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The year is 2050. An 8-year-old girl helps prepare a snack for her third-grade class using the hybrid kohlrabi she saw sprouting in her school’s community garden. By age 18, she might work at the Madison Public Market or the neighborhood cooperative. If she’s entrepreneurial, she could later become an aquaponics farmer. By the time she’s 35, she might buy a few acres of what little Dane County farmland remains and convert the land to a natural growing system.
Many people in the Madison food scene hope to see this kind of trajectory start in a little more than 30 years from now. That 8-year-old could live in a food economy radically different from the ones known by generations before her.
For starters, a child in Madison in 2050 will understand that area farmers are growing their food, says Helen Sarakinos, executive director of REAP Food Group. “They’ll get that growers are a part of their community.”
Sarakinos is one of many leading thinkers who were asked to envision what the food economy will look like in 2050. She, along with a few farmers, chefs, researchers and city administrators, have passionate viewpoints about the Madison they see 33 years down the road. The common thread in these conversations is that Madison is positioned to become a local food hub if the community builds the necessary infrastructure. Part of that foundation is already in place.
Today, agriculture is a $500 million industry in Dane County, leading Wisconsin in total agriculture production and ranking in the top 2 percent nationwide. Food manufacturing and agricultural production in Dane County and the surrounding 14-county area provide 24,000 jobs.
Becoming a local food hub seems within reach—there are brilliant minds already at work discovering new systems and better practices. Look at how quickly the isthmus’s urban streets lead to 402,000 acres of rolling green farmland comprised of 2,749 farms, and consider our easy access to fresh vegetables and meat.
“Madison is in one of the most abundant and diverse and interesting agricultural regions on the planet,” says Dan Kennelly, city planner and point person for the proposed Madison Public Market.
But being a food hub is only the first step in becoming an influential source in the regional food economy, forward thinkers say. The Madison they envision is a local food mecca, which will require a culture shift in the local food mindset. It will take support from growers, policy makers and consumers who believe in the power of good food.
The movement toward this future is promising here, but Madison has a long way to go, according to Sarakinos and other key thinkers. So they were asked—what does Madison look like as a local food mecca in 2050?
Sarakinos wants kids in 2050 to be able to identify the taste of fresh food grown locally, because that’s what they’re being served in school—which is where some kids might be eating the only food they’ll eat all day. REAP Food Group has already started paving a path to delivering healthy, local foods to schools, and is also developing programming to teach students where their food comes from.
Currently this local nonprofit delivers fresh, local snacks to 12 schools within the Madison Metropolitan School District that qualify for a federal fresh snack program. The nonprofit now works with farmers once a week to get 800 to 1,000 pounds of food—be it carrots, spinach or strawberries—that is then processed by hourly laborers at FEED Kitchens on the north side before the fresh snacks are delivered.
“The beauty of the snack program is they get to taste that snack again and again and again. Sometimes it takes five years to develop those tastes,” Sarakinos says. Consider what 33 years of fresh food exposure could do to the palates of Madison’s future population.
Ellen Ritter is the chef at UW Health and like Sarakinos, she’s trying to figure out ways to get better local food into large-scale facilities. The hospital served 2.7 million meals in 2016 and is on track to serve 3 million this year, Ritter says.
Unlike many hospitals that are contract managed (for the food it serves in the cafeteria, to patients and to the staff), UW Health is self-operating, which gives Ritter the flexibility, she says, to do the right thing, the smart thing and the responsible thing. Ritter’s biggest change so far in the cafeteria has been to the salad bar. She brought in micro greens, baby spinach and other great local produce and got rid of high-caloric, unhealthier items. She raised the quality but simultaneously lowered the cost—40 percent less.
“It was a big change in the thought process in the hospital,” says Ritter. On the grill menu, a cheeseburger is the most expensive item, and the salmon burger and organic chicken breast are less expensive. “Food should be a benefit to the staff and visitors who come here,” she says. “It should be affordable, it should be great quality and it should be responsibly sourced.”
Supporting local farmers by buying their seasonal products means consumers can’t expect tomatoes on the salad bar every day in February, Ritter says. “That would directly impact what everybody’s plate looks like,” says Ritter, who thinks by 2050, 75 percent of the food on that plate should be locally grown and/or produced and seasonal.
