FENNIMORE — For the supporters of the Food, Faith and Farming Network in southwest Wisconsin, meeting to talk about food around harvest time is as good a time as any. Gathered at Southwest Technical College on Nov. 9, the group enjoyed a meal provided by Rex Smith, dining services manager at SWTC, before discussing further ideas that were unveiled through a series of listening sessions in February and March.
The salad greens were grown on campus in the college’s grow lab by agronomy students; the potatoes served were purchased from Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua. The pork was bought from an FFA participant at the Grant County Fair and the sweet corn grown by an instructor and cut by culinary students as one of their first lessons in knife skills.
“We have so many features in the Driftless Area that are treasures,” said Tom Nelson, chair of the Food, Faith and Farming Network. “What we’re short on is local food; it’s spread out, hard to get out to consumers and to market.
“You’re here tonight to help us build on already good ideas and help us connect with partners in communities.”
After the listening sessions earlier this year, the Food, Faith and Farming Network board of directors thought they’d get to work hiring someone to help them tackle a number of items that emerged as major priorities. However, “serendipity happened,” said Roger Williams, treasurer for the organization. Now they’re ready to partner with local organizations to provide seed money for projects as approved by the board.
“We received a proposal from the Richland School District and decided to go where the energy is,” Williams said.
The proposal outlined the desire to incorporate “Farm to School” into the Richland School District, with a focus on local foods and local food procurement. A school garden was also proposed, with a goal of having 10 percent of the food used in the district coming from local sources and one percent of the food coming from the school garden.
The district would use the seed money, if granted, to send a group of people to a conference to learn more and build momentum around a food policy change at the school and a field trip to the school in Viroqua to study their program and established school garden. The district also desires to work with local FFA groups to mentor students on food and garden use and improve infrastructure at their community’s local garden, which is currently too far away from water access.
Another idea that has come out of the listening sessions earlier this year is the establishment of the Driftless Poultry Processing Cooperative, spearheaded by Mineral Point poultry farmer Nico Bryant. Bryant has been working with Iowa County UW-Extension, Adam Hady with Richland County UW-Extension and two other producers in the area to research the possibility of opening a USDA poultry processing facility.
The cooperative recently received a $25,000 USDA grant to create a business plan and complete a feasibility study. A survey is also out for those interested in giving their thoughts, indicating whether they’d use the facility.
“We need to know if it’s feasible to open a facility,” Bryant said.
Bryant had arrived at the meeting in Fennimore after being on the road most of the day; he traveled to Clinton — near the Wisconsin/Illinois border in Rock County — to have his chickens processed. He has talked with a lot of people, including the Amish in the community, and has approached the city of Dodgeville, city of Mineral Point and town of Ridgeway about the possibility of establishing the facility in their municipality. All three have expressed interest, he said, although Dodgeville currently has a no-slaughter ordinance on their books.
The Food, Faith and Farming Network has established five areas to explore into the future: establishing farmers markets in small, rural communities; helping local farmers gain access to local food markets; helping to create local food systems in rural communities; helping to transition farmers/farms to the next generation; and fostering communication between agricultural sectors. The organization will continue to explore their role in fostering these ideas and helping communities or groups reach their food goals.
“We see faith as the bridge between food and farming,” Williams said. “We’ve had a real rich discussion tonight.”