Tuesday, May 1, 2001
Homegrown Food for Thought
Could alternative agriculture be Dane County's antidote for sprawl?
Through site selection and product placement, Dane County businesses support responsible growth and local agriculture.
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Corporate Report Wisconsin
On the Capitol Square in downtown Madison, dollar bills and jars of jam flash across a vendor table in brisk trade. The woman busy behind the table grew the fruit for the jam on her own land, according to the strict requirements of what well may be America’s largest open-air farmers’ market, where an approximate quarter-million dollars is generated each of 28 Saturdays in the year. The waiting list for an open stall is three to five years long.
And it’s not just the market that’s been a huge success. Over the last 20 years, Wisconsin’s capital city has become a mecca for locally produced agricultural wares. Dane County restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses are leading the Midwest in a national movement toward regional and sustainable agriculture. Whether featuring regional products on the day’s menu, giving locally grown produce prime shelf space, or making siting decisions that protect farmland, businesses are fighting to keep the county’s agricultural heritage alive.
But urban sprawl, spurred by a growing economy and population, threatens the very source of the bounty: the open, pastoral landscape of Dane County. According to the June 2000 “Farms and Neighborhoods” report from the county executive’s office, at the current rate of development, the farmlands will be virtually gone by the century’s end — and with them, a defining feature of the county.
Visually, agriculture is the area’s most striking element, far more prevalent than parkland. Southcentral Wisconsin’s farm vistas, with sweeping fields punctuated by stands of trees and grassy ice age hillscapes — gentle oval drumlins, winding eskers — beckon tourists from Wisconsin cities and neighboring states. And this natural beauty is easily accessible to everyone living in Dane County: Even from the center of Madison, bucolic scenery is as near as a 15- or 20-minute drive in any direction. It’s a treasure, and not just when compared to strip mall suburbia. Some rural landscapes may be flat and featureless; Wisconsin’s is exquisite and endlessly diverse.
A few years back, Money magazine rated Madison the country’s most livable city, and population trends indicate that many people agree. In the 1990s, the county’s population rose an estimated 16.7 percent — an additional 61,500 people bringing the total close to 430,000. But as businesses and new residents race to take advantage of the area’s amenities, development patterns have been less than ideal. In February, USA Today ranked Madison one of the most sprawling of all midsized cities — the 65th worst out of all metropolitan areas. The American Farmland Trust has labeled the high-quality farmland in southern Wisconsin the third most threatened in the nation; Dane County lost 48,000 farm acres over the last decade.
So, how important is agriculture here? Dane County’s revenue from agricultural products, nearly $285 million per year, is by far the highest in the state, according to the most recent U.S. Agricultural Census. With more than 2,500 farms, Dane County leads the state in production of corn for grain, and is high on the list when it comes to soybeans, fresh market vegetables, fruit and flowers. An expanding part of this industry is “alternative” agriculture in its various forms: farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards and vegetable patches, and environmentally sensitive farming methods like organic and sustainable agriculture.
There’s a great deal at stake in the survival of agricultural Dane County, and much depends on the area’s business leaders — even those not in the habit of thinking about farms. Jim Arts, Dane County’s director of Policy and Program Development, is concerned that businesses may inadvertently “kill the goose that laid the golden egg” unless they act in ways that protect farms. “Businesses have a powerful impact on the future of the county in making siting decisions, and in the ways they support or don’t support public initiatives of land-use issues,” he says. “I would argue that they have a strong motive to work for maintaining a high quality of life here.”
Phil Lewis, a noted landscape architect (he was the driving force behind Madison’s 21-mile E-way system of greenway and trails), agrees. “High-quality personnel are seeking a high-quality environment — one with beautiful scenery and recreation that produces the clean food and fiber and farmers’ markets that they can enjoy throughout a lifetime, for generations.”
Businesses who value Dane County’s special character can help by putting their considerable muscle into supporting land-use policies that help farms stay in business, says Lewis. Making siting decisions that are friendly to farms and natural resources is another powerful tool, with an even more immediate impact. Once a siting decision is made, landscape architects and building architects can work together to ensure that the new facility will have a low — or even beneficial — impact on natural resources, through canny positioning of buildings on the lot, plantings and more. Also, businesses can get involved in local efforts to take advantage of the state’s new Smart Growth Initiative. Smart Growth rewards municipalities that comply with state guidelines for growth. Lewis encourages business leaders who are planning new construction to talk to county and municipal officers, and find siting solutions that are good for everyone concerned.
To Lewis, the countryside is a mosaic of interdependent elements, each reinforcing the other. He’s identified “corridors of exceptional natural diversity,” including farms as well as parks and historical attractions, which support the tourist industry. Wetlands, water systems and steep topography — where terrain is at a 12.5 percent slope or greater — are also key features. Says Lewis, “We’ve inventoried key patterns of natural diversity. Anybody can call them up and interact with them on the county’s Web site.” But neither wetlands nor steep topography, for instance, are protected by law. So it’s up to individual decision makers to make each choice a conscientious one.
Part of the problem, says Arts, comes when decisions are made piecemeal, instead of as part of an overarching plan. Individual exceptions to municipal planning policies add up to a general pattern of sprawl — residential, commercial and industrial. However, Lewis says “there’s ample room for building without encroaching on or destroying resources.” “Farms and Neighborhoods,” to which Arts contributed, supports that: the report says there’s plenty of developable land within Dane County’s existing city and town borders — enough to fit the expected growth for decades to come.