“There just seems to be this energy and momentum across the country to be more responsible with our food system,” she says. In the tomato’s place in February would be cellared cabbage from a local farmer, or root vegetables—items that are easier and more sustainable for farmers to grow. “It can be done,” Ritter says. “But so much of it is marketing what you’re giving to your customers and educating them on why.” Our mindsets and diets need to shift with the seasons, she says.
The Madison Public Market has been more than 10 years in the making. The proposal to build a roughly $14 million year-round, indoor, multiuse space would integrate food retail vending, value-added food processing, wholesaling opportunities, educational programming and community uses.
The proposed 50,000-square-foot building would be located on First Street and East Washington Avenue in the city’s Capitol East District, with the intended purpose of being the first major step in creating an entire “food innovation corridor” on Madison’s north side.
“The public market’s intent is to be the epicenter of the local and regional food movement,” says Dan Kennelly, Madison’s office of business resources manager and the city’s project manager for the public market.
One important function of the public market is how it intends to act as a production facility. Having the capacity to bring local farmers’ vegetables or products into a central location to get them washed and cut to meet federal or state requirements is something that could lift some heavy barriers from sourcing locally, says Jonny Hunter, chef and co-founder of the Underground Food Collective.
But the public market might not be the only production facility space in southern Wisconsin. Nearly all the visionaries we talked to agreed there’s a need for many production facilities to serve local communities. People like Ritter at UW Health would surely benefit from the infrastructure. “Madison could be a national leader in local sourcing,” says Ritter.
“You’re sort of seeing the sun setting on this old model of mass production, and we’re kind of seeing the sun rising on a more entrepreneurial-focused, artisan-scale, local, ingredient-driven product,” says Kennelly. “In Madison, what I think we should be focusing on with this key sector of our economy is how do we transition from that 20th-century food economy to growing a 21st-century food economy?”
Ellen Ritter is trying to make the transition at UW Health by taking small steps—like sourcing aquaponically grown romaine lettuce from multiple producers within 70 miles of the hospital. It comes at the same price she would pay for lettuce sourced in the middle of winter from Arizona—but the North Freedom lettuce comes without the carbon footprint of getting it from Arizona, and it’s likely fresher. Introducing more fresh and local products turns “artisan” eating into regular eating.
Part of the Madison Public Market corridor plan is to expand its constellation of related food businesses, assets and infrastructure into the 100-year-old food processing facility scheduled to close this year. A large-scale food production facility has been identified as a need—it would help Ritter stock her cafeteria with foods grown in Wisconsin, it would make it easier to get fresh, local foods into schools and it would absolutely transform how we move and process local food in the Midwest. “If there was a user who could build that kind of project on that site, that would certainly be interesting,” Kennelly says.
Skilled labor is a linchpin in making this envisioned food economy work, as are resources for young businesses to get beyond the often three-year threshold of establishing themselves before turning a profit.
Food preparation and service jobs are the second-leading occupations projected to grow in raw numbers in Dane County in the next seven years. Yet some restaurants struggle to fill openings on their kitchen staff. FoodWorks Madison, a three-week kitchen training program, hopes to connect people with jobs by equipping them with basic food-prepping skills.
The pilot program graduated four students, who were all set up with local restaurant jobs. And helping startup businesses succeed is part of the public market plan. The Madison Public Market Foundation, headed by local business professional Mayra Medrano, will run the public market. The idea is to connect people with existing nonprofits and also provide resources through the MarketReady Program to assist individuals in starting or expanding their businesses.
“I think the public market can really sort of be a place that celebrates the diversity of the city and the diversity of its food cultures,” Kennelly says.
Once restaurants, institutions and citizens are able to more easily buy locally, producers can focus on making even better-quality food and products and spend less time figuring out how to get them to market, Hunter says.
“The barriers are all just coming down,” he says. Saving, cultivating and planting seeds is part of human history, and what the future holds is an ever-higher quality of food, all because the market and the infrastructure allow farmers to do what they do best, he says.
“What if we focused on making beets more accessible or finding out more what people like about beets?” says Hunter. It could mean that a beet in 2050 could taste a lot different than one does now.
“Let’s roll out the red carpet for co-ops here,” says Luke Zahm. “Let’s make this the national center and hub. Co-op business models and co-op farming models—that’ll change the landscape of the state as we know it.”
