On a tranquil Saturday night this summer, 150 people -- some from as far away as Florida -- trekked nearly one mile up a country lane that passed by prairie grass and pasture, auburn cows and their pies. The purpose was dinner at the top of a hill that overlooked gentle valleys and a marshy pond, to which sandhill cranes flew as though on cue.
This was no picnic. It was a five-course meal with matching wines, served on linens, prepared onsite by chef Tory Miller and his L'Etoile restaurant staff. By the time sweet corn ice cream arrived for dessert, the fiery sun had set and candlelight boosted the beams of a full moon.
A decade ago, such an event probably wouldn't have taken place at all - much less drawn a sellout crowd willing to pay $180 per meal and travel to Fall River's Fountain Prairie Farm and Inn, just north of Columbus. Outstanding in the Field - the California-based company that arranged this and similar events around the nation - didn't begin business until 1999 and didn't do business in Wisconsin until this year. So the dinner is one of the more recent indications that the state's small-scale ag producers are getting attention and respect nationally.
Lovers of good food that is grown close to home and with respect for the earth have seen much change in 10 years, particularly in and near Madison. And that has much to do with the establishment of Madison's REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) Food Group, a ground-breaking organization that has mixed good eating with food politics. The group's 10th annual Food for Thought Festival takes place this Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19 and 20.
The anniversary is an occasion to look back at REAP itself. How has the group changed, and changed the way the Madison area looks at food? What comes next?
In the beginning
REAP began as the spin-off of a loose coalition of food groups whose church basement meetings made room for all voices - from food researchers and farmers to legislators and the Farm Bureau. It was a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant that brought them together, but a subset craved action as well as talk.
Jack Kloppenburg, a UW rural sociology professor, was among the first REAP organizers. Food for Thought, the group's first event, was a way to celebrate local food, make the average person aware of it "and get the food community together, to see who your allies were," he says. The group has brought top names to the fest, including Frances Moore Lappe, Rick Bayless, Alice Waters, Mollie Katzen, Eliot Coleman and Gary Nabhan.
At the beginning, "we felt very much alone, like oddballs," recalls Madison food author and activist Terese Allen, a REAP board member. "Now it's like we're a part of this growing momentum that is larger than us."
Over the last ten years, "The focus has shifted from 'why would you care at all'" about where your food comes from, says REAP executive director Miriam Grunes, "to 'what do we need to build, where do we start?'" Grunes, who has been with REAP since 2003, worked out of her home until the organization opened its first office at 306 E. Wilson St. this summer.
The "buy local" movement, one of REAP's signature issues, is not about rigidity, proponents insist. Says Grunes: "If you feel like having a pineapple today and Woodman's has one for $2.99, go for it."
"Buying local food doesn't mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world," Kloppenburg says. "It means taking responsibility for where you are, understanding where you are and supporting sustainability.
Consider the "100-mile diet" more of a lifestyle concept than a commandment. And as Grunes notes, "Eating local versus organic is not really the issue. There is a lot of food that isn't REAP-ish, yet it is produced within 100 miles of us."
Much of what REAP is doing is centered on educating consumers, especially the next generation. Grunes is a longtime vegetarian and gardener whose concern about where food comes from was heightened as her children grew. "Kids can identify many corporate logos but don't know the names of three kinds of apples, or that carrots are pulled out of the ground."
She makes comparisons to fuel usage and renewable energy. "Policy leadership is crucial," she says. "We can't keep doing things the same old way and expect different results."
The real food for thought is about "how we feed ourselves in a way that is equitable and just," Grunes says. Her nonprofit, operating on about $300,000 this year, likely will begin soliciting memberships in 2009. Until now, donations, grants and fees for services have paid the bills. "Now we need to get people to look at REAP values as their personal values. This is a cause. It's not just a lifestyle choice. It's a movement that needs money."
Not just pie in the sky
Consider some of REAP's accomplishments over the past decade:
- REAP teaches kids where their food comes from, through Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a program that also tries to get Wisconsin-grown food on school cafeteria menus.
- REAP tempts hungry masses with events like Pie Palooza (locally baked pies, often made with local ingredients, sell by the slice), Burgers and Brew (a showcase for local beers and burgers of local meat, prepared by local chefs) and Local Night Out (a promotion to encourage dining at independently owned restaurants). Each event is designed to remind the average person that truly fresh food tastes little like the products from the fast lane of a drive-through.
- The annual Farm Fresh Atlas, another REAP project, makes it easy for consumers to see who grows what, and where ag products are sold in this part of Wisconsin.
