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Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference 2005 Staff Reflections, Part II
by Jenny Ohlsen, Produce Manager
How does that saying go? April showers bring May flowers. Let’s revise that shall we? Let’s change that to April showers bring May local season in Wisconsin. Not quite as catchy but even saying the words local season out loud is beautiful poetry to these ears. I would like to congratulate all of our member-owners for their patience and flexibility during these past few months in the produce department. The great state of California has experienced some particularly unruly weather and entire crops of produce have been decimated due to rain. We have experienced a great many product out-of-stocks as well as fairly intense quality problems on many crops coming from California. While it was very easy to feel sorry for all of us here in Wisconsin having to suffer through the high prices, out-of-stocks and poor quality, I know that this hardship is felt most by the many California farmers working to grow our food. Due to this hardship I am reminded just how much we depend on produce from other parts of the United States to feed us during the winter months in Wisconsin. I am also reminded just how dear the Wisconsin local growing season is to our membership and myself. How lucky we truly are!
So, let’s take some time to talk local season just to get us in the mood. While it may seem that the local season is just beginning here in Wisconsin it has actually been under way for many months. Because we are blessed with so many wonderful local growers in Wisconsin, the local season needs a great deal of consideration and organization. Every year, I begin organizing the local season at the beginning of January in preparation for the following summer.
The process that we follow in the produce department has been a work-in-progress for many years. The days of buying fresh produce off of the back of the farmer’s pick-up truck are long gone. This image certainly has a down-home, warm and fuzzy feeling for me, but I am well aware of the complexity of this situation. In the produce department here at Willy Street Co-op we buy from as many as 25 local growers. This is a huge number. The reason we work with so many local growers is partly due to the fact that this is a primary goal of our produce department. We do our very best to buy local whenever we have the opportunity. Another reason for the larger number of growers is the amazing abundance of organic farms in Wisconsin. Recently I was given a directory of certified organic farmers listed by MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association). MOSA is the agency that diligently works to inspect and certify organic farms in the Midwest. The directory is fairly thick, and I took a moment to do a little state by state count of the certified organic farms. Here are the results:
South Dakota-1, Michigan-3, Iowa-22, Illinois-27, Minnesota-128, Wisconsin-478. WOW! 478 farms in Wisconsin are certified organic. We truly are blessed.
Like I said, the growing season begins way before we actually get the product on our shelves to sell to you. At the beginning of January, I call and schedule meeting times with a large percentage of our growers. I have about two or three meetings a day and each meeting lasts about one to two hours. During our meetings, each farmer receives growing guidelines for the upcoming year. I cover many aspects in this document such as ordering, deliveries, organic certification, pricing, quality, credit, invoices, produce forecasts, boxes, unavailable product and the specials program. While many of these topics are old hat to some of our growers, this document is an excellent guideline for new growers and a nice review for our more experienced growers. The growing guideline is a strong foundation that helps make the local season successful and as uncomplicated as possible.
The farmer and I sit down, discuss the guidelines and then we go down our produce list and discuss the items that they will be growing for us. More often than not, crops tend to go to the farmer that grew them the year before. The farmer and I spend some time on the topic of price. I am greatly appreciative of the discussion. This is where I feel we truly support our local growers, because we come to a decision together about crop price. I can suggest to a farmer a price that I consider too low or too high, but it is important to me that the farmer is happy about the price that we have agreed upon. I take notes throughout our meeting and make a copy for the farmer so we have some kind of record that documents our conversation. This is important because with so many local products that we buy and sell in the produce department during the local season, the potential for confusion is very high. Keeping notes of our meeting is a wonderful record that both the farmer and the produce department can reference to ensure that we are both being as accurate as possible.
Our grower guidelines have become even more comprehensive this past year with the inclusion of produce specials. You may remember last year during our growing season we offered some local produce specials. I included three farms in our specials program in 2004 just to make sure we could guarantee a success. The result was, without a doubt, a wonderful success. For the 2005 growing season, I have offered the specials program to all of our farmers. This is basically how it works: farmers have chosen crops that they grow well and abundantly and are going to sell them to us at a slightly reduced price, though they are not required to do so. We then in the produce department are going to sell them to our members at a very low margin. The result is gorgeous local products at gorgeous low prices. Keep an eye out for those red bi-weekly specials signs and the green monthly special signs. I just took a quick count of the specials that we have planned for this year—we have 15 monthly specials and 14 biweekly specials for our membership to enjoy!
During the early spring our farmers provide us with an abundant supply of seasonal favorites such as spinach, ramps, and watercress. It is also the season for a true favorite—the morel mushroom. The morel season is mostly certainly unique and short-lived here in Wisconsin. Unlike the rest of our local products, we don’t have grower guidelines or specials around the morel mushroom mostly because this mushroom is a little unpredictable. It’s not a crop that you can control and plant. This is a crop that is harvested only by those folks that love the morel and enjoy tromping around in field, searching high and low without any fear of ticks. The morel mushroom hunter is steadfast, true and has a strong back!
I took a moment to talk to one of our long time morel mushroom hunters to find out a little bit more about the process of hunting this old favorite. Wayne Ewers has been hunting the morel for 40 years. His first morel-hunting trip was when he was four, and his older brothers took him in order to get him out of the house as he was in a bit of hot water with his mom. His other earliest memory was morel hunting with his mom at age five. Since then, hunting the elusive morel has become a lifelong passion. Wayne started selling morels at age nine for $1.00 a pound to stores and for 75¢ a pound to the women in the nursing home. This was in 1969, and, as you all know, the days of the dollar-a-pound morel are long gone.
Morel hunting has become very popular due to the increased demand and high price. Wayne has discovered that he now has to share his “secret locations” with other morel enthusiasts. The “secret location” isn’t as big of a secret as it used to be, but Wayne remains upbeat and seems willing to share the bounty. I’m also not entirely sure that most folks have the stamina to tromp around five-to-seven miles a day, up and down hills like our old pro Wayne.
Let the morel feasting begin, everyone! We should expect to see morel mushrooms from Wayne and a few other loyal morel hunters on our produce aisle in mid-May. The weather needs to be warm for two-to-three weeks, add in the proper amount of moisture and the result is perfect morel weather. So how does a lifelong morel hunter eat this delicacy? Wayne likes simplicity best; roll the morels in a little bit of flour and stir fry in a little butter or olive oil. Tasty treat!
Let’s bring in the month of May with a wonderful local produce special. Yep, it’s the first local produce special and a great one to boot. Harmony Valley will be providing us with the first of the local bulk spinach. We will be selling it to our membership for $5.99/lb for the whole month of May.