I can’t speak for anyone else, but I for one am not a fan of Wisconsin winter. The bleak, cold, grey days seem to drag by, and though the daylight is increasing, it still seems as if spring and summer are nothing but a figment of the imagination.
That’s one reason why I love our winter farmer meetings so much. Every January and early February, we meet with our produce farmers to plan for the coming year, rehash the season that’s behind us, and reconnect with the folks who grow our beautiful produce. There’s nothing better to think about on a cold winter day than the delicious flavors and aromas of the local produce that will grace our shelves come summer.
During these meetings, we talk about what went well: “Remember that super-tasty variety of melon you grew last year?” “Can you grow triple that amount next year?” …. and what didn’t go so well: “That cold spell in the middle of August sure did screw up the tomatoes’ ripening.” We ask the farmers what they plan on growing again, or not growing again, if they are going to deliver to us on the same days, and what sort of pricing works for everyone.
As we wrap up our planning process and gear up for the season ahead, here are a few highlights to look forward to in 2016.
- Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen. Innovation Kitchen is a commercial kitchen co-packing facility in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, whose owners have a strong interest in sourcing local produce and “stabilizing” it for winter use.
In 2015, we dipped our toe in the water by sourcing a total of 7,657 pounds of fresh local produce that was processed at Innovation and preserved for winter eating. A good chunk of that produce went into our Thanksgiving pies and other prepared foods dishes, and the rest went into jars of organically grown diced and crushed tomatoes and bags of organically grown frozen butternut squash cubes and broccoli florets for sale in our retails. Though 7,657 pounds sounds like a lot, we anticipate being sold out of all of this produce by the end of March.
Given the success of this program, we are planning on going big for 2016. During our winter farmer meetings, we mentioned this new opportunity to each grower, and many of them expressed interest in growing for this program. For our farmers, this represents a whole new world of possibility for marketing their produce. At this point, we don’t have any guarantees, but there’s a very good chance you’ll see more tomatoes, broccoli, and squash next year, as well as frozen rhubarb, frozen kale, and maybe even some Wisconsin-grown cucumber pickles!
- Prepared Foods. This year, for the first time, we included our prepared foods team in our winter farmer meetings in a really meaningful way, and we’ve developed new systems to ensure the prepared foods departments have access to the same array of fresh local produce that you’ll find in our produce departments. This may seem like an easy thing to do, but given the ever changing availability of local produce and the tight time schedules that our cooks work within, it’s been challenging to use as much local produce as we’d like to. By including prepared foods folks in our winter farmer meetings, we’re hopeful that thisyear we’ll break some new local ground for our delis, and I for one can’t wait to taste the results!
- Door County Fruit. You probably remember those Door County peaches, cherries, and strawberries that appear on our shelves every summer? Those come from Dan Barnard of Healthy Ridge Farm in Sturgeon Bay. Dan was the recipient of a Willy Street Co-op Vendor Loan in 2014, and he used that loan to purchase organic fruit tree saplings and also improve his irrigation system.
At his meeting in January he reported that the last two winters had been hard on his saplings and he’s lost a few, but overall things are looking good. Though we won’t see any organic peaches or apples from those trees for two years or so, they’re still growing! In the meantime, Dan plans continues to supply us with organic strawberries and non-organic peaches, apples, and cherries from his family orchard.
- Keewaydin Farms. Rufus Haucke from Keewaydin Farms was another of our 2014 Vendor Loan recipients. Rufus used his loan to build an on-farm distribution center (he used to have to drive hours each day to his Viroqua-based distribution center), and also to construct hoophouses for season extension. Though we didn’t see a whole lot of early spring or late fall crops from Keewaydin in 2015, Rufus reported that he is planning to grow bunched beets, bunched carrots, and spinach in the hoophouse this coming spring, and possibly some cooking greens in the fall months. We can’t wait!
- No More Tipi Produce Lettuce. Many of us have come to anticipate the arrival of Tipi Produce organic lettuce as a sign that summer has really begun—it’s a Willy Street Co-op tradition! This year, Steve Pincus brought us the news that his farm will no longer be growing lettuce. The timing of the lettuce crop has proved to be too much with everything else going on at that time of year (early June), and Steve wants to focus on later crops (like his delicious carrots). We were disappointed to be sure, but we asked another of our farms, Crossroads Community Farms if they were interested in growing this crop for us,and lucky for us they said yes!
New (to us) Farms
Every year, we try to bring a few new farms to the table. Usually, we start out with just a small amount of produce from these farms to test the relationship, and then grow with them in future years. This year, we hope to work with the following new (to us) farmers.
- Little Heathens Farm. We’ve searched high and low for a good source of quality local organic asparagus that we could sell at an affordable price. We’ve think we’ve found it! Little Heathens Farm is an asparagus farm owned by Molly and David Waisman in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. They are planning to supply both of our retails in the coming year. Look for their asparagus on our shelves as soon as April!
- King’s Hill Farm. Elisabeth Minich and Steven Shoemaker run this vegetable CSA and market farm in Mineral Point. We did a small amount of business with them in 2015, and given the stellar quality and flavor of their product, we’re hoping for more in 2016.
- Peacefully Organic Produce and CSA. You may have passed by this farm, on Highway M, just north of Lake Mendota. Peacefully Organic is the only veteran-led CSA farm in Dane County. Their aim is “to provide a peaceful place for Veterans to return home, learn about organic agriculture, and build a stronger community of support based around our food supply.” Look for their produce on our shelves this year!