Driftless Food Groups will bring folks and farmers to gather around food, keeping conversation around our Food System moving forward.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
We chose Vernon County to focus on because it's home. We live and work here, and see on a daily basis the natural and cultural resources that need and deserve stewardship in a changing world. Any work done in the region will have an impact, as there are real challenges to the communities that make up our county. These people and places need help; to make ends meet, to keep ways of life intact, to connect with each other and with the wider world, and to protect the place that binds us.
Vernon County is a small, rural county with a primarily agricultural economy. We get filled with awe by the natural beauty any time we’re on the road or on the trails or in the field or on the water. Folks who call Vernon County, though diverse in experiences and beliefs and priorities, demonstrate time and again their commitment to our community and our environment. We take pride in our self-sufficiency, integrity, ingenuity, persistence, creativity, and collective green thumbs. But with worsening economic conditions for our regional industries (agriculture and manufacturing are both facing tightening profit margins as operation costs go up), the investment we’ve collectively made, in organic dairy and regenerative pasturing and Cooperative businesses and entrepreneurial incubation and family farms, it’s all at risk. We chose to represent Vernon County in this venue because our best intentions are not yet self-sustaining.
It’s thrilling to see new farms try different things, and businesses embrace local sources, and community members come together to put on plays and teach traditional skills, and a million other acts of commitment to a better community. This is a thriving place. And it’s devastating to see the heart of it, family farms, suffer through economic uncertainty, isolation, and marginalization. Food in general, and agriculture specifically, hold the heart of this region, and in spotlighting Vernon County, we remind people of the gifts we have to protect.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Long winters mean short growing seasons, so our farms have tools to lengthen growing seasons. If farmers share stories challenges and information on best practices, we would see more rapid and effective adoption of new technologies as they emerge in the future.
Organic Valley, headquartered in LaFarge, is the nation's largest farmer-owned organic cooperative and one of the world's largest organic consumer brands.
Volunteers for Community Hunger Solutions gather fresh surplus produce from local farms for delivery to food pantries in the area. This is one example of people in our region creatively building solutions to complicated problems.
Viroqua's annual Harvest Parade celebrates the intersection of our vibrant arts and agricultural communities.
A local market that shares producer stories as part of their cheese display. This is one way to build connection between customers and local food.
Family farms play a central role in Vernon County. They are subject to outside influences, especially economic. And the practices of our farmers has significance in the larger system, notably effects on our environment and culture.
At Vernon County's annual dairy breakfast, a group of 4H students compete for the best grilled cheese sandwich recipe. Opportunities like these connect kids with food production, preparation, and, most importantly, enjoyment.
Aerial image of a major flood event in Vernon County in 2018. Over the last decade, the Driftless Region has experienced five so-called “100-year” floods resulting from unusually heavy, sustained rains.
Because of its unique geography, agriculture looks different in Vernon County than in much of the American Midwest. It is part of the larger Driftless Region, which, because it was never glaciated during the last ice age, was never scraped flat like much of the surrounding region by glacial drifts (so the name, Driftless). Here we have steep ridges, deep river valleys, spring-fed waterfalls and streams. Those steep hillsides make large-scale farming in this area infeasible, but constraints often spark innovation. In the 1930's, the first Soil Conservation Service watershed project helped protect Coon Valley's ecosystem by employing contour farming. Those practices not only stemmed the severe soil loss, but also created the characteristic appearance of the landscape that is still evident today - forested slopes, contour strips on the ridges, and pastures in the valleys.
We used to grow primarily tobacco, and in the 1920’s a group of small producers pooled their crops and resources together and started selling together as a cooperative, building a shared warehouse facility. That co-op, another innovation born of constraint, was a forerunner of many cooperative enterprises to come in a wide variety of sectors. In the 1970's and 1980's, as the tobacco market fluctuated, many tobacco operations sold their land to a new generation of farmers. To overcome the challenge of competing with farms of a much larger scale, many of these new farmers explored and pioneered modern organic farming practices. Today, 14% of our farms are organic, 98% are family farms, but only 9% sell directly to consumers.
Regionalism in Vernon County is built into the landscape: steep topography, rivers, soil resources, cities and villages. And people move here from other places, drawn by the organic community or the landscape or the isolation or the arts scene or the Waldorf School. As a result we have a very diverse base of world-views and social/cultural groups that need to be understood, respected and included in a county food system vision. There are several large Amish communities in Vernon County, and their contributions to the work and production of the region are significant.
