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Building a regenerative organic agricultural future in Wisconsin to revitalize local food systems and rural economies

Our regenerative organic food future will revitalize rural economies and family farms while restoring public and environmental health.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

University of Wisconsin-Madison Organic Agriculture Program

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

We work with over 100 nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and industry representatives supporting the regenerative organic movement, in addition to the hundreds of farmers involved in our network.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Madison, Wisconsin

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Wisconsin, a state in the upper Midwestern United States, with a long history of diversified agriculture and organic agriculture.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As the land-grant university in the state of Wisconsin, we hold to the mission of the Wisconsin Idea:  that university research should be applied to solve problems and improve health, quality of life, the environment, and agriculture for all citizens of the state.

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.

Wisconsin is a state with a long legacy of conservation. Charles Van Hise in 1910 first set the foundation for Wisconsin while serving as president of the University of Wisconsin, stating “The principles of conservation… require for their practice a sense of social responsibility. …It is by the criterion of what is best for posterity that we should judge the interlocking questions of economics and conservation which confront us.” Further, Gaylord Nelson, former Wisconsin Governor and Senator, during the first Earth Day in 1970, “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Aldo Leopold, a former professor at UW-Madison, saw this complex but vital relationship between agriculture and conservation. In 1947, he wrote with respect to agriculture and its relationship to sustainability: “Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays. That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue.” He observed almost a century ago challenges that are still being wrestled with today: “Scientific agriculture was actively developed before ecology was born,” he wrote; “hence a slower penetration of ecological concepts might be expected. Moreover the farmer, by the very nature of his techniques, must modify the biota more radically than the forester or the wildlife manager.” 

While Wisconsin has a rich agricultural tradition, it is changing. We are in the midst of an agricultural crisis, characterized by the loss of the family farms that were the heart of the rural landscape. These family farms are often purchased by non-farming owners who do not live or work on the property, thus have little personal connection to promote its stewardship. Alternatively, the new owners are large corporate farms, without the same connection to community. Despite these challenges, Wisconsin still has a vibrant diversified agricultural landscape. Characterized by hillier and often wooded land, Wisconsin does not have the degree of large acreage farms characteristic of the corn belt states to its south. Instead, Wisconsin still maintains a very diversified agriculture, with dairy farms, grain farms, vegetable farms, and perennial fruits and nuts, along with other crops and products. Wisconsin is also a leader in organic agriculture, with the second highest number of organic farms, behind only California.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Despite its historic strength in diversified agriculture with foundations in organic agriculture, local food systems, and restorative principles, our food system in Wisconsin - as well as across the upper Midwest - face significant challenges, both currently and into the upcoming decades.

Wisconsin, which has long supported smaller family dairy farms, lost almost 800 dairy farms in 2019 after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017.

Wisconsin is facing a water quality crisis, towards which agriculture is a significant contributor. In the southwest part of our state, researchers randomly selected 301 wells for contaminats; forty-two percent of the wells exceeded standards for bacteria or nitrate, a compound linked to a variety of health problems.

Wisconsin's rural communities are struggling, suffering from a slow and steady rural depopulation and a proliferation of struggling small- and mid-sized cities historically associated with manufacturing.

Wisconsin faces an aging farm population, with the next generation leaving the farm, and significant economic and social barriers preventing a new generation from entering farming, particularly women and underrepresented groups.

Across the state, over one in ten households, or over a quarter million Wisconsin households, are characterized as food insecure, according to the USDA. Another measure estimates 12.4 percent of all people and 20.4 percent of all children in the state as food insecure

Deep poverty and food insecurity exist hidden away in rural Wisconsin despite being situated in the heart of agricultural production, often unrecognized but with profound consequences

In our urban areas, extreme racial disparities and segregation exists;  Milwaukee has been labeled the worst place in America for black people to live, with the National Urban League ranked Milwaukee dead last in its 2017 Metropolitan Unemployment Equality Index.