Odessa Piper is one local entrepreneur who’s earned national acclaim by directly — and vocally — supporting local agriculture, and encouraging more businesses to do the same. Her restaurant, L’Etoile, serves upscale cuisine based on locally produced foods. For more than 25 years, Piper has built tight relationships with more than 100 Wisconsin farmers and producers, who supply everything from strawberries and spinach to bison and veal.
“We put the customers and the dining room in touch with the local farmers by creating the synthesis from the field to the table,” she says. “People are delighted by it. Customers love to be part of the solution.” Piper is an activist as well as a restaurateur, writing and speaking around the nation about the importance of supporting local agriculture. She’s been featured in national magazines like Bon Appetit, Sierra and Wine Spectator, and she’s had a tremendous influence on the growing number of restaurants in Madison and in the rest of the Midwest who now purchase directly from nearby farmers.
But she’s concerned that many businesspeople don’t recognize how much Madison’s high quality of life depends on maintaining farmland close by. “I’ve sat down with people who have made absolutely no connection between their wealth and the way that they’ve developed land. No connection that they’ve had an impact on the availability of fresh, seasonal, locally available food,” Piper says. “But then they ask how is this so delicious? How is this food so good? I tell them, it’s because it’s from a farmer who’s local.”
In a country where food travels an average distance of 1,300 miles from farm to table, restaurants and food service are just beginning to take advantage of the premium merchandise offered by local farmers. A few years ago, Home Grown Wisconsin, a 20-farmer cooperative, broke into a new restaurant market: Chicago. There they were welcomed by chefs starving for locally grown food. Even the UW dining service is beginning to look into local connections, testing the waters with annual organic, regionally grown dinners. The UW’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research facility within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, points out that if UW dining bought just 10 percent of its food from Dane County farmers, it would keep an extra $1 million within the local economy.
Besides restaurants, grocers are increasingly keen on locally grown produce. It’s easy enough to guess that natural foods stores like Williamson Street Grocery Co-op, Whole Foods Market and Magic Mill Natural Foods Market would support local, smaller-scale agriculture. But big supermarkets are also getting in on the local action, and Dane County is the focal point.
In the mid-’90s, Stevens Point-based Copps Food Center established the Copps Produce Developmental Center and placed it in Madison stores. “Our Madison customers spent more per dollar on produce than at any of our other stores,” says Tom Pozorski, Copps’ category manager for produce. “We look to Madison for what the trends are going to be in the rest of the Midwest.”
What the CPDC discovered was a strong preference for locally produced food; now Copps buys local whenever possible. “The growing season is short here, so that’s the biggest limitation,” Pozorski says. “But in season we sell 100 percent Wisconsin sweet corn, for instance. There’s nothing better than Wisconsin sweet corn when you’re in Wisconsin.” Apples and potatoes are also big crops, and they store well, too. Wisconsin is the third largest potato producer in the U.S. “They’re the best in the world. You can’t beat a Wisconsin spud,” Pozorski says. Locally grown organics and other specialty crops are growing in popularity and availability, too. “We have a lot of new growers approaching us,” Pozorski says.
Star Liquor in Madison finds that locally produced goods are a big draw. “People want to support the local economy,” says manager Mark Mason. “They want to know where their money is going. People want to drink local — I give them what they want.” At least 25 percent of Star’s beer sales are regional brands, says Mason, adding “that doesn’t include Miller, Leinenkugel and Point” — popular Wisconsin-brewed beers with out-of-state ownership. Mason points out that Dane County is the proud home of Capitol Brewery, rated America’s #1 brewery by the Beverage Tasting Institute in 1998. Even wine from Wisconsin sells well, especially at Christmastime for gifts to ex-Wisconsinites. In a refrigerated case next to the champagne, Star also sells specialty cheeses from Bleu Mont Dairy. It’s the only place other than the Farmers’ Market on the Square where this Dane County dairy’s cheese can be purchased.
If healthy, vibrant farms are key to averting sprawl disaster in Dane County, then alternative agricultural methods — and perspectives — will increase in importance. Compared with traditional megacrops like soybeans or corn for grain, which gross about $275 to $375 per acre, grosses for fresh market vegetables can range from $8,000 to $16,000 per acre, with a net of between $4,000 to $9,000. Therefore, to support a family, specialty vegetable farms don’t need to be as big as conventional feed crop farms.
Organic milk, meat, vegetables and fruit are more labor-intensive to produce, but they do command higher prices in an expanding market: the market for organic has been steadily growing by 20 percent yearly since 1989. The Miller Farm in Dane County’s Town of Bristol is Wisconsin’s largest organic dairy farm, with 350 milk cows. Because their milk is organic, the Millers can sell their milk for 50 percent more than the conventional price.
And there’s plenty of room for niche marketing. For direct sales, there’s the 300-vendor Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square, as well as markets in Middleton, Sun Prairie and Fitchburg, and outside Madison’s Hilldale Shopping Center. There are roadside stands where farmers set up informal shop for the day. U-Pick orchards and berry patches let you walk through the growing fields yourself, and are often touted as an attraction for children.
Despite these opportunities, the future of Dane County’s rich agrarian tradition, and the beautiful landscape that comes with it, is far from certain. From here, Dane County may join the list of America’s lost paradises. Or it may become a great success story, a blueprint for others to follow. How the business community approaches development, how strongly it supports locally produced foods, and the stand it takes on land-use policies — all these will play an incalculable role in the shape the county will take.
But before business is likely to exercise its power to help Dane County farmers, it must first recognize how important Dane County farmers are to business. “We need to raise awareness,” says Jim Arts. “If we want to preserve the character of Dane County, we must keep farmers in business.”