The cooperative spirit of our communities shine through in some of the many efforts spearheaded by locals for locals. Vernon Trails is a nonprofit that builds partnerships and trails on public and private lands. Communities members banded together to raise funds to restore our historic Temple Theater on Main Street Viroqua, which today hosts film and live events. There are barn raisings and meal trains and dozens of other ways that neighbors help neighbors. When people see a need or an opportunity here, they tend to just gather a few other folks to help out and then do it.
Conditions and constraints created the community and agriculture that we have today. People here are used to innovating, working collaboratively, and prioritizing conservation.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The economics of agricultural production are having dire consequences in our region today. Although overall farm revenues have generally gone up, operating costs, especially farm labor, go up faster. As small farms run on tighter margins, or even at a loss, they're in an unstable economic situation. In fact, the state of Wisconsin lost 638 dairy farms in 2018, and 718 more through November of 2019. Producers get a small portion of food dollars spent in America, but they experience 3-5x more volatility in their income when compared to consumer-side parts of the supply chain. This means a few rough years can drive farms into debt, a cycle cemented by reliance on operating loans to get through an uncertain growing season. These financial stresses take their toll on the farm communities, and there is a dramatic increase in suicides among farmers. Policies intended to support farms during difficult times, such as subsidy programs, tend to favor large-scale commodity operations, and so the smaller and more sustainable farms that we favor in the future may not get the support they need.
In terms of income, Vernon County is the third poorest in the state of Wisconsin, with net earnings making up the smallest share of total personal income. Compared to state and national levels, Vernon County has higher rates of poverty and food insecurity. In America’s Dairyland, there are food deserts. We want everyone to have access to nutritional foods grown in sustainable ways, but income levels and time availability prevent many people from even considering organic produce as a main dietary component.
In addition to the major economic pressures felt in the region, we are starting to see the impacts of climate change on weather patterns locally and globally. The region has already experienced an increase in annual flood events, which have devastated small communities and dramatically reduced farm productivity. Changing temperature ranges and precipitation patterns affect predictability of weather and producers' forecasting ability. While we do not know the exact impacts or changes that the region in 2050 will experience, our producers need support in adjusting their practices to meet changing conditions in ways that preserve soil health.
Vernon County has a growing population, thanks to both natural and migration causes. There are a variety of groups in the region, with very different values, goals and norms. As we progress to 2050, there are bound to be misunderstandings and conflicts between different groups. Newcomers to the area include migrant laborers and folks looking for a rural lifestyle from a more urban area. Our population will shift, diversity of philosophies and value systems may become more palpable and potentially divisive, and so our communities need ways to work together to address collective challenges.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our Vision is that small and midsized farms grow food for the region and beyond sustainably, equitably, and regeneratively, while making a decent living. Farms that are thriving are able to directly impact many of our challenges directly.
When a family is struggling to keep the lights on, It’s hard to farm in alignment with the values our community hopes to hold, sustainability, regenerative practices, environmental health, nutrition and wellness, and equity. It’s a risk that we will have more exploitative and extractive businesses if our family farmers walk away. Smaller operations are generally more nimble. Without the investment in large and specialized machinery and operations, they are able to try different crops, layouts and methods more quickly. As climate changes, and weather becomes less predictable, small farms can help our agricultural industry adapt more easily, because of their ability to change course AND because there will be more diversity in farming. In addition, smaller farming operations tend to work more closely with the land and local environment. They are part of a diverse mosaic with a variety of crop and non-crop species, providing habitats for local flora and fauna. Soil health and conservation requires our farmers to be good stewards, and Vernon County has a long history of protecting our natural resources and working within the natural limits of the environment.
Globally, small and midsized farms tend to grow most of our nutrient-rich foods, while large farms tend to grow oil crops, livestock, and cereals. Ensuring small and midsized farm success nourishes Vernon County and beyond with diverse foods. Furthermore, good food can taste good. Farms can provide the raw materials for families, institutions, and communities to come together over a shared meal.
Agriculture makes up the lion’s share of our economy in Vernon County. It also enables other industries to succeed, such as tourism, manufacturing, and transportation. There is a real danger that if farms continue to close, our economy will fail with it, and Vernon County will become another story of rural demise.
If local small and midsized farms are thriving in 2050, they will have the ability to expand their support of communities experiencing deep poverty and food insecurity, through programs such as Community Hunger Solutions and Farm to School.
Our farms play a crucial and central role in our community overall, as well as in our local food system. If we can support their success, we’ll have an asset in weathering whatever changes come to our region in the next 30 years.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Our vision for 2050 is for small and midsized farms to grow food for the region and beyond sustainably, equitably, and regeneratively, while making a decent living.
Small family farms will survive financially without having to rely on off-farm income, and will be able to afford college for their kids. They will live with less stress from the burdens of debt and be able to invest in their land, their business, and their community. There will be lower rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among the farming community.
