Saturday, May 1, 2010

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
May 2001

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.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

A fork in the road: 14 ways to start eating sustainably

A version of this article appeared in Brava magazine, March 2010.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

The journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single bite.

Many of us think we need to change the way we eat: that we should eat less processed food, less junk food, less food on the run, and maybe just plain less food.

But increasingly, it seems the entire food system could use some serious adjustment.

More and more, we’re taking notice of some troubling facts. Too much our food comes from thousands of miles away, so that it takes lavish amounts of petroleum just to get it to our plates. Too much of it is elaborately packaged, generating lots of trash. Too much of it is produced by agribusiness operating on an enormous scale, even as our own Wisconsin family farms continue to shut down. Too much of it is peppered with pesticides and herbicides, and grown in biologically “dead” soil soaked in chemical fertilizer. And too much of it comes from animals that really could be treated better.

A lot of people – many of them right here in southern Wisconsin – have been working very hard for decades to change this dismally inefficient, environmentally devastating, unhealthful shape of things. Recently, movies like Food, Inc. and author Michael Pollan’s bestselling books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, have brought mainstream attention to these issues. Sustainable eating, a phrase being heard more and more these days, is one popular description of the multi-featured groundswell of grassroots response by concerned eaters and growers to all these issues.

“I like to say ‘ethical eating,’” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group (REAP), the Madison-based organization behind efforts like Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, which brings locally produced food into schools, Buy Fresh Buy Local, which helps forge relationships between restaurateurs and farmers, and the Farm Fresh Atlas, which maps sustainable food producers throughout the state. “‘Ethical’ gets people thinking about all the things we’re talking about a little more quickly, like fair trade. Organic is an important issue, for instance, but it’s not the only issue.”

Here in Madison, with the nation’s largest farmers market, world-class restaurants that make a point of pride of naming the farms that supply their ingredients, and an abundance of organic and artisanal farms, cheese makers, breweries, bakeries and more all around us, we’ve long been at the epicenter of what many see as a revolutionary movement. In September, when Michael Pollan gave a series of talks here that drew crowds of up to 5,000, he described our town as “one of the important fronts in [the] battle to change the American way of eating and growing food.”

Pretty weighty stuff.

In fact, it might seem a bit overwhelming, wondering how to start. You might worry: Is this just one more thing for me to feel guilty about not doing right? Do I have to give up my favorite foods? Can I still shop at the supermarket? Can I ever eat out? Do I have to slave for hours in the kitchen? Do I have to start a garden and get dirty? What if I don’t have time to shop at the farmers’ market – and what would I do with the weird stuff I bought there, anyway? And the expense! Will I go broke trying to live on whole, fresh, natural, locally produced food?

Relax. Breathe. That’s not what this trip is about. If you want to change the way you eat, some of the area’s sustainable food leaders have shared their insights and advice for making some tasty transitions, one forkful at a time. 

1.Pay attention. The first step is just to increase your awareness. Let yourself wonder all sorts of things whenever you shop or order out. Where did it come from? How did it get to you? Who handled it? How did it get to look the way it does? Could your great-grandmother have made this out of raw ingredients? Or does it look like a factory and lots of patented technology is required to make it? Where will the packaging and the scraps go after you’re done with your meal? Let your mind become accustomed to drifting along these directions. Any concrete measures you decide upon will connect naturally and easily to your train of thought.
“When you go to a supermarket, don’t just go in a daze,” suggests Barbara Wright, owner of The Dardanelles restaurant and a past president of Madison Originals, an association of independent restaurants. “Don’t throw things into your cart in zombie mode. Look around. You might notice, ‘Oh, those red peppers, that looks good to me.’”

2. Start small, and make delicious discoveries along the way. “Don’t try to change everything overnight,” advises chef Leah Caplan, the chief food officer at Metcalfe’s Market at Hilldale and that store’s local-food liaison. “You can start up with one meal a week using ingredients from this area. If on Wednesday night [you] usually have roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with some spinach, come to the grocery store, buy a local chicken, some local potatoes and spinach. You’ll notice a definite quality difference. Snug Haven grows spinach year-round in hoop houses. This time of year, with the frost, it’s candy sweet. If you taste that side by side with spinach from California or South America this time of year, there’s virtually no flavor to the shipped spinach.”

