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Food, Faith & Farming holds discussions around the region
MORE THAN 60 participants gathered at The Rooted Spoon restaurant in Viroqua on Tuesday, March 13 for a Cultivating the Future of Farming and Rural Life gathering. Facil-itating the event was Roger Williams of Food, Faith & Farming, a project of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa Mound.

DRIFTLESS - The Food Faith and Farming Network held a series of ‘Cultivating the Future of Farming and Rural Life’ gatherings in late February through the third week of March. The network is a project of the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, a congregation of Catholic Sisters founded in 1847 to minister to farmers and miners through education. The Sisters are committed to farming and protection of the natural environment.

The gatherings took place in Monroe, Fennimore, Viroqua, Dodgeville and Richland Center, and were intended to bring together farmers, food producers and rural community members to listen, network, share resources, build rural and urban connections, nurture transitions and provide information about new opportunities in agriculture.

When asked why Food, Faith & Farming (F, F&F) decided to hold these listening sessions, Roger Williams of the F, F&F board responded, “We decided to hold these gatherings because we are keenly aware of what a tough time it is right now for farm families.”

Williams pointed to dairy producers losing their contracts, and low milk and commodity prices as having a powerful economic impact on the farming community in Southwest Wisconsin.

“We wanted to stimulate a community and faith-based discussion of what can be done,” Williams explained. “We are hoping to cultivate an agenda for our work for the next three to five years.”

One of the most common issues at all the sessions was establishing farmers markets in local communities, and establishing effective links between local farmers and these local markets.  One idea is to hire a market coordinator and marketing professional to aid in farmers market establishment. One function of this position would be to help assure farmers a living wage for the products they bring to market. Another function would be to facilitate donations of excess produce to local food pantries.

Another issue that seemed to bubble up at all the gatherings was improving communication between conventional, organic, Amish and other agricultural sectors. F, F&F proposes to hold meetings to help divided sectors see the similarities and heal the divide. In this effort, they envision using healthcare professionals and clergy to guide discussions and create the bonding trust needed to help people share stories and traditions.

Last, F, F&F has identified the need to merge their efforts with the Wisconsin Local Food Network and Wisconsin Healthy Food System Alliance to work in collaboration to help provide the ‘faith’ side of the story, and network connection to congregations.

“It will take time to carve out a plan,” Roger Williams, F, F&F board member, “but we can imagine that it will involve working with municipalities and Chambers of Commerce to set up local farmers markets, recruiting farmers for these markets, publicizing the markets, creating sound financing and accounting for the markets, and a host of other issues.”

Williams said his group has advanced the idea that the ideal model might involve using excess products to feed hungry people through local food pantries, and providing farmers with compensation so there are incentives to continue producing for the local market. 

“We hope to network with other groups that share this goal and come up with a plan that could address this important issue in southwestern Wisconsin,” Williams said.

Williams stated, “our goal is to do what we can to help rural folk find solutions to their own problems.”

Monroe gathering

At the gathering held in Monroe on February 27, 42 people gathered at the Monroe Art Center.

The top issues identified by meeting participants were engaging the community; educating kids as consumers; breaking down barriers for small agriculture businesses; giving new farmers access to land and resources; addressing low incomes in rural areas; and providing farmers with access to local markets.

The group selected four challenges to discuss in small groups, and brainstorm solutions for.

Engaging community: more agricultural presence in rural schools; agriculture teachers and classes; local food in the schools.

Breaking down barriers for small agriculture businesses: create sample ordinances for local governments; education of county, village and town officials to expedite the process.

Civic Engagement: teaching communications skills; join Wisconsin Farmers Union; better meeting facilitation.

Succession and recruiting new farmers: build coalitions with other groups working on the same issues; engage in joint promotional campaigns; engage tech schools in training to help recruit new farmers.

Fennimore gathering

At the gathering held in Fennimore on March 6, 18 people gathered at Southwest Technical College.

The top issues identified by meeting participants were getting farmers access to local markets; recruiting the next generation of farmers; communications between Amish and other farmers; and addressing low incomes in rural areas.

The group selected two challenges to discuss in small groups, and brainstorm solutions for.

Recruiting new farmers: matching interested new farmers with available land – discussion of past attempts and learnings; raising capital to compete with factory farms.

Access to local markets: meet with grocery store managers; train produce managers; training for farmers in how to grow for market; liaison between farmers and local markets; mediation between Amish and other farmers; buy local campaign; and bringing gardeners and farmers together to combine their offerings.

Viroqua gathering

More than 60 people attended the gathering in Viroqua held at the Rooted Spoon on March 13.

The top issues identified by meeting participants were communication between different agricultural sectors (conventional, organic, etc…); supporting new farmers; securing farm labor; addressing low incomes in rural areas; and farmer access to local markets.

