Tag Archives: organic

Survey: Major U.S. food retailers flunk out on pesticide test

Of the top U.S. food retailers, 17 have received an “F” for failing to have a publicly available policy to reduce or eliminate pesticide use to protect pollinators.

Aldi, Costco (COST) and Whole Foods (WFM) received passing grades in this category, according to a report and scorecard released this week that looks at policies and practices regarding pollinator protection, organic offerings and pesticide reduction.

“U.S. food retailers must take responsibility for how the products they sell are contributing to the bee crisis,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth environmental group. “The majority of the food sold at top U.S. food retailers is produced with pollinator-toxic pesticides. We urge all major retailers to work with their suppliers to eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides and to expand domestic organic offerings that protect pollinators, people and the planet.”

The report, “Swarming the Aisles: Rating top retailers on bee-friendly and organic food,” comes amid consumer pressure on food retailers to adopt more environmentally-friendly sourcing policies.

A coalition led by Friends of the Earth and more than 50 farmer, beekeeper, farmworker, environmental and public interest organizations sent a letter urging food retailers to eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides and increase USDA certified organic food and beverages to 15 percent of overall offerings by 2025, prioritizing domestic, regional and local producers.

This effort follows a campaign that convinced more than 65 garden retailers, including Lowe’s and Home Depot, to commit to eliminate bee-toxic neonicotinoid pesticides.

Bees and other pollinators are essential for one in three bites of food consumed in the United States. Without pollinators, grocery stores would run short of strawberries, almonds, apples, broccoli and more.

A growing body of science points to the world’s most widely-used insecticides, neonicotinoids, as a leading factor in pollinator declines, and glyphosate, the most widely-used herbicide worldwide, as a key culprit in monarch butterfly declines.

New data from a YouGov Poll released today by Friends of the Earth and SumOfUs found that 80 percent of Americans believe it is important to eliminate neonicotinoids from agriculture.

Among Americans who grocery shop for their household, 65 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that has formally committed to eliminating neonicotinoids.

The poll also revealed that 59 percent of American grocery shoppers believe it is important for grocery stores to sell organic food, and 43 percent would be more likely to shop at a grocery store that sells more organic food than their current grocery store.

“Over 750,000 SumOfUs members have spoken out advocating that U.S. Hardware stores take action to protect our pollinators. And after years of pressure, Home Depot and Lowe’s have finally enacted more bee-friendly policies,” said Angus Wong, lead campaign strategist at SumOfUs, a consumer watchdog group. “And the findings of this poll show that a vast majority of consumers want to eliminate neonicotinoids from their grocery stores too. This is why food retailers must commit policies that protect our bees immediately.”

The report found that while consumer demand for organic and pesticide-free food continues to show double-digit growth only four of the top food retailers — Albertsons, Costco, Target (TGT) and Whole Foods — have adopted a publicly available company commitment to increase offerings of certified organic food  or to disclose data on the current percentage of organic offerings or organic sales.

In addition to these retailers, Aldi, Food Lion, part of the Delhaize Group (DEG) and Kroger (KR) disclosed data on the current percentage of organic offerings or organic sales.

None of the retailers have made a publicly available commitment to source organic from American farmers.

“To protect pollinators, we must eliminate pollinator-toxic pesticides from our farming systems and expand pollinator-friendly organic agriculture,” said Dr. Kendra Klein, staff scientist at Friends of the Earth. “Organic farms support 50 percent more pollinator species than conventional farms. This is a huge opportunity for American farmers. Less than one percent of total U.S. farmland is in organic production — farmers need the support of food retailers to help them transition dramatically more acreage to organic.”

Sixteen of the top 20 food retailers were predominately unresponsive to requests for information via surveys, calls and letters.

Primary sources of information for this scorecard include publicly available information, including company websites, company annual reports, SEC filings, corporate social responsibility and sustainability reports, press coverage and industry analyses.

On the Web

The reportSwarming the Aisles: Rating top retailers on bee-friendly and organic food, survey results, tips for consumers and letters to retailers can be found at www.foe.org/beeaction.

Farmers, consumers want new management of organic program

Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute delivered to the USDA more than 5,000 letters from farmers and consumers calling for new management of the National Organic Program.

The food and farm policy research group collected the letters from concerned organic advocates across the country.