- Madison's Capitol Square hosts the nation's biggest farmers' market of goods produced locally, and REAP consistently has encouraged consumer patronage of it.
Ultimately, REAP tries to bring together the disparate entities in the "buy local" movement - food cooperatives and community supported agriculture (CSA) farms and shareholders, academics and grassroots activists, restaurant chefs and politicians, grocers who stock local products and community gardeners - under its core mission to "nourish the links between land and table."
Since REAP's establishment, interest in CSA shares has surged, from 15 farms serving 1,000 households in 1999 to 34 farms and 15,000 households in 2008, says the Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC).
Barb Perkins of Vermont Valley Community Farm, Blue Mounds, acknowledges that REAP, along with MACSAC, has been "another huge, important force" that strengthened momentum for the sale of CSA shares.
Perkins and husband David tilled just 2 acres of veggies when their CSA work began in the 1990s. Ten years ago, they were selling 350 CSA shares per year. Today it's 1,200 shares splitting the harvest from 26 acres.
The willingness of Physicians Plus, then other HMOs, to provide rebates to CSA subscribers spurred sales of CSA shares most recently. "We started turning [prospective customers] away several years ago, as have most other CSAs," Perkins says.
AmeriCorps workers are being hired to enlarge the farm-to-school work of Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, a project of REAP and the UW's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. The program is now expanding in Madison and moving into Evansville, Mt. Horeb, Middleton and Monona Grove.
Other connections with youth are sprouting nearby. Ben Hunter of Underground Catering is developing a multi-pronged culinary arts program for at-risk teens through the Goodman Community Center. Students improve their diets while learning where healthful foods come from. They also gain job readiness and cooking skills when preparing food for the preschoolers to senior citizens enrolled in the center's programs.
"I'm concerned about making local food available to lower incomes," Hunter says. "I want to make sure this isn't a luxury item."
Six to eight East High School students at a time work with him on weekdays. Becky Steinhoff, the Goodman center's executive director, wants to expand the program into a breakfast-lunch café that should open in October, but that would mean raising at least $100,000 to cover program start-up costs.
Madison area restaurants have increased by 30% annually their purchases of locally grown food, spending at least $500,000 on these products this year.
"It's safe to say that's 10 times what would have been spent 10 years ago," says Rachel Armstrong, whose work is to nudge restaurateurs to do more, through REAP's "Buy Fresh Buy Local" program, established in 2007. So far, her work involves 25 local restaurants, each of which came to her for advice, instead of being recruited. And becoming involved in the program is now a marketing tool for the restaurants, as well.
The newest participant in Buy Fresh Buy Local is UW Provision Co. (UWP) of Middleton, which delivers meats, cheeses and other food throughout Wisconsin and other Midwest states.
"They recognize a growing demand for local food," Armstrong says. The 50-year-old wholesale distributor is building a local product line for existing customers, which include hospitals, school districts, grocery stores and restaurants. This work begins with the Madison area.
Bob Green, dairy buyer for UWP, says the company also has begun taking over product delivery and billing for businesses such as Sugar River Dairy of Albany, which gives farmers Ron and Chris Paris more time to produce their line of small-batch yogurts.
Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats which processes an all-local and organic assortment of meats, artisan sausages and cheeses also has been working with UWP.
"A lot of people are ready to grow," Durand notes, "but no one has been between the producer and customer, so you have 150 farmers running around to many of the same places. Having been the guy who does the running around, I know it's time-consuming and expensive."
The efficiency of the distribution and accounts receivable systems that UWP already has in place means Durand will pay less to the distributor than what it would cost to make deliveries and secure payments on his own. Durand, who also operates Otter Creek Organic Farm, says he's prepared to provide UWP with up to 10,000 pounds of certified organic hamburger per week from his and other farms.
Does demand reach this level? Not yet, says UWP's Green, because the organic label tends to double or triple the price of "the standard product."
Durand explains how higher pricing results when farm practices are deliberately small in scale and lacking artificial methods to hike yields or accelerate animal maturity. But product demand will grow, Durand predicts, as consumers learn to value the differences in taste and healthfulness.
An idea that Miriam Grunes endorses is farmer-restaurant product contracts, so the farmer has a guarantee that he'll have customers before investing in more livestock or acreage. "I think the farmers we have now could provide a lot more if restaurants and schools" would buy in to that plan.