3. Read labels. Make it a habit not to put anything in your cart until you’ve consciously chosen to accept each ingredient. You can go a long way by choosing just two or three key offenders to avoid, without needing a chemistry degree.  Try crossing these two off your shopping list: monosodium glutamate (MSG) – which adds a quality known as umami, or “tastiness,” but also makes you crave more food while deadening  your palate –  and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a highly refined substance metabolized differently from traditional sugar that’s drawing fire for possibly contributing directly to today’s obesity epidemic.

4. Shop for ingredients, not meals. If you’re concerned about price, this is the best way to turn the equation around to your favor. For instance, if you take microwave-ready lunches to work, the “all-natural” equivalents will be pricier. But if you prepare meals from scratch – say, a chef’s salad, pasta salad or lasagna – you’ll be able to swap in the finest local ingredients and come out even or ahead.

5. Learn to cook. Treat yourself to sturdy pans and quality knives, a cutting board you find beautiful, whatever will make it easier and more enjoyable to create your own fantastic food. “Take some lessons if you’re jazzed by that idea. Get cookbooks, if that’s what you like. There are so many great angles for getting into this,” says Terese Allen, food editor at Organic Valley Cooperative, who’s written several cookbooks celebrating the pleasures of local food, most recently co-authoring The Flavor of Wisconsin. “Give yourself permission to keep it simple. I like to think in terms of what I call repertoire dishes: an omelet, a pizza, a rice dish, a soup. I can think, ‘OK, this is pasta night,’ and any week of the year I can make a dish using seasonal ingredients. It doesn’t take that much more time to smash some cherry tomatoes in the pan and add some basil leaves, rather than serving something with added ingredients and a shelf life of thousands of years – and sometimes is not all that convenient.”  

6. Choose local products. Many Madison grocers identify these. Metcalfe’s has won national awards for its “Food Miles” program locating “anything within Wisconsin or in a 150-mile radius from Madison,” explains Caplan, with signs like highway markets. “For instance, Capital Brewery is 5 miles.” Similarly, Williamson Street Grocery Cooperative names the local farms that grow its produce and labels local items throughout the store. If your supermarket doesn’t highlight local products, talk with the manager or drop a note in the suggestion box.

7. Join a CSA. Purchase a share of a farm’s annual harvest through community-supported agriculture (CSA), and you’ll get a weekly box of fruits and vegetables for nearly half the year.  Some programs provide add-ons of local meat, cheese, eggs, honey and fair-trade coffee. “This food is picked within 24 hours,” says Keira Mulvey, director of Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC), which helps consumers and farmers find one another. “It’s the connection between you and the grower that’s important to us, You  get a whole bunch of newsletters with recipes and a little bit of a deeper understanding of what’s going on at your farm, what kind of drama is going on with the animals and the machinery. You can visit and be a part of on-farm events – pesto festos, corn boils. It’s not just a farm visit; it’s a visit to the farm that’s producing food for your family. That’s a fun way to engage with your food.”
If you don’t cook much, “you can split a share” with a friend or neighbor, Mulvey suggests. MACSAC’s cookbook, From Asparagus to Zucchini, will help you figure out what to do with that kohlrabi, or fennel, or whatever unfamiliar treasure might be in season. “The beautiful thing about CSAs is, it pushes you to try things you might not otherwise,” Grunes says.
Incredibly, Physician’s Plus, Dean, Unity and GHC pay you up to $200 in cash when you present your CSA receipt. “That’s a recipe for good health,” Grunes says. Interested in learning more? Visit MACSAC’s CSA Open House March 14 at the Monona Terrace.

8. Shop at farmers’ markets. A cornerstone of the local food movement, this is the place to find food diversity like you’ve never imagined and bright, fresh flavors unmatched by foods bred for long storage life and shipping hardiness. “When my sister had carrots right out of the field, she said, ‘Wow, this is a carrot, but it tastes so much better.’ Even within the simple potato, you can find a wide variety of flavors and textures. You’ll be able to find that typical Russet, but also purple, blue, fingerling, Yukon gold.” says Claire Strader, the farmer at Community GroundWorks, an educational facility on Madison’s Northside that includes a certified organic farm producing food for a vendor stall at the Northside Farmers’ Market, a CSA and several grocery stores.  “People might not realize they can find a wide range of food,” Strader says. “Why not go shopping at the farmers’ market first and then swing by the grocery on the way home for everything you didn’t find? You can get meat, honey, eggs, milk, cheese, fish, baked goods there. You’re not going to get Pop Tarts there.”
New to the scene? “Ask to go with a friend who’s familiar with that market, as a sort of tour guide. People have favorite foods and favorite vendors,”  Strader says. During the growing season, there’s a market every day of the week somewhere in or near Madison. REAP’s Farm Fresh Atlas, available online and in print, will help you find one that’s convenient to you.