“This is one more indication of the growing dissatisfaction with deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy’s direction and oversight of the rapidly growing organic industry,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s senior farm policy analyst.

The Cornucopia Institute, along with many other public interest groups, has been critical of what they describe as a “corporate takeover” of the regulatory process that Congress designed specifically to protect organic rulemaking from the influence of agribusiness lobbyists.

“Under the direction of deputy Administrator McEvoy, the independence of the National Organic Standards Board, an expert policy panel convened by Congress to act as a buffer between lobbyists, like the powerful Organic Trade Association, and USDA policymakers has been seriously undermined,” said Dr. Barry Flamm, a Montana farmer, scientist and past chairperson of the NOSB.

In the cover letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the organization cited several areas where it says the USDA management is failing. These include:

A lack of enforcement activities on major fraud and alleged violations of organic regulations occurring with “factory farm” livestock activities — all cloaked in secrecy.

Ignoring the questionable authenticity of the flood of organic imports coming into this country from China, India, a number of former Soviet Bloc states and Central America that have effectively shut American organic grain farmers out of the U.S. market.

Allowing, in violation of the law, giant industrial-scale soilless production of organic produce (hydroponic and other management systems), along with ignoring NOSB prohibitions on nanotechnology, using conventional livestock on organic dairies, and other issues.

Usurpation of NOSB governance and authority by USDA/NOP staff and other violations of the Organic Foods Production Act (Cornucopia has a federal lawsuit being adjudicated that charges the USDA with appointing agribusiness executives to the NOSB in seats Congress had specifically earmarked for stakeholders who “own or operate an organic farm”).

Unilateral changes to the Sunset review process for synthetic and non-organic materials, making it difficult for unnecessary or harmful substances to be removed from organics when agribusinesses lobby for them (the USDA is currently involved in litigation with Cornucopia and other stakeholders on this Sunset issue).

“We want organics to live up to the true meaning envisioned by the founders of this movement,” Kastel said. “For both organic farmers and organic consumers, that means sound environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, wholesome and nutritious food derived from excellent soil fertility, and economic justice for those who produce our food. The USDA needs to act to preserve consumer trust in the organic label.”

Due in part to the issues that Cornucopia is spotlighting, Consumer Reports has downgraded the credibility of the USDA organic label from its previous top-tier ranking.


Green Gaze: Organic entrepreneur grows fresh food in Ripon

By NATE BECK, Fond de Lac Reporter

In a basement below Bluemke’s appliance shop in downtown Ripon, thousands of vegetables sprout every week, bound for the aisles of one of northeast Wisconsin’s biggest grocers.

Since it was founded two years ago, Ernessi Organics has grown to supply its greens to 16 grocery stores, including 13 Festival Foods locations across Wisconsin, the Fond de Lac Reporter reported.

Basil, amaranth and other veggies grown here can be found nestled in entrees at The Roxy, Primo Italian Restaurant and other eateries in the Fox Valley.

Ernessi’s fast success turns on consumer appetite for fresh and wholesome ingredients prepared locally and retail’s efforts to catch up.

Ripon approved a $60,000 loan to the company last summer that helped pay for custom-made lights and other infrastructure. With a facility that produces 3,000 packages of fresh greens weekly, Ernessi can hardly keep pace with demand so the company recently launched an expansion that will double how much it can produce this fall.

So what does it take to start a blossoming company like this?

It’s about charging forward, head down, at the hurdles before you, said company founder Brian Ernst. “As an entrepreneur, you see a vacuum in the market and you go for it,” he said.

A geologist educated at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Ernst found work after college at a large company, but soon tired of the work. He began tinkering with hydroponics, the process of growing plants without soil, in his basement. Ernst and his friend Tim Alessi began testing how light affects the growth of herbs and vegetables, settling on a combination that tricks plants into thinking that spring has just sprung, causing them to sprout faster.

In 2014, Ernst’s employer laid him off. Rather than shopping his resume around to other companies, Ernst, at the urging of his wife, decided to turn this hydroponic hobby into a company.

But to do that would require cash.

So he and his wife sold everything they could: TVs, furniture, Ernst’s 401(K), all of it. With $10,000, the company was born, three months after he and his wife had their second child, while raising a 3-year-old.

So, no. Starting a business isn’t about safety.

