MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Last year at this time, the pandemic started hitting Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Covid-19 forced schools and restaurants to close, and that in turn lowered demand for dairy products. The sight of farmers dumping unsold milk became common.
Elizabeth Katzman, 17, is a high school senior in Jefferson County, and the daughter of a dairy farmer. Seeing farmers destroy all of that milk hit her hard.
“Farmers were starting to struggle and several had to dump milk, and you know, we didn't know if we were going to be the next farm,” she said. “Everything was just kind of in question.”
CBS 58 visited Katzman on her family’s farm in Hebron recently, and she showed off her skills in the milking parlor.
“Here we milk 1,700 cows, three times a day,” she said.
She’s quick to get the job done.
“I'm very passionate about it, and I'm glad to be a farmer's daughter,” Katzman said with a smile.
She grew up learning all about the business. Her can-do attitude came in handy when the pandemic hit. She came up with an idea to sell yard signs to support the dairy farms, including the hashtag, #DairyStrong.
“I ordered just 100 to begin with and they ended up selling out in 20 minutes on Facebook,” she said.
The signs can be seen in yards all over the state and beyond. One hundred turned into a thousand, and Katzman ended up raising $10,000.
“I was very surprised,” she said with a shrug. “I thought, oh, just 100 signs.”
She and her mom loaded up into their pick-up truck and delivered the signs, spending hours on the road.
“I just think that seeing the signs on the road, you're like, oh, we need to help and it really raises awareness,” she said.
But then the question became, what to do with the money she raised. Fortunately, Katzman had an idea for that, too. She makes monthly donations to two local food banks in Whitewater. Half goes to the Whitewater Community Food Pantry, and the other half goes to the Community Space in Whitewater.
“The cheese is always popular. Right now, we have swiss. We have provolone,” said Kay Robers, looking into the pantry’s refrigerator.
Katzman donates dairy products, of course.
“They see to it that we've got dairy products in our coolers at all times,” Robers said.
Robers runs the Community Space.
“Anything that we are given, we give away,” she said.
Robers has known Katzman since she was a little girl. She said she wasn’t surprised when her initiative took off.
“She's just a little sparkle,” Robers said with a smile.
She may not be surprised, but she is thankful. The Community Space has seen a big increase in need over the last year, and the dairy donations have been special.
“Some of the donations I've done: we did ice cream, chocolate milk, cheese curds,” Katzman said.
Ice cream was the first donation. It happened last July when the Community Space had just gotten its first large freezer.
“It's a treat for everyone. They're always pleased when we say Elizabeth is bringing things. They can hardly wait to see what it is,” Robers said.
This month, Katzman donated snacks from Sargento.
“I donated 864 Balanced Breaks,” she said as she helped load them onto a pallet.
It’s a circle of giving—raising awareness for the dairy industry, supporting the industry she loves, and feeding people—all at the same time.
“Who would have thought that this girl, who was going to sell $100 worth of signs, sold enough to get $10,000. It's amazing,” Robers said.
Katzman has received a Hometown Hero award and a citation from the State Assembly for her work.
She is graduating from high school this year and going off to college in Green Bay to study entrepreneurship, but she plans to come back home with what she’s learned and keep up the good work.
“It feels good to be doing something good and getting good in return,” she said.