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Inside the Strolling of the Heifers 2015 Locavore Index: Wisconsin

May 10, 2015 |

 Eldeberry Hill Farm Credit: REAP Food Group for both

Elderberry Hill Farm
Credit: REAP Food Group for both

This piece is part of a series exploring the top 10 states in the Strolling of the Heifers 2015 Locavore Index.

Wisconsin was a forward-thinking sustainable agriculture state before the local food movement was “on trend.” Seedstock had the opportunity to interview three people who are at the head of the state’s local food movement. Each person told us a unique story about how deeply Wisconsin’s sustainable roots have grown.

Wisconsin: At the Forefront of Sustainable Agriculture Education

Valerie Dantoin, a faculty member of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Associate Degree Program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, in Green Bay, Wis., has a master’s degree in agronomy. While she was working on her Ph.D., she met Rick Adamski, a farmer. Upon meeting Adamski, Dantoin “switched gears” and ended up moving to Podanski’s 100-year-old family dairy farm and embraced the farming lifestyle.

At first, while Dantoin worked on the farm, she taught part-time. But after the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College received an NISA grant to develop courses in sustainable farming, she decided to go back to work, teaching full time. The school hired Dantoin to develop the farming program and write its curriculum. “There really wasn’t college-level curriculum. So, over the course of the past five years, I think I’ve written 25 courses,” Dantoin says.

While at first, the coursework was equated to a certificate-level minor program, it eventually grew to become a two-year associate’s degree program. The sustainable agriculture track at the technical school is quite rare; there aren’t many colleges that offer this type of diploma.

Dantoin thinks Wisconsin is so immersed in sustainable agriculture because its local food movement has been thriving for a long while. “About 25 years ago, there were people in the state who were young graduate students and farmers that had just started their careers that understood what it meant to farm sustainably. They wanted to foster that farming ethic.”

In addition, the state also has housed and catered to sustainable-minded organizations, such as GrassWorks and the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. “GrassWorks was a statewide conference. For many years, we’d have around 400-600 farmers come to the conference and learn about managed grazing, and sustainable dairy and beef farming. Both are huge in our state.

“GrassWorks was a statewide conference. For many years, we’d have around 400-600 farmers come to the conference and learn about managed grazing, and sustainable dairy and beef farming. Both are huge in our state.

At the same time, we had the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. That conference focused more on vegetable and smaller-scale agriculture. Those two conferences together, and the center of gravity that evolved around those made people aware of sustainable farming in the state.”

In addition to Wisconsin’s popular conferences, the state also is the home of the Organic Valley Cooperative. “That was a big turning point. It went from the farmers understanding how our food is different to a place that started educating consumers about how our food is different.”

It’s All About Organizations: A Peek Inside Wisconsin’s Local Food Org Sector

REAP Food Group advocates for local foods across Southern Wisconsin and helps people in the state connect with opportunities to eat local foods that support local farms, says Bowen Close, communications director of REAP Food Group, in Madison, Wis.

The organization started as just a group of people that were concerned about Wisconsin’s local food system. “One of the first things the group did was start the Food for Thought Festival, which ran through 2014. It’s now transitioning into our new Family Food Fest,” Close says. The festival highlighted sustainable and local food and was located next to the downtown Capitol farmers’ market.

After many successful years of educating the public about sustainable food, REAP officially became an organization. “We’ve expanded our series of annual local food events, developed the Farm Fresh Atlas publication that has expanded across the state, and established and grown Farm to School and Farm to Business programs, including a Buy Fresh Buy Local partnership program for restaurants, retail stores, and healthcare organizations,” Close says.

Local food is an integral part of the history, traditions, and legacy of Wisconsin, Close says. “Even small towns here have farmers’ markets and restaurants that use farm-fresh produce, and people have always bought products from the farms around them. It’s not just a trend here, but a way of life that people have known for generations.”

Farming in Wisconsin

Rob McClure and his wife operate Hilltop Community Farm. The farm is a member of FRESH (Farmers Raising Ecologically Sustainable Healthy Food Cooperative), which is a group of small farms that maintain a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network.

“FRESH was created so that very small farms — often with the greatest capability for truly ecological, whole-farm management, but without resources to become certified as organic — could have a resource that supported them, and also provide a modicum of bona fides for their practices.”

McClure says that the Madison area is quite good at purporting the benefits of the CSA. “Health Maintenance Organizations have been offering ‘healthy lifestyle’ rebates to members who are also members of CSAs that are either certified or have the bona fides of groups like FRESH. This has been incalculable in its positive effect on local production. We tenuously hold that relationship with the HMOs for the moment, but hope it will strengthen and spread to other parts of the nation.”

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