The draw about this breed of farming is that it can be done anywhere. Inside the Ernessi operation, floor-to-ceiling steel racks support rows of budding plants on trays. One four-foot-by-eight-foot palate of veggies yields 576 plants in just 35 days, using much less water than a typical farm would. And here in Wisconsin, with its brutal winters, there’s no end to Ernessi’s growing season.

This latest expansion will allow the company to double its production and deliver its plants faster, with a new refrigerated truck. The company’s business is built on supplying plants to grocery stores or restaurants less than 24 hours after they are cut, for the same price as producers elsewhere.

To meet this, Ernst said expanding the company to different parts of the Midwest will likely require him to franchise the company. These veggies are no longer local, he said, if they travel more than two hours to their destination. So in the next five years, Ernst hopes to start a location in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, that would supply produce to grocery stores and others in that market.

For now though, Ernst is focused on the company’s expansion, and growing new products, lettuce, gourmet mushrooms and more. He plans to use leftovers from the beer-making process at nearby Knuth Brewing Co., a Ripon-based brewery, for the soil to grow mushrooms. Lately, he’s been wheeling a blue plastic drum two blocks up Watson Street to the brewery to collect the stuff.

“If you have the drive, starting a business is not a hard decision,” Ernst said. “Any entrepreneur will tell you, there’s never a good time to start a business.”

The harder you work, the smaller these hurdles seem.


Study: Conventional strawberries most contaminated with pesticides

Conventional strawberries top the Dirty Dozen list from the Environmental Working Group’s 2016 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

For the past five years, apples had topped the list.

Nearly all strawberry samples — 98 percent — tested by federal officials had detectable pesticide residues, according to EWG.

Forty percent had residues of 10 or more pesticides and some had residues of 17 different pesticides. Some of the chemicals detected on strawberries are relatively benign but others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems.

Strawberries were once a seasonal, limited crop, but heavy use of pesticides increased yields and stretched the growing season. In California, where most U.S. strawberries are grown, one acre can be treated with about 300 pounds of pesticides. More than 60 pounds are conventional chemicals that may leave post-harvest residues but most are fumigants — volatile poison gases that can drift into nearby schools and neighborhoods, according to EWG.

“It is startling to see how heavily strawberries are contaminated with residues of hazardous pesticides, but even more shocking is that these residues don’t violate the weak U.S. laws and regulations on pesticides in food,” said Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst. “The EPA’s levels of residues allowed on produce are too lax to protect Americans’ health. They should be updated to reflect new research that shows even very small doses of toxic chemicals can be harmful, particularly for young children.”


Recent studies of insecticides used on some fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, found children exposed to high levels were at greater risk of impaired intelligence and ADHD. Research also indicates the levels of pesticides in the bodies of elementary school children peaked during the summer, when they ate the most fresh produce. But after just five days on an organic diet, they were essentially pesticide-free.

The Dirty Dozen lists the fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated by multiple pesticides and which have higher concentrations of pesticides.

More than 98 percent of strawberries, peaches, nectarines and apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue. The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.

Clean 15

Avocados, on the other hand, remained on the group’s Clean 15 list, with less than 1 percent of samples showing any detectable pesticides. No single fruit sample from the Clean 15 tested positive for more than four types of pesticides and very few for more than one.

The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, updated every year since 2004, ranks pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables. EWG’s analysis is based on results of more than 35,200 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. This year’s update found a total of 146 pesticides on fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2014 – residues that remain on produce even after items are washed and in some cases peeled.

Driftless Folk School teaches classic skills

In Viroqua, a small educational anomaly has found its footing in the heart of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Founded in 2006, the Driftless Folk School has brought more and more students west to experience its creative and alternative classes.

The exact definition of a folk school varies among states and regions depending on local values and customs. The Driftless Folk School is one of several in the country, others are located in the Door County region of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida.

Loosely, a folk school is a supportive community of teachers and learners who come together to share ideas, traditions and skills. Classes focus on sustainability, living in harmony and hands-on activities. 

To learn what a class at a folk school is like, I attended one: “Beyond Cabbage: Fermentation for the Late Harvest Season.” 

Taught by Heidi Krattiger and Bjorn Bergman, the three-and-a-half hour class held at a Viroqua High School was designed to give even novices the courage to try the process at home. During the initial session, we tasted a delightful sampling of items from Krattiger and Bergman’s own reserve. The couple offered cherry tomatoes, ramp bulbs, coriander, bean paste and raspberries — each with its own unique tang. 

