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Eating Local Year Round

Wisconsin Growing Season
It begins in starts and fits, teasing you with the promise of magnificent fresh bounties to come. First the careful decision-making days in March—poring over CSA offerings and seed catalogs. Before you know it, April turns into May and you are continually checking for morels and ramps in the produce coolers and waiting impatiently for bouquets of asparagus in green and purple. With each week another seasonal favorite becomes available, every weekend brings another farmers’ market full of options for onionvarieties, fresh spinach, and starts for the garden. It isn’t long before the grocery aisles are popping with berries, paving the way for fruits to come;  the sweet summer flavors of chin-dripping peaches followed by the crisp apples of autumn. As the spaghetti squashes of September linger in baskets, awaiting the pumpkin harvests of October, another growing season approaches its end. These are the days of local eating in Wisconsin, when freshness is at its peak and the flavors of your produce connect you with time and place.

Eating locally is about more than enjoying superior taste and quality; it also allows the dollars you spend on food to stay within the local economy instead of making their way into the pockets of large distributors and anonymous producers who are far removed from the meal you will ultimately be consuming. Eating local also means greater access to farmers. By purchasing a membership in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, frequenting your neighborhood farmers’ market or choosing to buy local varieties from the Willy Street Co-op, you can get to know who the farmer is, where their farm is located, and what values are important to them in growing the food you enjoy. In some instances you are likely to have met the farmer who grew your dinner!

Challenges of Eating Local
While eating local and choosingto buy from local growers means higher-quality meals on your dinner table, what is in your refrigerator is often limited by constraints of time, weather, availability and infrastructure. Probably the most obvious of these constraints is the Wisconsin climate. In general, freezing temperatures can typically occur until the final days of April or even as late as June in certain parts of the state, while the first frosts have begun to appear by October. With only the hardiest varieties bolding the destructive chills of spring and autumn, our state is quite limited in the selection its harvest provides during all but a few months of the year. As autumn arrives with the culmination of CSAs and farmers’ markets, the availability of locally sourced produce dwindles to that which farmers are able to store through the colder months. While the cooler temps generate root vegetables containing the sugar and sweetness that fruit lovers have been missing, Wisconsin berries are absent save for those preserved as jams and jellies or carefully tucked away in the corner of a freezer.

As local options disappear into the long nights of a Wisconsin winter, shoppers must make do with whatever ice-packed vegetables can be shipped in from California and Mexico or else settle for canned or frozen fare. When local heirloom tomatoes with their bursting juices and rainbow of colors and varieties no longer complement a summer salad, a committed locavore can’t help but be dismayed, pining for the days when their favorite farmer could offer the options they know and trust. While warmer months present an opportunity for the freshest local produce around, the scarcity in variety and options available outside of the local growing season is not exclusively tied to climate limitations.

Local Food Infrastructure
Access to food supplies is not exclusively dependent on the ability to grow food in the place where it will be eaten. In warm, temperate climates such as California where fruits and vegetables can be grown year-round, producers can supply to local consumers or to large manufacturers and distributors who will supply their product to consumers here in the Midwest. Processing produce into a form where it can be consumed months after it is harvested requires sufficient infrastructure and facilities. Although the copious local farms and CSAs in and around Dane County permit consumers to enjoy local produce during the growing season, the lack of systems and processing facilities to freeze or can these fruits and vegetables means that non-local is the unrivaled option for purchase once the growing season ends.“In the summer, many people have a CSA or go to the farmers’ market,” says Megan Minnick, Director of Purchasing at Willy Street Co-op, regarding the seasonality of local products. “In the winter people are forced to either buy a sub-par tomato from Mexico or buy canned tomatoes or can their own.”

The lack of sufficient infrastructure needed to preserve products from small local suppliers not only impacts those seeking to eat foods less traveled, but those working to provide them as well. Without some way to store or process perishables soon after harvest, small farmers will be forced to dispose of produce they cannot immediately sell. In other words, food that might have otherwise made its way to a nearby kitchen would go to waste. While Willy Street Co-op has long worked with farmers to provide local, healthy and delicious produce to its Owners, it has been unable to provide the facilities necessary to process fresh, perishable produce into a form that can be stored in the freezer or pantry in sufficient quality that it can be sold to Owners. That is, until it had the opportunity to partner with an organization equally dedicated to eating local.    

