Wisconsin is a leader in creating a culture of values around food

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

Twenty-one years ago, David Kozlowski and his wife Sandra Raduenz were working in dependable corporate jobs with retirement benefits. But the couple — Raduenz in particular — longed for a more meaningful life.

“She went to a conference where they talked about community supported agriculture and she came back and said, ‘I know what I want to be,’” Kozlowski said.

The two purchased a 21-acre farm in Oak Creek, about 20 minutes from downtown Milwaukee. They continued to work at their regular jobs for several years as they gradually built Pinehold Gardens into an organic food enterprise that brought in enough so they could get by on income from  the land alone.

“It sounds kind of hokey but I really did want to make the world a better place, and this seemed like the way to do it … even though we gave up a lot to do it,” Kozlowski said.

At the time they began farming, the swerve in their career paths was considered odd — more like a premise for a TV sitcom than something responsible adults actually do. But the two were on the cutting edge of a cultural phenomenon that is beginning to change the relationship between Americans and their food. 

While organic farms — many of them are small local farms — represent only about 1 percent of all food sales, the industry is growing so rapidly that Big Ag, in collusion with corporatists such as the Koch brothers, has launched a propaganda war against them. Big Ag is right to be worried: Organic food sales are growing at double-digit rates, compared with 4–5 percent growth for traditional and industrial farms.

Pinehold Gardens has been successful for mostly a two-person operation. Recently Kozlowski, 60, hired two part-timer workers. The farm also benefits from its 180 member families — people who join the farm each year either for a fee or by providing labor. In return, they receive a box of vegetables weekly for 18 to 24 weeks, depending on the length and success of the growing season.

Such arrangements are known as community supported agriculture. 

“We think there’s a lot of benefits to both farmers and consumers vis-a-vis CSAs,” said Anne Alonzo, who leads the United States Department of Agriculture’s  Agricultural Marketing Service. “Farmers can distribute their products during the hours that work for them and they receive payment for the products early in the season, which helps the farms’ economic planning. And this gives consumers access to … a wide variety of fresh, local food.”

Food and values

“People sign up because they want to get their food locally and find out who’s growing it,” Kozlowski said. “They want their food grown organically and they want the sense of belonging to a community. It’s almost like being part of a religious community.”

Kozlowski’s allusion to religious overtones is not an exaggeration. At a recent meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago, Ion Vasi, an associate professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Sociology, presented a report that came to essentially the same conclusion.

Vasi and his researchers found that more Americans than ever are shopping at farmers markets, and they’re also joining food co-ops in record numbers. These shoppers want fresh food untainted with GMOs, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

They also want something much more profound, Vasi found: to feel a part of something greater than themselves, part of a community that shares their passion for a healthy lifestyle and a sustainable environment.

“It’s about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values,” Vasi said in a news statement.

Locavores — people who support the local, largely organic food movement — also believe they’re performing a civic duty, an act to preserve their local economy against the threats of globalization and big-box stores, Vasi said.

“It’s not just about the economical exchange; it’s a relational and ideological exchange as well,” he said.

The UI study concluded that the local food market is what sociologists call a “moralized market” — a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values.

Locavores bond with farmers at weekend open-air markets and, increasingly, visits to local farms. “All the farms we know open their gates to the community either all the time or at certain times of the year,” Kozlowski said.

Pinehold Gardens has a market stand where people can buy produce on the farm. Business at the stand has doubled in the past two years, Kozlowski said.

He and other farmers also serve dinners on their farms. Local chiefs are invited to prepare the meals, using only ingredients raised on the farm or at farms nearby. Kozlowski is doing two dinners this year, each for 100 people. The first, a fundraiser for Milwaukee Public Television, sold out in one day — the second in three days.

“You have to wonder why people would want to eat food outside when they could go to a nice restaurant,” Kozlowski said, “but it’s a very popular concept. They must want a connection with the farm, otherwise it defies reason.” 

Wisconsin at forefront

Like Kozlowski and Radeunz, the state of Wisconsin was a so-called “early adopter” of the local organic food movement. The state has the largest organic dairy co-op in the world, Organic Valley, as well as the nation’s largest producer-only (no resale) farmers market — Dane County Farmers Market in Madison.

The state has the eighth largest number of farmers markets in the nation, which says something heartening about Wisconsin: Among their findings, UI researchers discovered that local food markets are more likely to develop in areas where residents have a strong commitment to civic participation, health and the environment.