Zahm lives in the Vernon County city of Viroqua, which is home not only to his restaurant, Driftless Cafe, but also to a thriving co-op community. A cooperative business model, or co-op, relies on people united in a shared vision through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise that benefits its members. Viroqua, less than two hours west of Madison, has the highest concentration of organic farms anywhere in the U.S., with more than 220, including the headquarters of Organic Valley, a large-scale cooperative farm business.
“Co-ops are stable. You don’t see or read about co-ops failing,” Zahm says, “because the money stays in the organization. It goes back into the community, it goes back into the pockets of the farmers.”
“That’s something I see us taking care of 30 years down the line,” says Sarakinos. Food disparities and people who are food insecure touch every part of the world, Wisconsin included.
But Sarakinos sees the answer to addressing these issues through education about how to access local food and what to do with it, and the continued efforts of so many local programs that believe food is medicine. The city believes in this notion, too, as evident in the hiring of George Reistad as the food policy coordinator—the first position of its kind for the city.
Reistad focuses on food access issues and oversees programs that connect people to fresh food, including a fruit and veggie prescription program that provides vouchers to food-insecure households to redeem at Willy Street Cooperative. “This is really just a drop in the bucket in terms of what is actually needed,” Reistad says. “The scope of these issues really requires an alignment of federal, state and local support.” Current proposed budget cuts threaten to put food assistance and education programs, like SNAP and Farm to School, in a position of providing much lower levels of assistance and service.
“For every dollar of SNAP money spent at area farmers’ markets, the farmers actually take home $1.37 [through the Double Dollars program],” says Zahm. “That is humongous. The farmer is winning. The low income people who need access to that food are winning.”
That goes for institutions, restaurants and individuals. Today, roughly 40 percent of the food grown in America is wasted. That didn’t make sense to Chris Brockel, who founded Healthy Food for All to address large-scale excess of prepared food from cafeterias or events that need packaging before it can be redistributed as well as cleaning and aggregating fresh produce donations from farmers.
“The idea is to give low income families quality, healthy choices,” Brockel says. Based in Dane County, Healthy food for All works on a smaller scale compared to Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin and other crop gleaning services. Last year, his nonprofit collected, prepared and repackaged 87,000 pounds of food, and it’s on pace to meet its goal of 135,000 pounds this year.
“Food waste to me is a frontier of available food that’s right under our noses,” he says. In 2050, it might not be legal to waste as much food as we do today—a few states have implemented “organic waste bans,” leaving goverment agencies, nonprofits and food businesses scrambling to find solutions.
Whether or not that happens, Brockel is optimistic that future generations will at least be more mindful. “If you talk to young people, it’s amazing how they view food differently than what even I did when I was their age,” he says. “That kind of thoughtfulness at a young age is only going to grow as they get older, and it makes me feel good about the future of our food.”
What does urban farming look like in 2050? It looks like a swath of rooftop farms, successful aquaponics facilities and innovative methods yet to be discovered to grow food. Sarakinos says Robert Pierce, market manager of the South Madison Farmers’ Market, is a huge advocate of urban farming.
“Robert Pierce sees urban farming and developing that capacity as a route out of poverty,” Sarakinos says. “If we’re talking about truly making fresh food accessible, we’ve got to expand our horizons about what farms look like and what farmers look like.”
In 2050, farmers will come from all walks of life and educational backgrounds as the agriculture industry continues to grow. There will be more farmers like the Soil Sisters of Green County, who are reclaiming the political voice of farmers—female farmers, specifically. Consider also Shawn Kuhn and Tommy Stauffer, the co-founders of Vitruvian Farms.
In college, Stauffer had plans to work at a hedge fund and Kuhn was studying psychology and philosophy. But they both quickly realized they would rather commit themselves to something that held more meaning for them. “For me, agriculture was kind of a glaring answer because it affects a lot of the major things I was thinking about,” Kuhn says, “which included the environment, climate change, pollution and how it negatively affects us.”
The two co-founded the McFarland-based farm that now wholesales to 45 restaurants and grocery stores and focuses on sustainability (from farming practices to being able to sustain fair wages for employees) and permaculture, in which they plant many perennial crops that come back year to year and do not get broad-acre herbicide application, Kuhn says. Vitruvian Farms is arguably a household name in Madison’s food scene. “It kind of felt like farming in general was this shadow of something going on in the distance and not many people knew who their farmer was or how their food was grown,” says Stauffer. “I want to continue to encourage a system where farmers are part of the community.”
