Don’t Quit Your Day Job

“Don’t Quit Your Day Job” • Local Farming Needs Infrastructure Support •by Suzanne Zipperer

There’s a lot of talk about local food production. We need to move from a global food system with marginal profits for farmers and retailers both, to a new system that guarantees consumers the volume and assortment of food they want, all at a fair price for everyone – farmers, distributors, retailers and consumers. What is it going to take?

At the 12th Annual Midwest Value Added AgricultureConference held in Eau Claire, January 20-21, Growing Power’s Will Allen wasthe keynote speaker. He described the current trend toward local and organicfood production as “not a movement, but a revolution.”

Those attending the conference, about half producers andhalf from a variety of agriculture and policy organizations, received themessage with enthusiasm. They went on to glean ideas from farmers who sharedtheir experience with local “value-added” production. The producers I talkedto, however, held a healthy skepticism, with one sheep farmer ending hispresentation with “don’t quit your day job.”

The Demand is There

There is demand for local and organic produce. Rick Becklerof Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire made that clear.

Sacred Heart is a nationally recognized “green” facility. Morethan two years ago, Beckler set out with the mission to buy direct from localfarmers in order to provide patients with the best quality food possible.

His initial experience was one of frustration, because theproducers he called didn’t think it was possible to give him what he needed.Through sustained dialogue around what the farmer could provide and what thehospital kitchen was willing to handle, the project got underway.

It also resulted in the founding of the Producer’s and Grower’sCo-op. This organization makes it easier for institutional kitchens andretailers looking to buy locally to connect with farmers. Beckler gets weeklycalls from people interested in the model and says it has sparked a “buy local”movement in Eau Claire.

Farms to Schools – Complications

In February, the Obama administration announced a campaignto improve the diets of children. Linking local farms to schools seems like ano-brainer.  Wisconsin is made upof small communities rooted in farming – let’s get that food into our schools.

But it’s not so simple. According to Diane Chapeta, whomanages to buy 10 percent of the Chilton School District’s food locally, only 42cents of the money she is given to feed a child lunch is available to purchasefood. The rest goes to labor and other costs.

Cost is only the first challenge. Many schools don’t havekitchens or trained staff to handle unprocessed food. Can farmers peel and cutthe carrots? Probably not, and even if they could, there are regulations, safetystandards, and liability issues.

Direct Sales

At this point, small producers are doing best with directsales. Outlets include famer’s markets and farm stores.

Another popular sales strategy is the CSA or CommunitySupported Agriculture approach. Members of a CSA purchase an annual“subscription,” paying up front for an entire season. They receive a weeklydelivery of seasonal produce or meat, dropped by the farmer at a centrallocation for pick up. This strategy helps the farmer reduce costs because theydon’t have to borrow money to put in a crop, so they are relieved of seasoninterest payments.

Some farmers are doing so well with these markets that theydon’t want or need to sell wholesale. But direct marketing only reaches asegment of the population and works best for farms close to urban areas, whichkeeps transportation costs down. It assumes the farmer has marketing skills and the time to do sales inaddition to production. It requires some capital investment needed to keepproduce fresh on the way to market or in the farm store. For meat producers, asmall processor is an essential part of the business plan.  

Infrastructure Needed

Ramping up local food production calls for a new infrastructureto support distribution and sales. It needs aggregate buyers who combinepurchases from small and medium-sized producers to fulfill large orders. Italso needs small local processors able to butcher 200 chickens for a weeklyschool order. It needs buyers and producers who plan production schedules togetherto guarantee a consistent supply. It needs parents – and perhaps a government –ready to pay more than $2.50 for a child’s main meal of the day.

There is a lot of work to do, but Wisconsin is ahead of thegame. Not only is it second to California in acreage under organic production,but it is also already in the process of restructuring local food systems tohelp the farmer.

The state is currently divided into four “foodsheds” (think“watersheds”). These bring together people to look at local production and to designalternatives to the industrial network. There is talk about local distributioncenters to leverage market share. Organic Valley, located in La Farge, hasestablished itself as a brand in mainstream grocers. David Swanson’s RestaurantSupported Agriculture here in Milwaukee is a model of an aggregated buyer, asis Deb Hansen’s Simply Wisconsin.

Links to Environmental Groups

Helping in the effort are environmental organizations suchas the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Project thatsponsored the Value Added Conference in Eau Claire.

Here in Milwaukee, the Urban Ecology Center supports theOpen House for Farmers. In its eighth year, this event connects consumers whoare interested in direct purchases to farmers. Last year, the event drew about1,000 people with the majority of farmers having their yearly productionpre-sold by the beginning of the season. That is success.

Such environmental organizations can be important advocatesfor policy on land use and other issues directly affecting farmers. Thisincludes providing federal subsidies for produce as are provided for othercrops. Making legislators aware that the school lunch is often the main meal ofthe day for many children, and needs to have better nutritional standards isanother area for advocacy. This issue will be discussed in the Wisconsinlegislature year.

By making farmers accessible, consumers can learn about thechallenges they face and what they need to remain a vital part of our Wisconsinlandscape.

Find Out More:

Open House for Farmers: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food • Meet local farmers who provide CSA produce/meat shares, andbulk meat purchases.

Saturday, March 13, noon – 4:00 p.m. • Children’s activities. Workshops on direct purchasing. Doorprizes.