After the tasting, we received two demonstrations on starting a ferment — one with cabbage and the other with sweet potato. The final hour was designated for experimenting with vegetables from the couple’s own garden and the local co-op. 

We swapped techniques and chatted among ourselves while chopping, squeezing and salting vegetables, preparing to seal them into sterile canning jars at the end of the class. When the hour concluded, we took these ferments home to nurse over the coming days and weeks. 

The most important lesson Krattiger and Bergman impressed upon us is fermentation is a fun process that can yield tasty results, especially when traditional ingredients are abandoned for audacious ones. 

It can also save food from going to waste. As Krattiger noted after the class, “We started to realize we were beyond normal when we noticed that not everyone kept homemade fermented items in their fridge.” 

This epiphany is what led them to the folk school, aware that their quirky talent for pickling everything from lemons to sweet potatoes might interest local residents. 

The “folk” aspect of their talent lies in the way it was acquired — by absorbing knowledge passed on by other practitioners. The couple have attended classes at the Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge and Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg. They also own books on the subject such as Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. 

Krattiger and Bergman say they have taught at the school for a year and the most recent class was their largest. They separately teach classes, such as “Growing Greens Year Round,” “Low Tunnel Design” and “Holiday Baking.”

In addition to these classes, the Driftless Folk School offers other opportunities, ranging from autumn beekeeping to spoon carving, woodworking to contra dance. Most of these are held in homes and in other local venues because the school does not yet have a unified campus that can accommodate a growing number of students, more than 600 in 2015.

True, many of its classes are designed around the schedules of the residents of Viroqua and the surrounding area, known for its robust farmers markets and thriving arts scene. But it is not just a school for locals. If you are a student with a genuine desire to learn, you will be greeted enthusiastically no matter where you come from.

For more, visit driftlessfolkschool.org or call 608-632-3348.

Why you should actually eat your Brussels sprouts

My mother always encouraged me to eat my Brussels sprouts. As an incentive, she would boil the little cabbage heads to within an inch of their soggy lives, slather them with cheap oleo margarine and liberally salt and pepper them.

More often than not, they would simply sit on my plate, usually next to a puddle of mashed potatoes, staring up at me and daring me to choke them down. Eventually, Brussels sprouts were removed from the family menu.

In hindsight, I know now that my mother’s error was not in her intent, but in her execution. The advent of new, more appealing recipes and my own increased health awareness have led me to better appreciate just what well-prepared sprouts can deliver from both culinary and nutritional perspectives.

Along with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts are now a Thanksgiving Day side dish mainstay at our house, and I can’t wait for this year’s feast to show my appreciation to one of the vegetable kingdom’s most nutritional offerings.

Brussels sprouts are a cabbage, of the same species as cultivars like broccoli, cauliflower, kale and traditional cabbage — and, indeed, they grow in Belgium and the other European low countries. In North America, they are cultivated everywhere from Canada’s Ontario province to Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, although the majority come from the state of California.

Nutritional research has shown Brussels sprouts to be an excellent source of vitamins C and K, the latter of which improves blood clotting, as well as more moderate amounts of B vitamins and minerals. When steamed, Brussels sprouts can more effectively bind together bile acids in the digestive tract, which can help lower cholesterol. The vegetable’s high levels of glucosinolate also offer some level of protection against cancer.

When done right, there is nothing about Brussels sprouts not to like — and their cruciferous characteristics match or surpass the health benefits of broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. If you are still struggling with the little green cabbages, here are some recipes that can help put the joy back in your side dishes. Each has its own unique flavor profile to augment whatever you may be serving this holiday season.

Bacon Brussels Sprouts

1½ lb. Brussels spouts trimmed. (small sprouts remain whole, large sprouts are halved)

3 slices bacon, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

1 cup chicken broth

1 tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown bacon in medium skillet over medium-high heat, then remove and pat clean with paper towel. Clean the pan and add the olive oil. Stir in shallots and sauté 1 to 2 minutes.

Add Brussels sprouts to oil, season with salt and pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until sprouts begin to soften. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 10 minutes until sprouts are tender, then transfer to a serving dish and top with bacon crumbles.

