The Kickapoo Country Fair, which runs next Saturday and Sunday, July 26-27, requires a 90-or-so-mile trip from Madison to La Farge. It's a marvelous drive. Highway 14 west through the rolling hills and valleys of the Driftless Area is one of the prettiest passages in Wisconsin. And the fair itself is a signature event of the Midwest alternative food movement.
It's the place to be if you're interested in organic food, sustainable agriculture, regional food sheds and just plain good eating. Sponsored by the fast-growing farmers co-op known as Organic Valley, the fair is both celebratory and educational.
Speakers include food philosopher-agitator Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), populist Jim Hightower and media analyst John Stauber of the Center for Media and Democracy. Cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey and Madison reggae masters Natty Nation will perform Saturday night. Polka, surf, zydeco and folk music can also be heard. Admission is only $5 a day.
Add in a series of workshops on seasonal eating (featuring chefs Ann Cooper and Michel Nischan), backyard composting, hybrid cars and eco-entrepreneurship, and you have an interesting day or two in the country.
Now in its fifth year, the fair is held on the grounds of Organic Valley's headquarters. The co-op picks up the tab as a public service. "We love the Kickapoo Valley," says co-op CEO George Siemon. "We're very thankful for the community helping us to be a success."
Succeed indeed. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Organic Valley is the nation's largest organic-farmer cooperative and expects sales to hit from $535 million to $545 million in 2008.
That this national powerhouse is headquartered in little old La Farge in Vernon County is part of Organic Valley's fairy-tale rise to prominence. But magic doesn't really explain its success.
More pertinent is that Vernon County reportedly has more organic farmers per capita than any other county in the United States. Of the 1,200 family farms that make up Organic Valley, 149 are based in Vernon County alone.
Siemon says Organic Valley and Lappe, who will give the keynote address on Sunday at 2 p.m., "go all the way back to our first year in business. She spoke to us and gave us great encouragement. So it's always very, very sweet to have Frankie come back and see where we've gone, as opposed to being the starry-eyed dreamers we were when she first addressed us."
Siemon's comment is telling. Organic Valley is very much a business today, and that causes some grief when the co-op's idealism collides with business realities. The flashpoint of late has been Organic Valley's travails in establishing an organic milk pool in Texas to sell dairy products under the Texas Pastures label.
The loss of several organic dairy farmers there prompted the co-op to purchase milk from a Texas industrial-style organic farm alleged to be milking more than 7,200 cows - anathema to many small dairy farmers who milk herds of 100 cows or less.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic watchdog group, has sharply criticized Organic Valley, contending it has betrayed its own principles.
Siemon acknowledges that the farm in question is much too large to be accepted as a co-op member. But he vigorously defends its efforts to practice sustainable agriculture. He also stresses that the milk purchases are temporary but necessary to protect the co-op's costly investment in the huge Texas consumer market.
Cornucopia's Mark Kastel is not assuaged: "That's like saying you're still beating your wife, but not very hard."
The dispute has been troublesome for all sides. Kastel is unhappy to be arguing with his old friend, just as Siemon is pained that the co-op had to take the steps it did. But sometimes such disagreements are unavoidable, even necessary. They become benchmarks for how a mission-driven co-op defines acceptable business practices.
In any case, amid all the celebrating at the Kickapoo Country Fair, there may also be some serious conversations about Texas milk.
For more info on the Kickapoo Country Fair, see the Guide at TheDailyPage.com or go to www.organicvalley.coop/kickapoo.