In a brainstorm of Vernon County strengths, participants listed: Food Enterprise Center; Viroqua Food Co-op; Viroqua Farmers Market; Organic Valley; Westby Co-op Creamery; Fifth Season Co-op; the cooperative culture; organic certification agencies; family farm culture; CSAs; agricultural tourism; local banks; local businesses; farm-to-table restaurants; good hospital and healthcare; Vernon County Land Conservation Department; strong food recovery and hunger relief efforts; topography good for family farms; abundant hunting, fishing and wild edibles; inter-generational farms; artistic culture; scenic beauty; diversity in the population; Driftless Folk School; local food and wool processors; abundance of grazing operations; entrepreneurial culture; stewardship ethic; progressive utilities; Valley Stewardship Network; sustainable farmers; Amish community; support for alternative energy; good nutritional management; strong FFA; Vernon County Fair; five high schools and Western Technical College; biodynamic farms; Waldorf schools; alternative healthcare; county government; WVRQ and WDRT radio stations; Go Macro; new library; conservation-minded conventional farmers; environmental and farming activism; and the ‘Driftless’ as a brand.

 Gathering participants listed Vernon County challenges as: contamination of water; loss of local control; topography is difficult to farm; farmers losing their milk contracts; distance to market and to processing; lack of agricultural processing and manufacturing; lack of insurance for entrepreneurs; dependence on expensive fossil fuels; policy discrimination against rural areas; options for traditional farmers; difficulty in setting pricing for farm products; discrimination against Hispanics; high suicide rate amongst farmers; lack of funding for infrastructure; lack of understanding of the Farm Bill; UW system focus on corn and soybeans; CAFOs coming into the area; access to land and resources for young farmers; communication between different agricultural sectors; low commodity prices; monoculture in farming; flooding and droughts; large farms buying out small farms; poor farming practices due to crop insurance; loss of livestock processing; lack of labor; lack of representation for farmer interests at the state capitol; availability of organic compost; lack of UW-Extension agents; stress and physical danger of farming; farm subsidies without compliance; get-big-or-get-out philosophy; and loss of pollinators.

The group selected three challenges to discuss in small groups, and brainstorm solutions for.

Communication between agricultural sectors: draw on common history of co-ops and grazing; gatherings at county fairs, churches, etc…; outreach on public access television; discussion about commonalities – 50-question format; use pastors as moderators; township conversations about watersheds; respectful conversations; mentoring by retired businessmen; conversations to bridge the divide in FFA groups; ‘tour of duty’ on farms for high school students; attend Conservation Congress meetings; and work with public officials.

Support new farmers: develop community land trusts; develop farm incubators; affordable community kitchens; Fair Share/UW Pilot Project; survey of young farmer needs; affordable veterinary care; farm mentors; promoting farming as a profession; and financial stability.

Farm labor: provide affordable housing; public transportation; management training; training incentives; cooperative ownership; create a community of workers; teen farm work crews; healthcare and health insurance; reasonable immigration policies; and local WWOOFing network.

Dodgeville gathering

At the gathering held in Dodgeville on March 20, 24 people gathered at Grace Lutheran Church.

The top issues identified by meeting participants were lack of rural broadband; lack of processing facilities; CAFOs impact on the land; getting young folk to stay in the area; affordability of land; and farmer access to local markets.

The group selected three challenges to discuss in small groups, and brainstorm solutions for.

CAFO issue: need more people to attend town and county meetings, and get better informed and more involved; local organization and groundswell; get signatures for a moratorium; the Sustain Rural Wisconsin website; raise the issue with local political candidates; and demand stronger regulations and enforcement.

Processing issue: community or cooperative ownership model; secure agreement from neighbors to accept local processing; Premium Meats is coming to Dodgeville, but isn’t allowed to process there; appropriate siting of processing facility; government grant to help start processing plant; education about living wage for farmers and price of food; mobile processing; a food innovation kitchen that would help with processing.

Getting young folks to stay in the area: better prices for products; $7,200 per acre is challenging; farmer mentor program for dairy, grazing; better rural broadband; decent paying jobs in the area; build on local assets of beauty, wildlife and water; maintain good schools to attract young families; and quality child care.

Richland Center gathering

At the gathering held in Richland Center on March 22, 22 people gathered at the Fellowship Church Hall.

The top issues identified by meeting participants were food deserts; workforce shortage; lack of housing for workers; poverty and isolation; low-income wages; lack of support for Main Street; and farmer access to local markets.

The group envisioned how they would like Richland Center to look in five years: nice restaurants and shops; locally sourced food offered in restaurants, schools and institutions; local food emporium with local wine; more active and visible Chamber of Commerce; better downtown signage; good housing and an active real estate business; tiny housing community to attract young people and first time buyers; energy efficient housing in town; better internet and cellular coverage; develop a food cooperative; children eating healthy food in school and at home; seniors eating healthy local foods; increase promotion and development of silent sports; develop a community events board; local public transportation; expanded bike path; a place for ATVs; maintain a sense of community; develop a farmers market; community kitchen; community workshop and garage; business incubator; and get more youth interested in farming.