For instance: A short-notice request from a restaurant for 50 pounds of organic tenderloin is unrealistic, since it takes more than a dozen animals to net that amount of tenderloin. A better scenario would be to sell three head of cattle and three hogs per month to certain supermarkets in Madison and Milwaukee. "They know what they're doing - if they're not moving meat as roasts, they can grind it into hamburger," says Durand. He began a partnership that works like this with Metcalfe's Sentry a year ago.
Durand says these relationships are far from novel and are more like the old-school relationship between butchers and farmers: "The butcher would call a farmer and ask if he was ready to bring in a steer."
What's on the menu?
Challenges remain. And "buy local" proponents have different ideas about what should happen next.
Michael Ableman, author of several books including Fields of Plenty, is keynote speaker for this year's Food for Thought Festival. He agrees that these relationships look back to an earlier time. "It's quite remarkable to see how the ideas of years ago have become so much a part of the public lexicon. For so long, this was such a fractional movement."
The biggest challenges to the local food movement, from his seat: Society doesn't understand or value the work of farming. People who want to farm don't know how to work.
"We can have a conversation about local food, but who is going to do the work" as product demand grows? Less than 1.5% of the U.S. population farms, Ableman notes.
He looks back to his own childhood, when schools reinforced, through classes like home economics and woodworking, that "there was some level of honor and respect to jobs that involve using your hands." Ableman thinks younger people again have to be taught that attitude, before they'll respect agricultural work and consider this as a livelihood for themselves.
He's impressed by efforts of the Organic Valley cooperative of family farms "to bring the faces of farmers into public consciousness" during advertising and marketing campaigns. But Ableman also realizes "through this whole movement, the beneficiaries have been those who can afford" the fruits of politically correct harvests.
Another challenge to our ability to eat local is that others appear eager to lure the fruits of Wisconsin farmers away. The city of Chicago is among those trying to entice ag producers across state lines, into the 24 neighborhood Chicago Farmers' Markets.
On the other hand, other parts of Wisconsin see the number of producers that gravitate to Madison. "Your farmers' market is obviously the driving force for restaurants" to incorporate local products onto menus, says Scott Shully, a longtime caterer from Thiensville, outside of Milwaukee. "A lot more people are starting to grow products just for chefs."
Chef Monique Jamet-Hooker, who moved to southwest Wisconsin from Chicago eight years ago, thinks Madison's buy local efforts are "still in the 'bud' stage," but ready to blossom. "We're going to see grocery stores display locally grown produce," she predicts, and consumers should demand the stocking of such products.
One of the best things that could happen, she believes, is for small farmers/producers to get the same level of government assistance that's available to larger and industrialized farms.
Unlikely? So was five-course dining in a farm field 10 years ago.
1997 First public meetings to discuss food issues in Madison. Funded through W.K. Kellogg Foundation. REAP established as one result.
1999 First Food for Thought Festival
2000 First Food for Thought Recipe Contest
2002 First Farm Fresh Atlas in Wisconsin (now five are produced annually, throughout the state).
Launching of Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch as pilot project at Shorewood, Chavez and Lincoln elementary schools.
2003 REAP registers as a nonprofit.
REAP hires first paid employee, executive director Miriam Grunes.
2007 Buy Fresh Buy Local program begins, helps restaurants find ways to use local products.
2008 REAP opens its first office, at 306 E. Wilson St.
Chew on this!
2008 Food for Thought Festival Sept. 19-20
Friday, Sept. 19 Forum
Discussion about local food, moderated by Kenneth Burns of Isthmus
7:30 p.m. Friday, Rm. 125 of UW Agricultural Hall, 1450 Linden Dr.
Featured speakers are:
- Michael Ableman, British Columbia, farmer, educator, author and photographer. Among his books are From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World (1993), On Good Land: The Autobiography of an Urban Farm (1998) and Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It (2005).
- Chef David Swanson of Milwaukee, whose Braise on the Go Traveling Culinary School presents cooking classes and meals that showcase food from the farms, orchards and creameries where Swanson's events are held. (He fills in for Monique Jamet-Hooker, who cannot appear due to illness.)
- Kay Jensen of JenEhr Family Farm, 110 acres near Sun Prairie that produces organic fruits, vegetables and poultry.
Saturday, Sept. 20
8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Michael Ableman will speak and Chef David Swanson will hold a cooking demo, plus 60-plus vendors feature local food and more (compared to 35 booths at the first gathering, when food author Deborah Madison was the keynote speaker).
Isthmus will be at Food for Thought Fest with samples of David Bacco chocolates and a chance to win tickets for two to the Farmers' Market Dinner at Fresco.
More info: www.reapfoodgroup.org,