Viroqua Food Co+op Blog

Good Food Revolution: Driftless Style, part 2

Posted by Charlene Elderkin on Fri, Mar 05, 2010 @ 12:19 PM

read part one here


In January, Locavore was named 2007 word of the year, an indication of the acceleration of the local food movement. Luhning, Rasikas, and I attended the DATCP Value-Added Conference that was now combined with the 2nd annual WI Local Food Summit. 
Unknown to us, Rick Beckler of Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire also attended this conference, with the express intent of procuring local food for the hospital. (See March 2009 Pea Soup) That meeting resulted in the creation of the Chippewa Valley Consortium. Later this year the first BLBW grants were made available, and the Consortium received funding to support its formation.

In September VFC participated in the second Eat Local Wisconsin Challenge and the first NCGA-sponsored Eat Local America Challenge, and partnered with FFI to host a sold-out Community Harvest Dinner (featuring all local foods) at the Viroqua High School harvest dinercafeteria, with over 200 attendees.

The FFI steering committee was working hard on the community food assessment. Quickly realizing that they did not have the economic expertise needed, VSN hired Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center to complete the economic assessment. While they had no intention of starting any other projects until the research was done, Americorp grants to provide positions for Farm to School projects became available, and with strong support from local schools, they jumped in.


In January Rasikas, Lind, representatives from two other Food Co-ops and I participated in a panel presentation “Retailers and Your Local Product” at the Value-Added Conference in Rochester, IL. While at the conference I met Rick Beckler at the Sacred Heart Hospital Booth. I learned that the hospital had committed to buying 10% of their food ($200,000) from local sources, had formed a consortium of buyers & producers and received the BLBW grant. By June the consortium had transformed into the Producers and Buyers Co-op, a multi-stakeholder cooperative. This would prove to be a vital piece in providing VEDA with a working cooperative model of scaling up local food systems

In May FFI completed the Community Food Assessment (an impressive study well over 100 pages, available on the VSN website). Luhning stated that VSN gained a much better understanding of the food system through the assessment process, but “the number one benefit was the relationships we developed.”

Ken MeterThe study was presented to the community on May 21st. Ken Meter, who had done reports in 38 regions of 18 states, praised the efforts in the region, saying he believes “local food may be the best path toward economic recovery.” For example, consumers in Southwest Wisconsin spend $208 million on food from outside the region. If those consumers would purchase 25% of their food directly from local farmers, it would produce $33 million of new farm income every year - enough to offset current farm production losses.

“The discussion here has been one of the more advanced discussions I’ve had on local food anywhere in the country,” said Meter, “With the success of CROPP in this county, and other organizations and people, you have a lot of foundation to work with.”

good food revolutionNow that the assessment was complete, FFI decided to focus on a Gleaning Project, one that they could do with the resources they had – volunteer labor and relationships with the schools and farmers. Luhning had volunteered for a gleaning project back in Bellingham, and Becky Comeau, FFI member, had visited a gleaning project in Vermont. Through the gleaning project FFI learned first hand about surplus food in the area going to waste – they harvested 3000 lbs. of produce that season that otherwise would have rotted in the field. (See Sept. 09 Pea Soup). These “seconds” are high quality, sometimes odd-sized, but in the case of bumper crops, are simply “firsts” that would cost the farmers more to harvest than they would be able to sell them for. The lack of a market for seconds was very evident.

The Ohio-based NCR closed its Viroqua manufacturing plant in March. In July VEDA acquired the 100,000 square foot facility and its fifteen acres of land. “Our attention now focuses on locating and working with regional businesses, farmers, producers, processors, manufacturers and community members interested in participating in this innovative, multi-business facility.” said Noble. Luhning and VFC’s Jan Rasikas became a part of the steering committee for this project.

Over the summer Sonya Newenhouse of Madison Environmental Group had been hired by WTC-La Crosse to facilitate conversations with other La Crosse institutions that wanted to increase local food in their food service programs and invited Sue Noble to participate. FFI had identified the need of a processing facility for seconds and developed relationships with area schools that were seeking local food through the Farm to School Program. All the pieces were coming together when the BLBW grant funding was announced. With the example of the Chippewa Valley Producers and Buyers Co-op in mind, they applied for the grant.

Luhning and Noble put the initial proposal together in two weeks and were one of 70 applicants. They were one of 30 invited to submit a full proposal. 22 letters of support from local institutions, business, NPO’s and Farms were included in the grant proposal that would form a Local Foods Initiative to serve a five county region - Vernon, La Crosse, Crawford, Richland and Monroe.

A key part of the proposal was the development of a multi-stakeholder cooperative consisting initially of five local producers, three large producer groups (Organic Valley, Harvest Moon Farms and Keewaydin Organics), four processors (Keewaydin Organics, CROPP Cooperative, Westby Co-op Creamery and Premier Meats, Inc.) and six institutions (Western Technical College, UW-La Crosse, Vernon Memorial Hospital, Three Rivers Waldorf School, Viroqua Area Schools and Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School) to market, sell and distribute fresh and value-added food products. Four of the five institutions committed 10% of their food budgets to purchasing local food. VEDA received the largest grant of the nine proposals that were funded: $40,000 for two years.

Premier Meats opened in December, a 12,000 square foot facility between Westby and Viroqua. A $1.9 million dollar success story from VEDA’s Entrepreneur Club, it added tremendous momentum to local food activity in the region. Two-thirds of the building is dedicated to the processing of meat while the other third includes a retail shop hosting many local food items: fresh and frozen beef, pork, lamb, dairy and additional products. It has the capacity to process 150 head of beef, as well as hogs and sheep.

Plans for the use of the former NCR building continue - the building will serve as a central distribution point for local produce in the BLBW grant. It will also house other local food businesses and provide space for local food community activities

Food Farm InitiativeNicole Penick, who is now the coordinator for FFI, has been hired as the coordinator for the new Western Wisconsin Local Foods Initiative. Nicole has a BA in Community Leadership & Development, and is working on her thesis project on Farm to Institution Food. Her work for FFI will also apply towards her Masters degree.

Even with the example of the Chippewa Valley Producers and Buyers Co-op, developing a multi-stakeholder cooperative is really breaking new ground. While this type of co-op is common in Europe and Canada, it is extremely rare in the US. Producers, Buyers, Processors, Distributors and Employees will all have a seat at the table in determining fair prices and co-op policies. It truly is a new paradigm for building a sustainable food system.

Noble and Luhning are excited about the prospects. “We have the opportunity to be a showcase region for rebuilding rural economies in a sustainable way,” says Luhning. 

“The motivation to go for the grant was based on more than a year of work, planning and discussions about local food together,” adds Noble. “The grant is also a great next step for a lot of the local businesses I’m working with, who focus on food and agriculture.”
In addition to the crucial leadership provided by Luhning and Noble, nearly all the work from the Valley Stewardship Network’s Food and Farm Initiative to this point had been done by volunteers - and without those committed enough to roll up their sleeves and
take action, our community wouldn’t be ready for the next steps in the Driftless Good Food Revolution.

Tags: Local, Food, Farm