Growers of all size will be supported to make choices that are good for the food they grow, good for their health, good for the local community, and good for the environment. They will have pathways and support to market and distribute their products locally. Producers will work together to share information and learning, resources, and support to ensure our local farms can remain financially viable without having to scale up production in unsustainable ways. They will share insights about new technology and how it can best be adopted and used to its full benefit.
Consumers will be able to find and afford nourishing and delicious food produced locally and sustainably. In schools and nursing homes, they will serve locally-sourced and nutritious meals that expose children and adults alike to healthy habits and delicious food. Citizens will have opportunities to know their growers, the seasonality of produce, and the impacts of their food decisions. We will know where our food comes from and value the work and resources that go into its production.
The community will have better health outcomes, with lower rates of diabetes, obesity, malnutrition; Families will not go hungry. People will have opportunities to come together around food. Whether it’s learning about food preparation, sharing in a potluck, or meeting their local farmers, our community will have a deeper appreciation and understanding of our food and how it nourishes us.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
High school students from across the county competed in 2014's Vernon County Harvest Challenge, which asks students to create school lunch meals that utilize local food, are appealing in look and taste and also fit a budget of $1.00 per serving. Students from each school work with a chef mentor and team mentor to create these wonderful recipes!
Uniting to invest collecting in solar technology for farm use is one way that Driftless Food Groups could work together to influence environmental challenges such as greenhouse gas emissions and adopt technological advances more quickly and effectively.
Working collaboratively, we need create more local and regional markets for our small and midsized producers.
CREATE community meal, hosted in St. Paul, MN. This kind of communal event sharing food and stories is a wonderful way to engage people in our food system.
A local maple syrup company uses shared facilities at Viroqua's Food Enterprise Center to process and bottle their product.
Vernon County, part of the southwest part of Wisconsin.
Here in Vernon County, we do not lack in ideas, innovations, or entrepreneurial spirit, but our small rural county does lack the means for many of these efforts to get off the ground, scale up, and sustain itself. The Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) is one organization dedicated to giving makers and growers and founders a boost, helping them find success in their endeavors. VEDA formed in 2006 to strategically support business and workforce development in the region. The flagship project began when VEDA obtained a shuttered manufacturing facility and the Food Enterprise Center was born.
Food Enterprise Center
The Food Enterprise Center (FEC) is a rural food hub, owned and managed by VEDA, that is home to more than 20 small-but-growing food and wellnesses enterprises. FEC is an accelerator space and businesses have access to physical infrastructure (loading docks, commercial kitchens, warehouse space) and organizational infrastructure (connections to distributors, business plan help, tax/HR support). Tenants directly benefit from marketing opportunities and the social support of being in a cohort. These businesses, primarily value-added food producers, create jobs, import capital from other regions, provide valued products, and support local farms through purchasing. And they benefit immensely from sharing resources and a community of like-minded business people. It’s a big signal to us as organizers that the Food Enterprise Center is thriving after more than a decade in operation, supported by and nurturing the local innovators.
In 2010, VEDA launched the Fifth Season Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative including producers, processors, distributors and buyers. They market and promote food that is produced in line with values of conservation, biodiversity, animal welfare, economic fairness for both labor force and farmers. The vision of providing institutional buyers, such as schools and hospitals, with locally harvested, nutritional, and convenient food was the initial driver for formation, and currently Fifth Season aggregates and coordinates the sales and distribution of a wide array of local produce and value-added products for institutional foodservice markets. Today, FEC’s warehouse is also fostering a new agriculture industry as it is home to large amounts of hemp, harvested from farms across the region, and aggregated so that growers have access to larger markets.
Another program coordinated by VEDA is Community Hunger Solutions (CHS), whose mission is to bring fresh local produce to food pantries in our region and beyond. CHS gets this produce by buying farm’s seconds (giving income to farms for produce that would have otherwise been unsold), receiving wholesale and retail donations, and gleaning farm leftovers (reducing waste in our food system). Once this healthy and unprocessed food reaches food pantries, CHS also provides useful food prep information, both recipes and meal suggestions. This reduces barriers for people to try new foods and starts the habit of healthy eating.
Projects like these are strengthening our economy, environmental health, nutrition, cultural identity, and community members. This work supports folks who live and work here to be healthy, optimistic, energetic, values-driven problem-solvers. Facing the economic, climate, and cultural challenges that we are, we want more of that spirit.
Building out from that success
By 2050, we will expand the reach of FEC, creating more ways to support growers/producers, residents, local enterprise, and the connections between them. We envision Driftless Food Groups as a way to make that impact more broad, more deep, and more connected.
