The Road from Farm to Market

Consumer demand for regionally produced food is on the rise. But transportation and distribution logistics for mid-size shippers, distributors and farmers can be tricky. These supply chain partners are looking for ways to more efficiently move products from Wisconsin’s farms to markets, while upholding many of their customers’ sustainability values.

That’s where the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) comes in. CIAS is working with university and private-sector partners to bring regionally grown food to urban markets while growing rural economies and addressing the environmental impacts of food freight.

“When people think of local food, they think of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture,” says Michelle Miller BS’83, associate director of programs for CIAS. “While these direct markets are the gold standard for connecting us with the people who grow our food, they don’t address the need to get more high-quality regional products into grocery stores, restaurants and schools.”

Consumers tend to believe that food is more sustainable if it travels a short distance from farm to table. However, a USDA study found that compared to direct markets, the large truckloads and logistical efficiencies found in the conventional food system sometimes use less fuel per food item transported.

Helping mid-size farmers move full truckloads of their products into wholesale markets is one way to build a more resilient regional economy. However, farmers face numerous challenges when shifting from direct to wholesale marketing. Product aggregation is one major hurdle, as wholesale public markets for assembling farmers’ wares have largely disappeared from the landscape.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative (WFHC), founded in 2012, helps fill that gap by providing sales, marketing and logistical support for its 37 farmer-owners, with sales of $1.7 million in 2015 and anticipated sales of $2.5 million in 2016.

CIAS helped WFHC implement retail product quality specifications and food safety requirements. Access to CALS expertise in those areas has made a big difference for their business, according to WFHC development director Sarah Lloyd.

“Most retail outlets require growers to obtain voluntary food safety certifications,” says Lloyd. “The help we’ve received in working through this maze of regulations has been critical.”

According to Miller, much more work is needed to help Wisconsin growers move their products into regional metro markets. CIAS is investigating fair trade strategies to provide equitable compensation for farmers. The center is working closely with city, county and regional partners to increase food processing and related food systems economic development in southern Wisconsin. CIAS is also researching more sustainable truck fleets using alternative fuels, hybrid electric engines and day cabs.

“We can gain efficiencies across the food system, at the farm level and in the way we move food to markets,” says Miller. “Ultimately we want to make it easier for consumers to support Wisconsin farmers.”

Tara Roberts-Turner, a founding farmer and business manager of the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, loads fresh produce onto a truck bound for Chicago.

Photo credit – Tara Roberts-Turner 

The Culture of Ag

The last thing you’d expect to see inside a university’s newly renovated, state-of-the-art biochemistry center is a 1940s Regionalist masterpiece celebrating rural life. Ditto for a rotating exhibition of paintings by contemporary rural artists ringing the grand vestibule of Agricultural Hall, seat of the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

CALS’ reputation as a scientific innovator is well established. Less heralded, and unique among agricultural colleges, is that CALS throughout its history has been a cultural innovator as well, taking pains to illuminate the ways in which the sciences and the arts intersect—and why each way of knowing the world is so important to the other.

John Steuart Curry’s 1942 mural in the Biochemistry Building offers a prime example. The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research powerfully illustrates the benefits made possible by vitamin discoveries and applications. On the left side of the main panel, the artist depicts a sickly hog and wan children, including a boy whose bowed legs are a sign of rickets. At the center and right, we see hale and hearty kids, adults and livestock. Men pictured at the back of the mural are some of CALS’ legendary figures in vitamin research, including Harry Steenbock, who eradicated rickets by discovering how to increase vitamin D content in foods.

Far from being accidental or casual, Curry’s decade-long association with the College of Agriculture was part of a deliberate aim to meld culture with agriculture. From 1936 until his death in 1946, Curry was artist-in-residence at UW in the first such arrangement at any American university—and his residency was in the College of Agriculture.

While artist-in-residence programs are now common at schools and universities across the country (and even in some businesses, such as Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel), they were a novel concept in Depression-era America.

Yet Curry’s residency is just one facet of CALS’ longstanding interconnections with arts and culture, both historically and today. Such connections highlight the importance of agriculture for students and the general public. They also provide important pathways for rural people to express themselves and celebrate their livelihoods and communities.

Spotlighting the cultural side of agriculture is a deep part of Wisconsin’s heritage. And that tradition still burns brightly through new initiatives of which many CALS faculty, alumni and students are a part.