Nationwide, the number of farmers markets registered with the USDA grew from about 3,700 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014. In Wisconsin, the number of markets grew from 170 to 295 during that time.

Wisconsin also hosts North America’s largest organic farming conference in La Crosse every year. The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, better known as MOSES, puts on the conference. When Kozlowski first attended, it was only a few years old and attracted about 200 people, most of whom he described as “back-to-lander hippies.” This year, more than 3,500 people attended, representing all generations, races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, sexual orientations and gender identities, said MOSES communication director Audrey Alwell.

“The movement has support from such a broad base because people are fed up with what they’re being fed,” Alwell said.

Kozlowski said it’s uplifting to see so many young people at recent conferences. He wants the movement he’s been part of developing to take root here and all over the world.

“It’s a mind-blower to go to the conference that used to be full of old hippie wannabes and see all the young folks using their smartphones and texting each other — even when they’re sitting at the same table,” he said. “I’m tickled pink.”

Alwell said it made her day when she read a Facebook post by a young farmer who won a scholarship to attend the conference: “I’m going to the mother ship,” he bragged.

Like Kozlowski, she wants more and more farmers to continue adopting the high standards required for USDA certification as an organic farm. Those include waiting for three years before planting to get toxins out of the soil — an expensive proposition. The government provides assistance to organic farmers, but the first phase inevitably involves financial sacrifice.

Farming without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, which are made partly from fossil fuels, also is more costly. So is buying seeds that don’t contain GMOs and leaving natural buffers around the farms to support local wildlife while preventing contamination from nearby farms.

Although expensive to achieve, the environmental sustainability of organically grown foods is the primary draw for young people. Organic farmers feel so strongly about the rightness of their industry that there’s an emerging trend of farmers putting aside a portion of their earnings for research and promotion, Alwell said.

Small farmers in the state are assisted in marketing their products by the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, which is working to establish a unique brand identity for the state’s organic industry.

Co-ops

The market for organic food now outstrips demand, according to several industry sources. Despite that and despite the greater expense of farming organically, consumer prices actually are coming down, due to growing competition and ever-improving farming techniques. 

“About two or three years ago there was a bubble, where the prices started to change,” said Shelly McClone, inventory coordinator for Milwaukee’s Riverwest Co-op Grocery and Café. Better pricing and all the buzz about the health benefits of eating organic have compelled mainstream supermarkets to add organic aisles that are growing in popularity with conventional shoppers.

Even though supermarkets are trying to cash in on the trend, co-ops remain a primary avenue connecting consumers with local food producers. Because co-ops are nearly synonymous with the organic food scene, customers get a sense of connection with the movement by shopping at them. For some people with back-to-the-land longings, co-ops and farmers markets are the closest they can get to interacting with the land, Kozlowski said.

McClone purchases from many urban farms and tries to remain within a 100-mile radius in sourcing products. When she does have to go outside the area to buy items such as avocados and bananas, she only does business with organic farmers.

Whenever possible, she also purchases food from nonprofits such as Milwaukee’s Walnut Way.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension in Waukesha offers a master gardener program that is helping to turn out new local farmers all the time, McClone added.

Pushback

Despite its 99-percent market advantage over organic farmers, Big Ag is showing signs of feeling threatened.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting published an article last summer documenting a growing anti-organic food narrative that’s appearing in the media. But the article also reported its discovery that “the anti-organic narrative did not arise organically.” The authors connected the dots between the naysayers quoted in the articles and front groups for  Big Ag as well as researchers who’ve received funding directly from industrial farm and chemical interests.

The writers of the articles either ignored or didn’t know about meta studies and peer-reviewed research that conclusively contradict their criticisms.

The anti-organic writers also go out of their way to ridicule the local organic food movement. An article in the New York Post quoted a source who talked about the growing phenomenon of the “organic mommy mafia” — crazy mothers who buy organic food for their children and shame moms who don’t. The source was the director of the Culture of Alarmism Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. It turned out that’s a right-wing foundation funded by corporatists such as the Koch brothers, who own Koch Ag & Energy Solutions. Biotechnology and chemical companies have a lot to lose from the ascension of organic foods.

Although the anti-organic spin machine is likely to ramp up, it doesn’t appear to be affecting people in Wisconsin. Kozlowski said he’s seeing new faces at his farm stand that are unlike the ones he saw in the past.

“They’re not the urban, progressive, Birkenstock-wearing people,” he said. “They’re the people who usually shop at the big grocery stores. They’re coming out here, and they’re coming out again. That’s a good sign.”