Thursday, June 17, 2010

Farm Fresh Atlas of Southeastern Wisconsin

Farm Fresh Atlas is invaluable (and fun) resource
By Sheryl Popp

From pumpkin farms to fresh eggs, from roadside stands to organic produce, look into the Farm Fresh Atlas of Southeastern Wisconsin to find a place to buy these items locally. I came across the Atlas several years ago, and thought it would make for a great story.

To learn more, I spoke with Rose Skora, agriculture educator for the UW Extension, Racine/Kenosha counties. She was pleased to share the history of the Atlas, now in its sixth edition. There are five independent atlases in the state: Eastern, Western, Central, South and this one. The idea for a southeastern version happened at a meeting in Dane County that Rose attended. At that meeting were representatives of the UW Co-op system, the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and Town & Country Resources Conservation and Development. "The last two are grass roots organizations supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Slow Food of Wisconsin," said Rose. "Everyone who was at the table was there to talk about local food issues and educational issues." She was referring to the importance of sustainability, or sustainably grown food. Sustainable food growing practices, and the products thereof, benefit the consumer, the producer and the environment. "At the time," said Rose, "we were focusing all our efforts on farmers. But if the consumer base doesn't support their (the farmers') effort to market locally, it can't work." The focus group decided the Atlas was a great idea, and why reinvent the wheel? They contacted the appropriate people at the Southern (and oldest) Atlas, who supported the idea of a southeastern Wisconsin version of the publication.

"Each year in the off season," said Rose, "representatives from the different atlas areas have a collaborative meeting, but each version is its own entity. Our first year was a challenge. No one had a database of direct marketing farmers, so we used a lot of state agency lists. Also each committee member used their own mailing list. It was a lot of work to put together, and also to get press releases out to promote it." Rose went on to say that now, the Atlas is a recognized entity, and farmers contact them. "Having a waiting list of people to get into the Atlas is a nice problem to have," she said. "The business side of it is still a challenge. For example, it's eight pages longer this year, and we have to find the funding to pay for the printing costs. All our funding comes from the listing fees the farmers pay."

The Atlas is a year round guide. It reaches 80,000 consumers. It lists what products a participating farm produces (eggs, meat, flowers, etc.), whether they sell on-site or participate in farmers' markets (and which ones), if they're organic, a U-Pick or a community supported agriculture (CSA) site. A map shows the general location of each. Indexes list business sponsors and southeastern Wisconsin farmers' markets. Listees pledge their commitment to the following principals, developed by the Southern Atlas people: reduce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, conserve land and water, treat animals with respect and give them access to the outdoors, support local and sustainable business partners and provide safe and fair working conditions for employees. Further, they are family or cooperatively owned. In the last several years, 70% of the advertisers have reported they have had known sales as a result of the Atlas. There is also complimentary email arriving on the Atlas' site from consumers. "That's the really exciting part," said Rose. "Seeing the enthusiasm and interest from customers who use the Atlas and know it helps keep farmers on their land. It's the key driving component for doing it."

Rose mentioned that Alan Linnebur, Agricultural Agent with the UW Extension for Washington County, is the local distributor of the Atlas, and the link with participating farmers and other participating businesses in the county. He can be reached at to learn more about listing in the Atlas. He also highly recommended getting the perspective of several of Washington County's listers. I spoke to Diana Susan, at Meadow Creek Elk Farm, and several folks at Wellspring, a CSA in Newburg. Diana sent these comments:

Many years ago when we became a part of the Farm Fresh Atlas, we realized it was more than marketing our elk meat to consumers; it’s about being a part of a movement that links neighbors to one another, resulting in building a stronger, healthier community.

We believe that offering products and food that is produced locally, we are a part of an enduring stimulus plan that will energize the community allowing dollars to be recycled over and over again.

The customers that visit Meadow Creek Elk Farms are eager to purchase our elk meat, knowing that what they are eating is free of hormones and antibiotics, but they also are there because they want to contribute to a better environment by supporting local agriculture.

I drove to Wellspring, having never visited before, and because it was an opportunity to take some photos on pack-out day. Jeff Schreiber, farm manager, was busy working and directing the volunteers who very efficiently washed and packed the day's produce. "This is a great resource for us," he said. "We have had direct results from the Atlas. We have four or five drop off sites, and about 30 members that pick up here. Today, we're packing about 100 boxes." They had a great variety of early produce, lettuces, spinach, chives, radishes and different greens. Some workers trade labor for part of the cost of their share. I also chatted with Angie Restler, executive director of Wellspring. She believes Wellspring is the first organic CSA in Wisconsin, having begun in 1988. The 36 acre property was purchased by Mary Ann Ihm in '82. It was her dream to launch this type of cooperative farm. "Half of our 100 shares are half shares, so we reach 200 families," said Angie. There is so much more going on at Wellspring that I have agreed to feature Wellspring's operation in an upcoming In Good Taste story. Look for that this summer.

You can request a copy of the Atlas online at You can also simply look up all the information on the main website. Many of the folks in Washington and Ozaukee counties are at our local farmer markets, but making farm visits is really a lot of fun too. Whenever I have done this, I always feel a lot more connected to both food and producer, and have learned more than one can on market day. There are more than a dozen listings in these two counties, with many others just a short drive away.

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