Brussels Sprout Hash

4 tbsp. butter

¾ lb. shallots, sliced

3 tbsp. cider vinegar

2 tbsp. sugar

Course kosher salt

Ground black pepper

2 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed

4 tbsp. olive oil

1½ cup water

Melt the butter in a large sauté pan. Add shallots and sprinkle with kosher salt and pepper to taste. Stirring occasionally, sauté until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add cider vinegar and sugar, then continue sautéing for about 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to bowl and set aside.

Clean and trim Brussels sprouts. Cut each sprout in half through stem. Slice each half into 1/8-inch strips.

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add Brussels sprouts and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes or until sprouts begin to brown.  Add water and continue cooking over medium heat for another 3 minutes. Add reserved shallots, toss until all ingredients are hot, then serve.

Maple Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Walnut Garnish

1½ lb. Brussels sprouts

2 tbsp. maple syrup

½ cup walnuts, chopped and toasted

¼ cup olive oil

¾ tsp. sea salt

¼ tsp. black pepper

Trim Brussels sprouts, removing any loose or discolored leaves. In a large bowl, toss the sprouts together with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread the coated sprouts in a baking pan to roast in an oven preheated to 375 degrees.

Roast for 15 minutes, stirring with a spoon to even out the caramelizing of the sprouts. After 30 minutes, stir in the maple syrup. Roast the sprouts for another 15 minutes or until they are fork tender, for a total roasting time of about 45 minutes.

Add the toasted walnuts to the sprouts, toss and serve.

UW-Oshkosh is No. 3 on Sierra’s list of greenest schools

Sierra magazine, the official publication of the Sierra Club, released its ninth annual “Cool Schools” ranking of America’s greenest colleges and universities and put University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the top 3.

Each of the schools ranked in the top 20 have displayed a deep and thorough commitment to protecting the environment, addressing climate issues and encouraging environmental responsibility, according to a news release from the club.

More than 150 schools filled out Sierra’s survey about sustainability practices on campus. Using a customized scoring system, Sierra’s researchers ranked the universities based on their commitment to upholding high environmental standards.

Sierra magazine’s top 20 schools of 2015 are:

  1. University of California, Irvine

  2. University of California, Davis

  3. University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh

  4. Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO)

  5. Oberlin College (Oberlin, OH)

  6. University of Connecticut   

  7. University of California, San Diego

  8. University of Washington, Seattle

  9. Lewis & Clark College (Portland, OR)

  10. University of California, Berkeley

  11. University of South Florida (Tampa, FL)

  12. Green Mountain College, (Poultney, VT)

  13. Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ)

  14. Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT)

  15. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  16. Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA)

  17. College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, ME)

  18. University of California, Santa Barbara

  19. Colby College (Waterville, ME)

  20. Portland State University (Portland, OR)

“We’re so inspired to see how colleges are taking the lead on addressing climate change,” said Avital Andrews, Sierra magazine’s lifestyle editor. “From building green to saving water to offering hundreds of eco-classes, these schools’ efforts are profound, and are changing not only the campus grounds, but also the minds of the students they’re educating.”

This is UC Irvine’s sixth consecutive year as a top 10 finalist and its second time in a row as Sierra’s winner, thanks in part to three on-campus solar projects, a 19-megawatt turbine cogeneration plant, and energy-efficiency goals that are consistently exceeded.

Other factors that helped those at the top of our list: dining halls that serve organic, local foods; waste systems that divert trash away from landfills; transportation options that keep students and staff out of cars; academic programs that are heavily eco-focused; and strong methods in place to conserve water and energy.

“Young people understand the need to confront climate disruption and jump-start our economy. That’s why students across the country have joined the Sierra Student Coalition’s Seize the Grid campaign — demanding 100 percent localized clean energy on campuses,” said Karissa Gerhke, national director of the Sierra Student Coalition. “‘Cool Schools’ is a showcase of campuses taking concrete steps toward those goals. We look forward to working with these schools in taking the next step and committing to 100 percent clean energy.”

The full ranking of 153 colleges, including each school’s completed questionnaire, is online at www.sierraclub.org/coolschools.

UW-River Falls ranked No. 24.

UW-Milwaukee ranked No. 68.

UW-Stevens Point ranked No. 70.

UW-Green Bay ranked No. 78.

UW-Whitewater ranked No. 94.

Lakefront goes organic with Growing Power

Business partnerships are nothing new, but some grow more “organically” than others.

Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery has ratcheted up its relationship with Growing Power, the Milwaukee nonprofit devoted to sustainable urban farming, in order to raise awareness of sustainability issues and opportunities. As a result, Lakefront’s legions of fans have a new beer to savor.

Lakefront’s Growing Power, a farmhouse-style organic pale ale that’s 6.7 percent alcohol by volume, blends organic Cascade, Centennial and Calypso hops with Belgian yeast strains for unique and slightly lighter Belgian-style saison. Released in May in limited quantities, Growing Power had such strong initial sales that the brewery has had to increase its yield just to keep pace with demand, says Lakefront founder and president Russ Klisch.

“Growing Power has been selling very well, and we haven’t gotten it out like we should,” Klisch says. “Distributors didn’t know (Growing Power Inc. founder and CEO) Will Allen and initially under-ordered the beer. It’s now available again, but it takes time to get it brewed.”

Allen, a former basketball player with the University of Miami Hurricanes and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, founded Growing Power in 1993 to teach urban populations how to sustainably farm otherwise abandoned inner city locations. Through his work, Allen has spread his sustainability gospel throughout the United States, as well as to countries such as Kenya, Macedonia and Ukraine.

Allen has partnered with Lakefront since 2001, Klisch says, using the spent grain left over from the company’s brewing production as compost material.

“I have no idea how much we send him, but it’s a lot,” Klisch says. “We bought 850,000 pounds of barley last year and even though the sugars are taken out (during the brewing process), it’s probably over a million pounds when it’s wet.” 

As part of the partnership, Lakefront purchases locally grown yellow perch from Allen’s aquaponics operation at 5500 W. Silver Spring Road to serve at its popular Friday night fish fries. Klisch also contributes beer to local Growing Power workshops and has poured beer at the conferences Allen puts on to teach sustainability to a growing population of urban farmers.

The introduction of Growing Power ale, from which the nonprofit will receive 10 percent of the profits, takes the relationship to a new level. The beer’s Belgian style is a callback to Allen’s athletic career, Klisch says.

“When Will Allen was still playing professional basketball, he played for a time in Belgium and developed a taste for their beers,” Klisch says. 

Allen’s interest in sustainable agriculture dates back to Belgium as well. While there, he witnessed the yield-intensive ways Belgian farmers were able to maximize small plots of land, according to the Growing Power website. 

The new beer, as well as the growing partnership between the two companies, brings together the best of both worlds, Allen says.

“The partnership serves as a strong example of how two companies that worked together over many years are able to demonstrate stewardship of a sustainable food system,” he says. “This sustainable food system will not only provide good food and drink to Milwaukee and beyond, but will also be a catalyst to create more jobs and economic development in our city and around the nation.”

That may someday include the city’s brewing industry. Lakefront’s new beer, certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adds one more entry to the brewery’s growing line of organic and gluten-free brews.

Producing organic beer is more time-consuming and expensive than non-organic beer, Klisch says, largely because certified organic ingredients, especially hops, are hard to come by. In addition, formulating organic beer requires more time and care during the brewing process.

Klisch would know. He and Lakefront introduced Organic E.S.B., the country’s first certified organic beer, in 1996. The beer has run its course and been retired, but Lakefront has since followed with several other brands, including Growing Power.

Fuel Café (6.4 percent ABV), named for the Riverwest coffee house of the same name at 818 E. Center St., uses the cafe’s coffee in a blend with its own dark roasted malts for a coffee stout of unparalleled flavor. Pouring a deep, almost black color with a creamy tan head, Fuel Café is long on coffee aromas and flavors, with a balance of organic hops and a full mouthfeel for a strong finish.

Lakefront’s Organic Belgian White (4.6 percent ABV) is the brewery’s other homage to creative Belgian beers. Brewed with all-organic malt and wheat and spiced with organic coriander and orange peel, the beer pours a hazy golden blonde with a thick pearly head. It’s a light, spritzy concoction perfect for warm summer days, according to Klisch, and he says its sales have doubled in the last year.

Beerline Organic Barley Wine Style Ale (12.5 percent ABV) is a rich, malty, multi-level seasonal favorite. Expect a smooth, malt-forward style with undertones of caramel, coffee and dried fruits on the palate. Organic Bravo hops give the beer spiciness and its alcoholic strength provides a pleasurable afterglow.