On a farm that produces mass amounts of milk or meat or grain to feed the community and the world, making even the smallest production change isn’t easy. Bob Uphoff started the Uphoff Ham and Bacon Farm in the 1970s with his father when conventional synthetic pesticide farming practices were the latest science.
According to The McFarland Thistle, the Uphoffs farm 850 acres of land from the town of Dunn to the village of McFarland and raise 100 percent certified Berkshire hogs. The large-scale farm has decades-old practices, but today, as The Thistle reports, Uphoff is combatting fertilizer runoff and practices “no-till” cultivation, which leaves vegetation on the land to return nutrients to the soil and captures runoff.
“It’s one thing to say you want to be an organic farmer, but if I’ve lived on a chem farm for 50 years, I can’t just say: ‘OK, the three-year window has elapsed, now my farm can be certified organic,’” Zahm says. That’s not how it works, he says.
Organic farming is a $35 billion industry and will continue to grow, Zahm says. Wisconsin has the second-highest number of organic farms in the nation, with 1,228 farms to California’s 2,805, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 organic survey.
“I’d love to see the organic community market keep growing the way it has, but not with the stigma that it’s only for an elite few,” says Zahm. He sees traditional corn and bean farms changing as people’s tastes change.
“Someday the commodity markets for those are going to fade as we enter a new era of American agriculture,” he says. And even if a farm isn’t certified organic, farmers will likely return to a more natural form of farming that combats soil loss.
Community Supported Agriculture, in which members receive box shares of in-season produce from a farm for a certain number of weeks, will surely take on different forms in the years leading up to 2050. Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins is a manager at Vermont Valley Community Farm, a CSA vegetable farm, with her husband Jesse and his parents, who started the farm in 1994. The CSA in Blue Mounds has one of the largest memberships in the state.
Perkins sees national meal services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh borrowing the CSA concept, but says there’s value in actually knowing your farmer, attending events and seeing directly where your food comes from. But the mindset needs to change on the cost of food, she says. “We have to remove the notion that organic is a novelty. We won’t be able to move forward until it becomes normalized. It can’t be luxury.”
Figuring out the best way to build a sustainable food future will depend, in part, on decades-long research. The Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial, or WICST, is a 28-year-old research project meant to help bridge the gap between past and future farming practices. This kind of long-term approach to seeking out sustainable methods needs to continue, says Dick Cates, associate director of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, or CIAS.
“These long-term studies are absolutely imperative,” he says. Cates has worked at CIAS for 23 years and has taught classes aimed at helping young farmers get started, with an emphasis on business planning.
Research also needs to be done in an effort to build food production facilities that help farms of all sizes sell their products, says Michelle Miller, associate director of programs at CIAS. “On campus, we’ve got a proposal into the National Science Foundation to work with a mathematician, an agricultural economist and a computer engineer to take their expertise to figure out how to optimize the system for both diversity and efficiency,” she says.
It takes 100 years to build an inch of soil. Cates teaches young farmers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison how to develop a business plan and get their farms started, and he says his students get it.
Lauren Rudersdorf and her husband Kyle understand the importance of combatting soil loss through farming, which is one of the reasons they decided to grow vegetables organically on her family’s land in Brodhead—a farm that’s been conventional for more than 50 years. They’re already seeing the couple of acres they rent from her parents improve after five years of farming.
“Our soil is going to improve in the next 20 years,” Rudersdorf says. Cates says this is part of his students’ reality. “That’s part of their spirit when they start farming,” he says. “They know that in order to be sustainable—that is, financially viable for the long term—they have to be environmentally conscious.”
Cates and his wife run Cates Family Farm in Spring Green, a grass-fed beef business that soon will be handed over to their son Eric and his wife, Kiley. For 30 years, Cates has watched an industry undergo change, but it’s likely that sustainable agriculture will be more drastic and commonplace as Madison builds an infrastructure to support it.
Maybe all of these crystal-ball ideas about Madison’s local food economy will become reality during Eric and Kiley’s lifetime, or in the lifetime of a child in 2050.
But nearly all of these key thinkers agreed on one thing. “I feel like we’re in a bubble,” Perkins says.
“Especially the people who love food and understand why it’s important and it tastes better to eat organic locally grown food. But I don’t think the way we feel about food is a good representation. I think we still have a lot of work to do and a lot of education and getting that to the right audiences.”
If that happens, Madison’s potential to be embraced as a food mecca might not be so far away.
Andrea Behling is managing editor of Madison Magazine.