How do you build and foster a local food community vibrant with area farmers and food artisans that also serves shoppers and eaters? Look to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and the budding Central Rivers Farmshed as they serve as an inspiring model for local food community building and family farmer support. Their three key elements for success are collaboration, creativity and a cooperative mindset.
Our recent trip to Stevens Point quickly brought the “farmshed” concept to life. I was familiar with the concept of “watershed” that defines an area of land containing a common set of streams and rivers that drain into a single larger body of water. This same concept inspires Central Rivers Farmshed, crafting a common space that brings together in this case the various components of raising healthy food and community, creating something stronger together.
“Central Rivers Farmshed grew directly out of our community, tapping into our strengths and needs with an ultimate goal of supporting our area farmers and crafting a healthy local food scene,” explains Layne Cozzolino, Executive Director of this non-profit with a mission to grow a resilient local food community. “We didn’t have a clear vision of where we are today when area folks first started thinking and talking about sustainable food systems back around 2006. Our journey and learnings root in bringing people together to share needs, strengths and interests and what new things are needed that will benefit us all.”
Central Rivers Farmshed today involves creative re-use of a former garden center, now evolving into 35,000 square foot community food hub which currently houses a 7,000 square foot production greenhouse, community kitchen, gathering space where local groups like the Wisconsin Farmers Union meet, and learning center.
“Farmshed also exemplifies how supporting area farmers goes beyond simply what’s on our plate as the local food scene in our Stevens Point area is increasingly a draw for travelers,” shares Sara Brish, Executive Director of the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the leadership of community members like Layne with a long-term commitment to this place and the health of our community, that make this area so appealing for folks to also move to and launch their new entrepreneurial start-ups.”
While the fruits of Central Rivers Farmshed’s collective vision are coming to life, it’s a process that happened slowly and thoughtfully. Here are three Central Rivers Farmshed perspectives for other communities looking to build a more vibrant local food scene:
“Over the years, we have found that good ideas for social change come a dime a dozen,” shares Cozzolino. The challenge? Finding the time to make them a reality. Farmshed’s approach is to aim to motivate idea-makers, helping them think through the process before taking their idea to the next level. “This is how our programming comes to fruition: community members with good ideas and the willingness to put in the time and energy to make them reality.”
Farmshed coined this as the “puppy” principle. Cozzolino explains, "Many of us have wanted a puppy at some point in our lives, but the realities of having one often leads us to think long and hard about whether we are ready for the commitment. We believe deciding to run new programming needs the same consideration.”
The organization’s core business, Frozen Assets, grew out of listening to and creatively merging both farmers’ and shoppers’ needs. A twist on the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) concept where folks pre-purchase “shares” and typically receive a fresh vegetable delivery in-season, Frozen Assets instead purchases fresh produce from farms at the peak of ripeness and freezes it for deliveries during the winter.
“We attract a lot of CSA dropouts who formerly joined the fresh weekly summer delivery version but felt guilty about the food waste of not using it up. This doesn’t happen with frozen veggies,” adds Cozzolino.
Still, they have found selling frozen vegetables comes with its own set of challenges that require creative solutions. Many home cooks still need ideas on how to use pre-cut vegetables. “Our potatoes come in French fry cuts and people immediately only think they can be used for making French fries, but they are simply pre-cut potatoes that can be used in all sorts of ways,” explains Cozzolino This prompted creating a 45-page cookbook specifically using Frozen Assets’ vegetables in accessible and easy recipes like casserole dishes.
“Stevens Point is turning into a real draw for young people to move to, in big part, because of the supportive community here,” shares Jan Walter, Farmshed Kitchen Manager, as she aptly peels butternut squash for a Frozen Asset delivery. “New food businesses are popping up all the time. Each venture really tries to prop up each other, and we together grow stronger.” Farmshed’s commercial kitchen currently serves as home for two area businesses: Tapped Maple Syrup, infused maple syrups, and Sky View Pasta, a unique fermented pasta.
Throughout Wisconsin, farmers and food entrepreneurs are championing each other. My last post featured café owner Amy Scheide of Great Expectations and her prioritizing locally raised items such as cranberries on her menu. Another example of the cross-pollinated Wisconsin food scene: the cocktail at Great Expectations made with Door County Tart Cherry Shrub by Siren Shrub Company. Siren Shrub is a new business venture co-led by Cozzolino producing these drinking vinegars showcasing Wisconsin grown flavors.
Outside of the kitchen, Farmshed leads the Farm Fresh Atlas of Central Wisconsin, a printed and online directory listing farms that sell direct. Their annual Local Food Fair in February brings together over 1,500 attendees including chefs, farmers and the people who appreciate the time, effort and love that goes into crafting an authentic farmshed.
“You never know what sparks when you bring people together in one place,” shares Cozzolino with a smile. “Chefs and farmers start talking and all of a sudden a new business partnership starts.”
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam and millions of ladybugs.
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