Lakefront also now produces two gluten-free beers. New Grist Pilsner (5.1 percent ABV), long a standard and one of the brewery’s best sellers, has been joined by New Grist Ginger Style Ale (4.7 percent ABV). The spicy-sweet character of the ginger strides forward in this malted sorghum-based brew, with a little green apple on the back palate. The beer is similar to its predecessor, but with a little ginger kick.

Currently, Lakefront has no immediate plans to further extend its organic lines, much as Klisch might like to do so.

“It would be nice if we could go fully organic, but there are cost factors involved,” Klisch says. “The cost of ingredients is almost double what they otherwise are, and I don’t think there’s enough organic hops out there to brew all the beer right now.”

But Klisch is still optimistic. Five years ago there were no organic hops available, but now there are enough to brew the five organic brands that Lakefront sells. Klisch knows it’s anyone’s guess what conditions will be like five years from now.

Do you know the mushroom man?

When the Dane County Farmers’ Market opened for the season at 6 a.m. on April 18, vendor Jaime Ramsay was in the same stall he and his wife Diane have occupied since 1992, right where Wisconsin Avenue intersects with Mifflin Street on the Capitol Square. With him, as always: his mushrooms.

Ramsay is a mushroom farmer, and has been one significantly longer than his 23-year tenure at the market. While he grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Merrimac, Wisconsin, and still lives there, he’s since become a staple of the community’s mushroom-lovers, including a weekly barrage of chefs from some of Madison’s finest restaurants.

“I first read about shiitake mushrooms back in the ‘90s,” says Ramsay, who studied dairy science at UW-Madison. “There was a lot of information available and I thought that this would be something fun that we could do.”

Shiitake mushrooms, Southeast Asian in origin, are known by epithets like sawtooth oak mushrooms or black forest mushrooms, based on the decaying oak and other tree varieties from which they naturally grow. The mushrooms have what Ramsay describes as a “woodsy, garlicky flavor” and a fairly meaty texture. 

Once a novelty only found in Asian dishes and miso soup, shiitake have become a mainstay among professional chefs and talented home cooks interested in stretching their families’ palates.

Ramsay originally tried growing his shiitake in the traditional fashion, where freshly cut logs with holes drilled in diamond-shaped patterns are used to house spores that will fruit and become edible fungi. That process, Ramsay says, proved costly and cumbersome.

He now uses sawdust blocks. Ramsay acquired his original blocks and other supplies used by a Sun Prairie mushroom grower that had gone out of business, purchasing the gear from the bank holding a lien on the property.

“One grower’s misfortune became our good fortune,” he says.

The 6-pound blocks look like large loaves of bread and are comprised of sawdust, wheat and millet that provide the spores with a place to grow and a modicum of nutrition. 

Placed on metal shelves in three barns on Ramsay’s property, which operates as Indian Farm Mushrooms and Hops, the mushroom requires a relatively warm, clean and humid environment and about four weeks to germinate and a total of 10 weeks to fruit-out with mushrooms ready for picking.

“We have about 4,000 square feet devoted to growing mushrooms,” Ramsay says. “I think we must have several thousand blocks growing at any one time.”

Oyster mushrooms, also known as abalone or tree mushrooms, are a little different. Ramsay grows yellow, gray, brown and pink oyster mushrooms, each of which has slightly different characteristics.

“The brown and gray oysters are similar in taste and texture,” Ramsay says. “The yellow oysters have a sharper flavor and are the lightest in texture, while the pinks have a texture similar to the browns and grays.”

Oyster mushrooms are grown on wheat straw and then the mixture is put in hanging plastic bags into which small holes have been cut. After four to six weeks of incubation, the mushroom fruit pops through the holes, ready to be harvested, a process that repeats itself every two weeks.

“Between the two we get 300 to 350 pounds of mushroom per week,” says Ramsay, who sells his crop for $3.50 per pint or two pints for $6. “I like to be competitive and tend to price my mushrooms below what you might pay in the grocery store.”

Ramsay also sells grow-your-own oyster mushroom kits for $10, each of which produces 1½ to 2½ pounds of mushrooms for the novice grower, he says.

Low prices and year-around availability are good news for Madison-area chefs, who often shop the Dane County market on Saturdays for produce to use during the week. 

Regular diners at Forequarter, Harvest, Cento, The Old Fashioned, Heritage Tavern and other establishments may have eaten Ramsay’s mushrooms. The grower sees the restaurants’ involvement as essential to the public’s “mushroom education.”

