This story was originally published by Wisconsin Farmers Union.
The 150 or so people attending the Aug. 10 kickoff event of the St. Croix Valley Food Alliance in rural Polk County went one by one through a food line, choosing from vegetables, cheese, meat, honey and other products as they gathered for a meal before a series of speakers outlined the organization’s plans.
Attendees came from different places and backgrounds, but the variety of food they consumed shared a commonality: all of it was produced by farmers from the surrounding area.
“That’s what the food alliance is all about,” said Kristy Allen, one of the founding members of the alliance, as she hustled to restock a container of seasoned chicken. “We’re trying to create a more vibrant local food economy, one in which farmers can provide high-quality, healthy food to the people of this community while farming in such a way as to preserve our environment.”
Allen is one of 26 farmers from the surrounding area who have signed on as food alliance members. In addition to growing a local market for their products, the group hopes to create a regional brand, enabling members to better get the food they produce to regional residents.
The alliance recently submitted a grant proposal seeking funding from the USDA Local Food Promotion Program. They secured a 25% funding match, or $60,000, in just two weeks, a sign of strong demand for the initiative, Allen said.
The grant would allow the group to hire a full-time coordinator to connect the local food they produce with consumers, schools and other entities. The food alliance will learn this fall whether it receives the grant.
Discussion of local or regional food initiatives is becoming more commonplace after the coronavirus pandemic, which revealed the fragility of the existing food supply chain that most often relies on food being transported long distances. Grocery stores experienced shortages when the supply chain was disrupted, leaving some people without access to quality, healthy food.
As grocery store competition has increased, and as larger groceries increasingly have put small-town groceries out of business, a growing number of people in both rural and urban areas are left without access to fresh, quality food, experts say.
For example, in Milwaukee, more than 20% of residents live more than one mile from a grocery store, meaning they may have problems constantly accessing fresh food. People in many rural parts of Wisconsin live a half hour or more from the nearest grocery as the stores in their towns have closed.
Those situations, combined with food supply chain interruptions that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic, have more people looking to access locally produced food, experts say. Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Randy Romanski said he hears more people across the state who are interested in accessing locally or regionally produced food.
“It’s always important to make that link between local farms and the food they produce, and consumers,” Romanski said. “More and more, people seem to want to know where their food comes from.”
Local or regional food networks in which farmers can sell their products to people who live near them benefit not only consumers but those producing food. When selling locally, farmers don’t have to ship their food, reducing their operating costs, Romanski said. And local food sales offer additional income that can enable farmers to stay in business.
“Connecting those dots between food and consumers is really important, especially in a state like Wisconsin where we produce so much,” Romanski said. “You can go anywhere around the state and you can see food production happening.”
DATCP has connected farmers to Wisconsin school districts through its Farm to School & Institution Program. The program helps schools procure fresh, regionally produced products grown by farmers to school meal programs.
Using federal coronavirus assistance funding, DATCP also has helped create opportunities to get people in need food produced by Wisconsin farmers. The agency partnered with Hunger Task Force and Feeding Wisconsin to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic, and that work continues, Romanski said.
“Under the umbrella of those two groups, whenever possible, we are sourcing food locally, addressing food insecurity and also connecting people in need to local farmers,” Romanski said. “I think we can build on that foundation moving forward in a way that will help address hunger and also benefit farmers in this state.”
A Local Need
Allen said much of the honey she raises through her The Beez Kneez beekeeping business, and many other farm products raised in Polk and Burnett counties, is sold in the Twin Cities, and she and other producers would like to benefit their local communities as well.
“There is a need for nutritious food, grown by people who are practicing land conservation measures, right here where we live,” said Allen, president of the Polk-Burnett chapter of Wisconsin Farmers Union. Many of the alliance members are also members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, which has helped support the fledgling network.
Ayla Dodge and her husband James grow vegetables and raise grass-fed beef and pork as well as chickens on their organic Blackbrook Farm near the Polk County community of Amery. Their farm is one of several where Allen houses bees that produce the honey she sells.
That cooperative, farmers-helping-farmers spirit is among the aims of the food alliance, Ayla said. “This is really about farmers trying to support each other, to help each other out,” she said.
Ayla said most of her farm’s products are sold to Twin Cities outlets. Like Allen, she would like to see more farm products produced in Polk and Burnett counties sold to people living there. Before that can happen, she said, more people must become aware of the advantages of buying food from local producers.
