Small farms have a Big impact: Local food a high priority for consumers, retailers


Looking over a 50-head grazing operation in Marathon County are Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection staffer Donna Gilson; Bill Kolodziej of the Marathon County Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department and farmer Jennifer Kauffman

Big or small farm?  Store shelf or CSA box?  Whatever route, Wisconsin consumers have the best of all food worlds.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Wisconsin had 32,193 farms that harvested fewer than 100 acres of cropland in 2012, said Bill Brancel, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“Wisconsin needs farms of every size and type to be economically strong. The marketplace is very diverse, with no end to the products our customers are looking to buy. Farmers with smaller-scale operations have a unique ability to meet their local market,” Brancel said. “Whether they market direct off the farm, at a roadside stand, through community-supported agriculture (CSA) or at a farmers market, these farmers can connect with the customer face-to-face, which a segment of our society desires.”

“We all eat. That’s why a strong and growing agriculture economy is important to everyone,” said Jim Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. “Farms of all sizes contribute to Wisconsin’s $88 billion agricultural economy. No matter your role in the agricultural community, everyone plays a part in providing families with a healthy and abundant food supply.”

Wisconsin has around 1,700 organic farms, some as small as one acre medicinal herb operations, said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with Spring Valley’s Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service. She does not believe CSAs compete with traditional groceries, as there are many foods CSAs do not provide.

FairShare CSA Coalition in Madison has roughly 55 endorsed CSA farms serving much of the state. Many of FairShare’s farms sell to restaurants or wholesale customers, according to FairShare executive director Erika Jones.

For Jones, joining a CSA farm allows consumers to know the farmer who grows their food, to learn what kinds of practices the farm uses and to see food being grown.

“This provides peace of mind and a sense of transparency in the food system,” she said.

The Wisconsin Grocers Association has about 1,000 members, including independent operations, corporate chain stores, convenience stores, warehouse suppliers, distributors and vendors. 

“No question about it. Large chains, both corporate and independent, place a heavy focus on local foods. Roundy’s has a significant commitment to their local suppliers, as do Meijer’s, Woodman’s, Festival and single-store operators across the state,” said Brandon Scholz, WGA president.

Buying from and partnering with local growers and suppliers is not new and is certainly not limited to a few retailers, according to Scholz. The WGA has worked with the Something Special From Wisconsin program for a decade or more, and has strongly supported Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin. 

However, he adds that working with small farmers presents a challenge for grocers and other buyers who require a degree of certainty in planning, needing to know the consistency of product quality and quantity, as well as pricing. Scholz added that as long as consumers want local products, grocers and farmers will find a way to get those products to them.

“Grocery stores and local foods make a great partnership,” he said.

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