Foodsheds Part 2: Foodshed Superheroes

Feature Stories Fall 2011 Issue

Foodsheds Part 2: Foodshed Superheroes

By Jessica Luhning | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

This is the conclusion to “Foodsheds Part I: Restoring Our Sense of Place,” published in the Summer 2011 issue of Edible Madison.

Under the hot, orange sun on a mid-July afternoon, I tallied the contents of the carefully placed buckets and totes in the back of our small, borrowed, two-wheeled trailer: 50 pounds of fresh asparagus, four cases of red chard, two cases of curly kale, 25 pounds of yellow summer squash and broccoli, five large buckets of crisp salad mix, enough red beets to permanently dye your fingers pink, and odds and ends of green garlic, cilantro and curly parsley. All the fruit—or rather, produce—of our labor.

From farm to farm, we harvested the “leftovers” that had no grocery store shelf or CSA box to call home. Leftovers that would surely meet their untimely death by the blazing sun and blades of a plow if it not for the work of the Kickapoo Gleaners. The Gleaners harvest, wash and pack farm fresh produce for donation to low income elderly persons in my community of Viroqua, and they have one mission in mind—putting fresh, healthy food into the hands of those who need it most.

The Gleaners are “foodshed superheroes” armed with shears, buckets and a knack for spying a field’s last tasty remnants. On this particular harvest, our team included six youth and seven adult volunteers who gleaned enough fresh food to give 35 low income seniors a week’s worth of healthy meals. The Gleaners are making and inspiring sustainable change in my foodshed. They are proof that a simple act, like harvesting beets for someone in need, can make a big difference to the farmers with excess food to share, the children who learn to connect with the land and their elderly community members, and the hungry who are in need of fresh, nutritious food.

The social element (i.e. people power) of sustainable change is key to reviving our local foodsheds. Each of us, young and old, has a role to play in creating more vibrant, healthy communities for this generation and the generations of tomorrow, and there is no better place to start than in your own foodshed.

If you need a little inspiration, look no farther than our own state’s borders. We have outstanding “foodshed superheroes” right here in Wisconsin who are receiving national recognition for innovation and leadership in sustainable food systems development.

Michelle Miller, associate director of the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems (CIAS), and her colleagues are transforming the way farmers, researchers, consumers and eaters think about food and the health of our foodsheds. This work certainly comes with its challenges here in the Corn Belt of the Upper Midwest, where large, chemical-dependent, monoculture farms are big agribusiness’s prescription for the future.

CIAS is a research center at the University of Wisconsin— Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Created in 1989, they work in partnership with numerous organizations and farmers to “rebuild a resilient food system that is economically sound, meets broad social goals and is environmentally appropriate to Wisconsin’s many different growing regions.” Much of the work accomplished by CIAS benefits small- and medium-sized farms in the Driftless bio-region, a four-state, 57-county region extending west from Madison, south from Minneapolis-St. Paul and includes northeast Iowa and the tip of northwest Illinois. All of their work attempts to address this critical question: “How do we maintain agriculture production and the integrity of our natural systems?” One answer has been to help livestock farmers transition from corn- and soy-fed confined feeding operations to diversified pasture-based systems for beef, chicken, dairy and cheese production—methods which benefit the long-term health of our foodshed.

Another answer comes from world-renowned agroecologist for Kansas-based The Land Institute, Jerry Glover (recognized by the scientific journal Nature as “one of five crop researchers who could change the world”). Jerry feels that the transition away from annual cropping systems is our best tool in meeting this challenge head on. The longest-term comparison study of annual versus perennial cropping systems is the 100-year study at Sanborn Field, Missouri. After a century, the perennial grass systems maintained 30 percent more topsoil than the annual crop rotation system and were 54 times more effective in controlling erosion[1]. Studies have also revealed that annual grain crops can lose five times as much water and 35 times as much nitrate as perennial crops[2] showing that perennial crops result in less ground and surface water contamination.

The foodshed of the Upper Midwest was formerly a tall-grass prairie system with some of the world’s most fertile soils. This native foodshed was transformed in less than 150 years into a monoculture of annual crops, and every year the result is the same: depleted soil, excess agricultural run-off, and foods with decreased nutritional content. Much of the Driftless bio-region is characterized by steep hills and lush valleys underlain by fissured karst (limestone) bedrock, making the region’s surface- and groundwater extremely vulnerable to contamination. Knowing this, the Driftless Region is clearly more suited to these perennial plant systems which hold soil and nutrients in place, protecting our unique landscape, our groundwater, and the region’s drainage into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

1. Glover, Jerry. “Characteristics of Annual Versus Perennial Systems.” Sod Based Cropping System Conference, University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science. February 20-21, 2003.