Innovation Kitchens
Rick Terrien, CEO and founder of Innovation Kitchens describes the mission of the organization as focused on the creation of new revenue and newjobs while supporting local food in the region. Innovation Kitchens prides itself on offering services to lightly process local and regional foods into frozen or shelf-stable forms as well as services in packing and recipe processing. What sets Innovation apart is their size, working as a co-packer and contractor for small batch artisan food products. “We are very unique in allowing production at this size, larger than what could be accommodated by kitchen rental space such as FEED Kitchens,” says Rick Terrien about the operational capacity of the organization. Innovation Kitchens has had several successful partnerships with local food businesses, including RP’s Pasta, Bill’s Aronia Farm, and Om Boys Food Movement, enabling consumers to buy a wide range of locally processed products from pasta to preserves and pastries.

Wisconsin Innovation Kitchens is owned by Hodan Community Services, a non-profit corporation committed to providing and promoting opportunities for work and personal development so that persons with disabilities can achieve individual life goals. In addition to serving the mission of supporting the community and providing opportunities for disabled employees, Innovation Kitchens is also committed to supporting the local economy and its food systems. When speaking of the gaps in infrastructure that prevent local foods from being fully consumed, Rick Terrien noted that one-third of the crop in the United States is wasted because there are not sufficient processing facilities to make use of it. “It’s a piece of the market that is not being well-served; there are no contractor manufacturers for local foods around this region; small batch processing is a choke point across the United States.” Working to support the local and regional food system, Innovation Kitchens works to source the products they manufacture from within 250 miles, sometimes even as close by as “down the street.” This commitment to filling the gap for a small-food processor and supporting local and regional food systems made Innovation Kitchens an ideal partner for Willy Street Co-op and the local farmers with whom we work.

Innovation Kitchens and Willy Street
When Innovation Kitchens approached Megan Minnick about preserving produce from local farmers two years ago, Megan saw a chance to put more of the produce grown on local farms into customer hands. “What was attractive was being able to work with our farmers to get their products preserved,” says Megan of the opportunities working with a small batch contractor provides. “It essentially opens up a whole new market for our farmers.” Megan explains how finding a way to sell local produce that has been preserved can be a great opportunity for small local producers: “Dane County is becoming extremely saturated with vegetable production in the summertime between CSAs and farmers’ markets.” This abundance of local produce during the summer can mean difficulties in selling fresh product to customers. “I get approached by new farmers in the summer” says Megan, lamenting that the demand for local product during summer months won’t keep up with supply, “but if I can sell your tomatoes in the winter, it’s a whole different ball game.” This makes preserving product with Innovation Kitchens an incredible opportunity because it means offering a local alternative to the canned or frozen products that larger, non-regional producer/manufacturers can provide. “It’s that possibility of really expanding our year-round production, because we sell a lot of [California] tomatoes in the winter, actually more than we sell [local] tomatoes in the summer.”

Capturing that summer tomato flavor in the form of jarred organically grown Roma tomatoes, diced and prepared at Innovation Kitchens, is just one of the wonders that Willy Street Co-op has been able to provide to Owners through this partnership. “We have always wanted to offer local produce in new applications whether it be through prepared foods or in the freezer aisle,” says Patrick Schroeder, Director of Prepared Foods at Willy Street Co-op. Through contracting processing work to Innovation Kitchens, Willy Street Co-op can realize the dream of offering local produce year-round. In addition to the frozen cubed butternut squash and broccoli florets, which Willy Street Co-op can offer thanks to the work of Innovation Kitchens, their processing also creates opportunities for the Co-op to increase production of local seasonal favorites such as pastries and pies. Patrick Schroeder describes his experience with how Innovation Kitchen’s product processing provided a benefit to the Co-op’s prepared foods departments: “We used their cubed frozen butternut in the Production Kitchen. When the cooks realized how good it was and that they didn’t have to cut butternut squash—that was one of my favorite moments to see how happy they were!”