Indigenous populations in Wisconsin are at greater risk for health-related issues related to nutrition and food access, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Farmers, and by association our local food security, are increasingly challenged by climate change and the accompanying extreme weather and exacerbation of pest and insect pressure.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Transforming our food system in Wisconsin will require significant and meaningful partnerships between multiple actors: researchers, educators, farmers, agricultural professionals, consumers, eaters, processors, buyers, wholesalers, and retailers. To facilitate this transformation, we will create the infrastructure through research, education, farm transition services, and transdisciplinary/transinstitutional forums to share ideas and work towards common goals. Through these efforts, we can inform policy and incentives to encourage adoption of regenerative organic practices and the creation of the related infrastructure to support regenerative organic farmers, including food hubs and buying centers, cooperatives, and community engagement and messaging. We will do this by working towards several goals : 1) co-creation with farmers new approaches to agriculture that adhere to the principles of regenerative organic practices; 2) inform policy decisions and appropriate incentives to reward farmers for the adoption of these practices, contributing to their financial well-being; 3) training new farmers from all backgrounds and experience to diversify the community of farmers producing our food; and 4) facilitating communication throughout all food systems actors.

The regenerative organic initiative within the UW-Madison will work with stakeholders across the state to design regenerative agricultural systems that contribute to local food security, support of family farms and rural communities, achieve our ecological goals, strive for greater social justice, provide food and nutritional security to all people throughout the state, and respect, support, and foster the practices associated with the indigenous history of our lands. We will address these challenges through these specific actions:

Strengthen our research and knowledge-base regarding regenerative agricultural practices, providing farmers real options with respect to adoption and understanding long-term benefits.

Support the creation of the infrastructure to allow for the processing and value-added products to needed to create a strong local food system.

Build the base of technical support needed to guide farmers in the transition to regenerative organic practices.

Create internships, apprenticeships, and educational opportunities to engage new and beginning farmers from all backgrounds, including age, race, experience, gender, and economic status.

Create literature accessible to consumers as to the value of support local food systems and regenerative organic practices.

Support partners in their work connecting consumers with food through access and nutrition education, including through farm-to-school.

Facilitating communication across partners to build on strength, momentum, skill, expertise, resources, and relationships needed to create the transformations needed to ensure safe, nutritious, and environmentally-responsible food for all people through our local agricultural and food systems.

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.

The Organic Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison works with a diverse set of partners and will serve as a leader to support a vibrant, just, and healthy food system throughout the state, becoming a model for the upper Midwestern U.S. We will use regenerative organic agriculture as the model upon which to build to realize this vision. As this vision is realized, we will see:

Young people will see farming as a valuable profession and seek this as a career option.

Rural communities and main streets will be revitalized.

Young families will move back into rural communities, strengthening related institutions such as schools, hospitals, and community groups.

Our food systems actors - farmers, value-added businesses, agricultural professionals - will reflect the ages, racial, and gender diversity of the state.

Indigenous food systems and sovereignty will be strong, with the values and practices integrated across our broader approaches.

The infrastructure will be created where farmers can sell their product in a way where it will be consumed locally.

Access to healthy and nutritious local food will increase in both rural and urban areas, improving the well-being of all our citizens while connecting them to how their food is produced.

Clean water and healthy soil will be maintained and improved.

Farming practices will support biodiversity, wildlife, and healthy ecosystems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The Organic Initiative at the UW-Madison involved a transdisciplinary group of faculty in partnership with farmers and other stakeholders, with the goal of increasing the number of acres farmed under regenerative agricultural practices and the associated food system that support our food producers, our food consumers, our rural and urban communities, and our environment.

Our agricultural and food systems in Wisconsin are facing major challenges. We continue to see negative results of our current model, including poor water quality, loss of soil, loss of biodiversity, inadequate food and nutrition, and profound inequities with respect to both food access and access to agriculture as a profession. We need major transformative changes involving multiple actors to create the change needed to achieve our vision over the next 30 years. Farmers are increasingly aware of the need to change, in response to our changing climate, shifts in regulation, and awareness of consumers of the impacts of their purchasing choices. To make these changes, we need to involve actors across the entire supply chain as well as the multiple nonprofit, industry, and agency specialists invested in our food system. UW-Madison, with its current partnerships with these actors, is well-positioned to facilitate the transdisciplinary/transinstitutional work needed to enact these transformations that are so desperately needed.  

Our full vision seeks to create a more equitable system of food production and food access, where farmers are empowered through knowledge and financial stability to produce food in a way that supports the family and the and. We see a system that supports a new, diverse group of farmers expanding our base of individuals producing our food, in a way that feeds communities in culturally-important ways. We see a system where all people have access to healthful nutritious food, the production of which adheres to their values for their land, communities, and health. We see a system that foster justice for farm and food service workers and welfare for animals. We see a system where consumers are empowered with information and choices to inform their purchasing behavior.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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1 comment

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Photo of Vicent ST

Hello !! What are some of the bold changes, you can make to transform the food system in your region?