2. G. W. Randall et al., J. Environ. Qual. 26, 1240 (1997).

CIAS understands the impacts of annual crop systems and is tackling crop diversification projects focusing on high-value perennial plant species like apples, grapes, berries, cherries, aronia, currants, hazelnuts, and grasses for pasture-based systems. To round out the program, they are working to expand markets and infrastructure for these crops to meet the increasing demand for local food. Michelle and her team also collaborate with UW faculty who are researching best practices for growing perennial crops and the economic and social benefits of a more sustainable foodshed.

There’s more foodshed work to be done here than one organization can handle, so thankfully there are other groups stepping up across the region. The Valley Stewardship Network (VSN), a non-profit organization based in Viroqua, is a relative new-comer to the foodshed scene but has quickly become one of the hardest working advocacy organizations in Wisconsin. Following ten years of collecting valuable water quality data through its nationally-recognized Water Quality Monitoring Program, VSN launched the Food & Farm Initiative (FFI) in the fall of 2007. FFI complements the Water Quality Monitoring Program by responding to foodshed issues that directly impact the health of the Kickapoo River watershed.

FFI, under the leadership of Nicole Penick and a six-member, all-woman volunteer committee, grew out of a desire to engage an already motivated community in the act of building a more sustainable food system after confined animal feeding operations threatened to enter the area and multiple agriculture runoff events resulted in contaminated surface waters.

FFI’s first task was the completion of a Community Food Assessment to better understand their local food system’s challenges. These findings included limited access to fresh, locally grown food by low income residents, poor infrastructure for meat and produce value-added processing, and underutilized markets for fresh food products.

In the two years following the Community Food Assessment, FFI has accomplished a number of community-based foodshed projects, such as creating the Kickapoo Gleaning Program mentioned previously, publishing a Vernon County Direct Marketers Guide listing farmers who sell produce through direct markets, as well as involvement in the Vernon County Farm to School Program and coordinating food handling and safety trainings for area farmers.

These efforts have inspired a powerful Viroqua-based spin-off project called Fifth Season Cooperative. The Fifth Season Co-op, in its second year of operation, is one of the only multi-stakeholder cooperatives in the United States. Thanks in part to a Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the co-op works to bring farmers, food processors, distributors and institutional food buyers together to promote and sell more local foods in their cafeterias (a list of current members can be found at Through this work, Fifth Season Co-op offers a solution to the area’s lacking food system infrastructure that is needed to expand market opportunities for local farmers. This exciting collaboration promises to become a leading model for rural economic revitalization and sustainable food systems development.

Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, defines a foodshed as a “geographic area wherein people engage in a civic exercise that determines the most sustainable food system for their region” [3]. Fred reminds us that it is important to become an active participant in your foodshed by reconnecting with the land, the farmers who grow your food and the people working tirelessly to provide you access to sustainably-grown, healthy food. Luckily for us here in Wisconsin, one doesn’t have to look far to find a foodshed superhero. If the future of food lies in the work of people like Michelle and Nicole and organizations like CIAS, Valley Stewardship Network and the Fifth Season Co-op, then we are in good hands.

Superhero Mental Maps
“Foodsheds Part I: Restoring Our Sense of Place,” in the Edible Madison Summer 2011 issue, introduced the concept of a “mental map,” an easy and fun exercise designed to help readers better understand their foodshed. To my geeky map-loving delight, Michelle Miller of CIAS and Nicole Penick of VSN created mental maps of their foodsheds to share with Edible Madison readers.

View Michelle and Nicole’s foodshed maps here.

For More Information: 

3. Kirschenmann, Fred. “Food in Dry Times.” Yes! magazine. Summer 2010.

Jessica Luhning is a writer intrigued by the origins of great flavor and inspired by people and places that care about good, clean food. With an M.S. in Geography and Natural Resource Planning she founded and guided the helm of the Wisconsin-based consulting firm EarthVision for seven years. Now exploring the mountains, forests and farms of central Oregon, she relishes in her new remote role as Grant & Resource Development Manager for Organic Valley. Writing, eating, planting, scheming and day-dreaming make full the spaces between honest work and family escapades.

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