“A lot of people don’t yet understand why they should be buying local food, and how buying it from certain producers is a way of not only getting healthy, nutritious food but helps keep money local, helps protect our habitat, helps prevent further climate change,” she said. “They ask ‘what is organic? What are the advantages of buying grass-fed meat?’ There is a need for more education about all of that and more, and we hope the food alliance can help do that.”
Even with buyers in the Twin Cities and other existing markets, making a go of it as a small farmer is a challenge, said Klaus Zimmermann Mayo, who operates Whetstone Farm in rural Amery with his wife Emily. The economy of scale available to large farms, and an economic structure that most often supports big agriculture, means making a go of it financially as a small farmer has become increasingly challenging for decades.
As evidence, Wisconsin – long known as America’s Dairyland – has led the nation in the number of dairy farmers who have declared bankruptcy in recent years. Most of the small farms that once dotted the state’s rural countryside like dandelions in springtime have long since disappeared.
Klaus and Emily raise organic vegetables and sheep, and doing so in the current farm economy has proven challenging, they said.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” Klaus said. “We don’t have the infrastructure set up in this state for small farmers.”
Klaus and Emily sell much of their products in the Twin Cities and at farmers markets near in the region where they live. Establishing more connections with local residents through the food alliance would help them and other small farmers succeed financially while benefiting the region where they live with healthy food.
“That’s the goal we’re working toward,” Klaus said. “This is about bringing farmers together to work toward a common goal, to connect to our local community … Now we need to see if we can make this sustainable.”
An Investment in Your Life’
Rachael Drumsta said she is optimistic the St. Croix Food Alliance can make a go of it. Drumsta first became aware of some of the group’s farmers when she purchased their products at a farmers market in her previous home in south Minneapolis.
In May 2021 Drumsta, director of workplace well-being for a Minnesota health services company, relocated to a rural area near Balsam Lake in Polk County. She began buying food at a farmers market in nearby St. Croix Falls and realized some of the producers were the same ones she bought from in Minneapolis.
“That was one of my worries about moving to rural Wisconsin, having access to healthy food,” Drumsta said, noting the existence of food deserts in some rural areas. “But with these producers and a local food co-op where I shop, I am finding that high-quality food.”
Drumsta said she hopes other people can do the same through the food alliance. In her job helping provide preventative health care, she said she sees firsthand the importance of access to healthy food, and what happens when that access doesn’t exist.
“From a health care standpoint, the quality of food you are eating is literally an investment in your life,” Drumsta said.
Allen agrees. The food items available at the food alliance’s kickoff event meal, all produced by alliance partners, were meant to show attendees how tasty and nutritious locally produced foods can be. Those foods also are grown in a sustainable manner, a key component of the group’s efforts, she said.
“We’re producing food that is good for people and good for the earth,” Allen said.
Allen acknowledged challenges with making the food alliance viable. In addition to convincing people to purchase some of their food from local producers instead of food transported to grocery stores from hundreds of miles away, establishing a food distribution network will prove challenging, she said.
Simply having time to not only produce food but to market it and track finances associated with the effort also can be difficult, Allen said.
“It can be hard to work together,” she said. “It’s discovering the right system and finding a way that works for everybody.”
Marketing the group’s products and educating consumers about the benefits of supporting food alliance members will be necessary, she said. Securing USDA grant funding to hire a coordinator to do some of that work would be a big help, Allen said.
The large turnout at the food alliance’s kickoff event was heartening, Allen said. So were her many positive interactions about the effort at a recent farmers market she was selling at.
“I had so many people come up to me to talk about how they want to see this happen,” Allen said. “That makes me feel really good, like we can do this.”
Romanski said such efforts are finding more support across Wisconsin. Many farmers selling directly to consumers, at farmers markets and through community supported agriculture outlets say the last couple of years have been among their best years for revenue, he said.
“There are a lot of innovative, creative farmers out there who have had some success recently,” Romanski said. “I’m hearing that a lot of people found locally produced food during the pandemic, and they are staying with those local farmers. We’re hoping this is a trend that can continue.”
To learn more about the St. Croix Valley Food Alliance, visit https://scvfoodalliance.org
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is the Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is part of a series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU’s Rural Voices project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.