagel, working in the store.
The original intent of working with local meat producers remains intact. This connection to local food sources often starts with the youth in the county 4-H program.
"We were all in 4-H," said Kathy, referring to her sisters and mother Rita, who was a leader in the Lyons 4-H Club while the sisters were growing.
"My sister Abbey (Vorpagel) Rosenquist was in the Lyons 4-H for three years and she showed chickens and did photography and baking projects as well,"?said Nick. "I was not in 4-H; I just went to the all of the different county and state fairs with my grandma and mom to bid on all the animals!"
That tradition continues today. "We bid on a lot of animals at all the fairs," said Scott.
Once the 4-H or FFA members show their animals, many of them are auctioned to the highest bidder at the meat animal sale.
Lake Geneva Country Meats bid on animals from five county fairs and the state fair.
"Goodness, we’ve been doing it for at least 20 years or more," Kathy recalls. "I’ve got pictures of the kids with Gov. Tommy Thompson (at the state fair)."
The money at the county fairs goes to the exhibitor -- many of the 4-H and FFA members count on this money to help with their post high school education. Bidders recognize this and often pay a premium price for an animal, above and beyond what the retail price would be. Thus, placing a bid helps the exhibitors prepare for their future -- often times that is in farming or some type of ag business.
Kathy is on the Meat Animal Sale committee for the Walworth County Fair. The sale is held Friday during fair week, after which the animals are shipped for processing.
"It’s a very well run event," she says. "The Extension office does an excellent job and the buyers are very much appreciated."
Not only do the Vorpagels buy a lot of animals for their business, they process many of the animals for the buyers.
"We process beef, pigs and sheep for five county fairs -- Lake and McHenry county in Illinois, Racine, Kenosha and the Walworth County Fair," Scott said.
"We also help the kids involved with pork and beef projects by bringing them into the business after hours and showing them how the animals get cut into different cuts of meat," said Nick.
"Our plant manager Jeff Schmalfeldt is very passionate and talented with educating the kids about the animals and gives up a good deal of his own time to help out. He deserves recognition for that," Nick adds.
Schmalfeldt and his production crew recently received another recognition -- Lake Geneva Country Meats won Best of Show for its Ultimate Bacon at the Wisconsin State Fair. Their ham won grand champion and its regular bacon won reserve champion.
The winning entries are auctioned, with proceeds going to the state’s 4-H Foundation. The Ultimate Bacon and ham each sold for a reord amount.
"We raised over $38,000 for the 4-H Foundation through the sale of our products," Nick reports.
"We couldn’t have done it without the help of bidders who have helped us throughout the years like Michael Jackson and Matt Larse of Town Bank in Lake Geneva, Bill Thompson with the Walworth County Fair Board and Becky Merwin from Rauland Realty.
"They deserve a lot of credit for their support, even if they don’t always end up winning the product, just having the bids makes a big difference."