9. Cook with friends. “If you’re working on it together and it’s kind of a social thing, it’s just so much fun,” Allen says. “I have neighbors who are in a vegetarian cooking group, and they make meals for each other. Make it a group thing!”

10. Grow something to eat. “Gardening is my favorite thing to do, but it isn’t for everybody,” Grunes admits. If you want to dip a toe in, “herbs are a great way to start. You can do it in a window box. Just snip off what you need; you won’t have a whole cilantro package going bad in the fridge.” Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow, also, and the payoff is big. “A warm tomato from right out of the yard – it doesn’t get much better than that.” Or any more local.

11. Visit a farm. Make an outing of it. Take the kids; go with friends. Several local farms offer “U-Pick” apples, strawberries, pumpkins and more. “I’ll take a vacation and go to Bayfield and pick blueberries with friends,” says Allen. “I may spend more money to get blueberries that way, but I’m getting so much more out of it. It’s not a dollar-for-dollar item-for-item kind of thing.”

12. Patronize independent restaurants serving local food. Chuck Taylor, president of Madison Originals and owner of The Blue Marlin, says, “You’re supporting your neighbors” when you choose an indie eatery, especially one that makes food from scratch and deals directly with farms. “The money stays local. It’s not going to a prescribed purveyor or to buy sauces made in some group kitchen somewhere. We would like to see that money stay in the community.”
But do we, as a nation eat out too much? Barbara Wright says, “If you’re eating out because you want to spend time together laughing about things, enjoying each other’s company, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, ever. Even if it’s at McDonald’s.” The problem, she says, is in “disordered eating.” She explains, “People ordering something and bolting it down while on their way to the next thing, shoveling food into their stomachs, that’s the problem.”

13. Get informed. Read books like In Defense of Food or Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. Get on the e- mailing lists of organizations like REAP and Community GroundWorks so you can take advantage of upcoming events where you can learn about and enjoy local foods, and even find volunteer opportunities.

14. Have fun! “This is one of the few habits you can change that can be really, really  deliciously enjoyable,” says Allen. “You don’t have to give up anything. There’s so much potential and variety in the world of food. The goal isn’t to get to 100 percent sustainable, or local, or seasonal. It’s to add that in. It’s not all or nothing. That’s not life. That’s not what this movement is about.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

How to start eating sustainably?

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava Magazine
March 2010

You've heard the reasons why we need to change the way we eat. The average forkful of food travels thousands of miles from field to table, even when the eater is in the heart of farmland. Feedlot animals are crammed some 50,000 deep, devastating the environment with their waste products, while factory-style agricultural has transformed our plant food supply into what is, practically speaking, petroleum products. Meanwhile, eating locally grown foods and humanely treated, pastured animals, preparing meals from fresh, whole foods, eating at locally owned restaurants -- especially those that serve fresh, local foods themselves -- is good for local economies, good for the community, good for your health and your waistline, good for the environment, good for all the plants and animals involved.

So how to get started? Do you have to give up your favorite foods? Do you have to plant a garden and get dirty? Is it going to be more expensive? Where do I get real food, and how hard is it to find? Do I have to learn to cook? Do I have to spend every free minute in the kitchen? Is my new food going to taste weird?

Find out in the March 2010 Brava Magazine.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The hidden face of domestic violence

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Brava Magazine, February 2010

What kind of woman gets herself into an relationship with an abusive man, and stays even after he becomes violent? What do friends and family typically advise her as the entanglement develops? What does an abused woman look like? How prevalent is domestic abuse, and how bad does it usually get?

I was shocked by what I learned when I explored these and other questions for my article, "The hidden face of domestic violence," for the February issue of Brava Magazine. In the article, I present the stories of tree Madison-area women who tell, in their own words, how they found themselves enmeshed with intimate partners who beat, manipulated and dominated them, even as friends and family -- and even a university dean, in one woman's case -- saw only the charismatic, assertive men who presented a positive front to the outside world.

To learn more about how domestic violence develops and how you can keep it from happening to you -- or your daughter -- visit DAIS (Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, a Dane County, Wis. nonprofit) or the Family Violence Prevention Fund.