New Traditions
It isn’t just Willy Street Co-op and its Owners who realize benefits from partnering with Innovation Kitchens. Farmers also have the chance to participate in a new market for local produce. Robert Schulz and his family operate New Traditions Farmstead in Hillsboro, Wisconsin, a farm with a mission to create and honor family traditions and experiences that connect to the rhythms of the seasons and natural world. When Innovation Kitchens and Willy Street Co-op began to discuss collaboration in providing local produce, New Traditions was willing to get on board: “At the start of the 2015 growing season, Megan Minnick reached out to all of the local Willy Street growers to let us know of the possibility of a processing market for some of our crops,” says Robert of his initial involvement in the project. “Because I truly cherish my relationship with Willy Street, I immediately replied to Megan saying that I’d be interested in getting involved. Some of the products on the list were butternut squash and pie pumpkins, and I had them planted in the field, so when it was getting close to harvest, I let Megan know, and she hooked me up with the folks at Innovation.”

By sourcing produce from New Traditions, Willy Street Co-op has been able to increase their offerings of seasonal favorites such as pumpkin pies made from locally grown ingredients. Other farms have been able to utilize the preserving and packaging work of Innovation Kitchens in order to divert perishable produce from a potential loss into an alternative market: “When Crossroads had a big glut of tomatoes that was unplanned, they shipped 500 pounds to Innovation,” says Megan of another local produce supplier, “Those are crops which have to be harvested and if the farmers can’t, they have to till it over or waste it somehow.”

Working with local farmers to create frozen or shelf-stable product offerings allows Willy Street Co-op another way to support local agriculture and make certain that the local food system continues. Such an endeavor requires commitment and investment from all parties involved. “Figuring out packaging was a big endeavor,” Megan Minnick explains, in reference to the work Willy Street Co-op has done to make the ideas Innovation Kitchens brought forth into reality. “It was a huge learning experience all the way around.” Innovation Kitchens has also shown their commitment to growing the capacity of the local food infrastructure through offering freezer and storage space, and investing in more equipment allowing them to expand their production capabilities to new products such as local applesauce. This commitment to local also can provide assurance that money spent on products like strawberry bars and pumpkin pies made from produce processed at Innovation stays in the community. “When we do business with Innovation [Kitchens], it is very transparent where your money is going. These are the people who are doing the processing, this is where it is located. You don’t usually get to know the costs that a processor will have,” Patrick Schroeder describes how the transparency and openness of the organization benefits the consumer, “This allows us to know where we can make improvements into the supply chain in order to continue to bring the price down.” A clear understanding of the costs associated also means that Willy Street can continue to ensure that farmers get paid a fair price that makes it worth their time and effort.

“This is really what’s going to make future generations want to stick around and grow local vegetables,” predicts Patrick Schroeder, “I think that is the real benefit to Willy Street because if we really work to create this local produce infrastructure, more people can grow local produce.” The commitment to building the local economy exemplified by entrepreneurial operations such as Innovation Kitchens helps make this future possible. The food processing infrastructure they provide creates opportunities for small local farmers that are usually only available to larger industrial entities. As national food supply chains become less and less viable and sustainable, investing in local food infrastructure will only become more important, especially as the production capacities of regions like California and Mexico decline in the face of drought or other climate impacts.

For consumers concerned with how future harvests from producers outside their region could bring a smaller assortment of fresh vegetables and fruits during winter months compared to the cornucopia of years past, a shift towards locally grown and processed products could serve as deliverance. Although the local product offerings such as the frozen or pantry produce that Willy Street Co-op currently offers may be limited, with continued time and investment local produce could be increasingly available all year round. “The ability to get local produce all year round is a great benefit to the consumer,” says Patrick of these consistent local offerings. “There is clearly a demand but there is nothing there filling it right now.” Looking forward, we can only hope that partnerships between Innovation Kitchens, Willy Street Co-op, New Traditions Farmstead and other local suppliers serve not only as a unique business model, but also as pioneers paving the way to stronger, more versatile local food infrastructure and the greater accessibility of truly local food.

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