Driftless Food Groups will bring farmers together on a seasonal basis to talk about problems, solutions, diversification of crops, conservation methods, the latest research from UW-Madison, collaborations to build markets, or ideas to reuse parts of the waste stream. It’s important for us to keep in mind that farmers know their challenges best, and we believe can collectively problem-solve effectively.
As one example, we know that enrollment in CSAs dropped steadily since the recession in 2007. CSAs have been an important model regionally, because of the way a CSA affects a farm cash flow, and insures (at least a bit) against a low harvest season. Operating a farm for CSA sales is tricky here in Vernon County, because farms need to produce up to 70 or 80 crops to ensure that boxes are full of a variety of produce, and that wide variety means that farms can’t necessarily focus in on improving performance of each individual crop OR produce a yield of any one crop that is large enough to bring to retail markets. What if several farms joined up to source an umbrella CSA subscription box? This would allow farms to specialize a bit more, while still giving members the variety and convenience they look for.
In addition to the farmer-focused groups, we imagine a regular coming together for other stakeholders in the food system. Namely all the eaters. Our goals with Community Food Groups is to foster connection. Share good food, share values, share our future. There is a wonderful example of a community meal for 2000 people in nearby St. Paul, MN, called CREATE. Viroqua would be perfect for staging a similar meal, showcasing and sharing stories of our local food system. We could offer Food System Workshops to capture some of the barriers that prevent people from supporting local farms directly, and then problem solve collectively with retailers, producers, and processors.
Connecting to other efforts
Vernon County, thanks to its history of generational farming, organic practices, and cooperative spirit, is very aware of the importance of healthy land, water, and relationships to a community. There are other partner organizations who also strive towards a regenerative and nurturing and sustainable food system.
The Valley Stewardship Network authored a county food inventory in 2009, and its Food and Farm Initiative supported some amazing projects in our area. Today, their staff offers a monthly workshop around stewardship, often connecting food production practices to environmental health. Mississippi Valley Conservancy exposes folks to richness of our natural resources and protects lands for public use. Individual chefs like Luke Zahm, Monique Hooker, and Dani Lind highlight using local foods in their restaurants and kitchens and inspire folks to do the same in their homes.
The Farm to School Program has a critical impact on the kids in our classrooms. It introduces them to whole foods and local producers. Kids come home with recipe ideas that parents are motivated to try out, like cranberry grilled cheese sandwiches. There was even a high school culinary competition, pitting school teams against each other in creating healthy, delicious dishes. We would love to have a similar way to introduce families to healthy whole foods. If one of the barriers to healthier food choices in confusion, these demonstrations, along with the cooking classes hosted by the Viroqua Food Co-op, Driftless Folk School, and public libraries, could go a long way to help families adopt healthier (and more local) eating habits.
Reaching the Tipping Point
Our vision for 2050 is one where small and midsized farms work in alignment with values of regeneration, equity, sustainability, and thrive while doing it, and where community members have access to healthy and whole and nutritious foods. Everyone benefits from a connection to the sources of our food. This vision requires major shifts in buying habits and priorities and practices and institutions. Change can be a long and slow process, and efforts need to work consistently and in the same direction for a movement like ours to gain traction.
One way that we are planning to build momentum into our movement is to offer a variety of levels of engagement for people and organizations which allows more people (those who have not already bought in to buying local, for example) to participate in the community effort, and provides a natural path for leadership development.
COMMUNICATION invites people to share ideas, best practices, and introductions.
COLLABORATION helps people work together to problem solve or improve offerings.
COORDINATION allows people and organizations to strategically sync up their work or product.
CO-OWNERSHIP shares responsibility for a project, through shared ownership.
Driftless Food Groups maps all the ways folks and organizations and businesses move toward our shared values, to ensure that those stories continue to inform and inspire our decisions and ideas. Our goal is not to create the innovations our region needs, but to design a framework that nurtures and supports innovations from spark to implementation to general adoption. We see a system that is robust enough, thanks to the connections that create it, to weather climate challenges, economic fluctuations, policy inequities, and cultural divides. I look forward to breaking bread with my neighbors and my farmers, and talking about all the things we strive to see and eat.
Thank you to all the folks who sat down and indulged my food rookie questions and shaped this document and a road forward.
Sarah Bratnober, Mississippi Valley Conservancy
Mary Christenson, Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School
Mat Eddy, Ridgeland Harvest
Sue Noble, Vernon Economic Development Association
Jan Rasikas, Viroqua Food Co-op
Cecil Wright, Maple Valley Cooperative
Andrea Yoder, Harmony Valley Farm
Luke Zahm, Driftless Cafe