Part One: 2006-2007
“I don’t call this a movement anymore, I refer to it as a revolution.”
Thus spoke Will Allen, founder of Milwaukee’s urban agriculture project “Growing Power.” Allen was the opening keynote speaker of the recent Midwest Value-Added Conference and Wisconsin Local Food Summit in Eau Claire that VFC produce manager Dani Lind and I attended. If one is going to be a part of a revolution, this is one that is exciting, intellectually stimulating, full of relationships with all kinds of people, and tasty. The Good Food Revolution.
Here in the Driftless we are ahead of the curve in many ways, but the challenge of the missing distribution and processing infrastructure needed to market our products to local grocers, schools and institutions remains.
We are preparing to meet that challenge, now assisted by the award of a $40,000 Buy Local Buy Wisconsin Grant to VEDA (Vernon Economic Development Association). You may have seen the photo of the ribbon cutting at Premier Meats in the Vernon County Broadcaster, with a short article announcing the award, presented that day by Wisconsin Ag. Secretary Rod Nilsestuen to develop the Western Wisconsin Local Foods Initiative. It is a story worth expounding on, one that is transforming our local food system and our local economy.
In January of 2006 VEDA was formed by a group of community leaders and business executives from throughout Vernon County. VEDA hired Sue Noble as Executive Director, whose philosophy of economic development is to grow communities from within by creating the environment for economic development to occur. As a way to capitalize on the creative people and entrepreneurial spirit here, Noble partnered with Laura Brown from Crawford County UW Extension to start the Vernon/Crawford Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club.
In April Jessica Luhning moved with her husband Macon to Viroqua from Bellingham, Washington. Luhning had finished her graduate work in Rural Land Use & Agricultural Planning and had managed a farmland preservation program. She and her husband wanted to move back to the Midwest, and found Viroqua through online research. Jessica was hired by the Valley Stewardship Network days after arriving; Macon found a position with Organic Valley.
At this time, VSN was a quiet organization. Its focus was on water quality issues, and Luhning’s 15 hours a week was plenty of time to accomplish her work.
In October of 07 the State of Wisconsin Legislature unanimously passed the Buy Local Buy Wisconsin Bill. The first statewide program supporting local food, the goal of the BLBW initiative was to shift 10 percent of the state’s consumer and business food expenditures to foods grown by Wisconsin’s producers.
In the spring of ‘07 Vernon County was faced with its first CAFO issue. Luhning was passionate about preventing the contamination that industrial agriculture could wreak, and made a case to the VSN board that as an organization, they needed to take a stand. Suddenly the controversy thrust this quiet, unknown organization into the limelight.
The VSN board quickly realized that the CAFO issue was very divisive. Rather than focus on what they were against, they formed the Food and Farm Initiative in November 2007. “We want to support our small farmers, so they remain viable,” says Luhning. “If we’re doing something positive, we bring awareness to the issues.” Sara Martinez and her husband Matt Urch were instrumental in the creation of FFI. VFC’s Dani Lind became an active member of the FFI steering committee, and Sue Noble and VFC General Manager Jan Rasikas came aboard as members of the advisory board.
The first task of the newly formed FFI was to complete a community food assessment. “Although VSN had a strong knowledge of water quality,” Luhning said, “We didn’t have a solid background or understanding of our local food system. We needed to do the research to legitimize ourselves so we could really be a strong voice against industrial agriculture; at the same time providing a strong foundation from which to develop a sustainable food system.”
by Charlene Elderkin, Marketing & Membership Manager