“Some people are afraid to try the mushrooms on their own, but the chefs put them in dishes that are fantastic,” he said. “I tell everyone to just try them and you will enjoy them.”

In addition to mushrooms, Ramsay also grows hops, which he sells through the Wisconsin Hop Exchange, a cooperative formed to provide locally grown hops to the state’s craft brewing industry. The hops towers occupy only about a half-acre of his farm and that’s about as deep as he wants to get into the brewing industry.

“I don’t think my wife would want me to grow more,” Ramsay says.

Madison’s reluctant chef Jonny Hunter captures the culinary spotlight with Underground Food Collective

Jonny Hunter moved to Madison 18 years ago in search of intellectual freedom and an environment that embraced a love of learning. After he found all that, he found something else: an opportunity to establish an alternative model for fine dining that has propelled him into the culinary spotlight.

Hunter is the co-owner of Madison’s Underground Food Collective, a multifaceted enterprise with catering, meat processing and fine-dining components. He serves as the chef at the restaurant, Forequarter, a recent venture that has been named one of the country’s top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appétit magazine. And on Feb. 18, the 35-year-old was revealed to be one of four Wisconsinites on the shortlist for a prestigious honor: the James Beard Award for best chef in the Midwest.

Hunter was joined on the list by fellow Madison chef Dan Fox of The Heritage Tavern and Milwaukee chefs Justin Carlyle of Ardent and David Swanson of Braise. Hunter wasn’t ultimately selected in the final round, though Carlyle earned one of five slots.

Hunter’s response to the nomination — “It’s great to be recognized individually for what we do, but it really is the people I work with who are doing this every day. The job they do is more important than what I do” — is so modest it’s tempting to assume he’s a native Midwesterner. But he was raised in Tyler, Texas, where he was brought up in a strict Christian household. It was that repressive environment that Madison marked an escape from, when Hunter moved in 1998. 

After a year of random jobs, he registered for classes at UW-Madison, majoring in English with a certificate in integrated liberal studies and eventually earning a master’s degree in public affairs from the university. 

The building blocks of the Underground Food Collective came in between. In 2001, Hunter and a group of friends took over Catacombs Coffeehouse, a Christian coffee shop located in the basement of Pres House, the historic Presbyterian church on the campus’s Library Mall. The group served students $2.50 vegetarian lunches and promoted a communal atmosphere. 

“Community was the most important thing here,” says Hunter, who before running Catacombs had worked in a variety of Madison restaurant kitchens and food carts. “I learned a lot about the role food plays in a community and how to cook for that community using vegetables and produce grown by people I came to know and respect.

“I never really call myself chef,” Hunter adds. “When we were working at Catacombs it was all about collaboration, being kind to each other, and for the experience itself to be good.”

The Catacombs years colored how Hunter looks at life and his chosen profession. In 2005, the reluctant chef and his Catacombs companions set their sights on applying their approach to food service outside of the religious environment of Pres House. 

“Since Catacombs was in a basement space, we named our food collective ‘Underground’ in homage to that experience,” he said. “We started to work with nonprofits to bring in food as part of their activities.”

The Underground Food Collective immediately set off in a unique direction, launching a series of pop-up dinners — not only in Madison, but also in Chicago and New York City. Hunter says the group would create its menu first, then rent out a restaurant space to execute the meal.

“People embraced the concept as a way for us to pursue culinary careers without taking on full-time obligations,” Hunter says. “We just wanted the opportunity to cook for people and do something creative and fun.”

The success of the dinners led to the formation of Underground Catering, which added structure and opportunity to the pop-up concept and set the collective on its current trajectory. The enterprise, the first of several owned by Hunter, his brother Ben Hunter and business partner Melinda Trudeau, involved the same organic and local produce with which the collective had been working, while adding locally raised meats.

It was the first in a string of additions, some more successful than others. The collective’s first attempt at a restaurant, the Underground Kitchen, opened in 2010 and closed nine months later after a fire (the space is now occupied by Heritage Tavern). More successful was Underground Meats, a wholesale meat processing facility opened in 2012 that offers charcuterie, sausages and salami, and Underground Butcher, a retail meat store that offers fresh cuts from humanely raised animals. 

Hunter’s culinary talents have shone brightest at the collective’s permanent home, Forequarter Restaurant, also established in 2012. “Forequarter is a tiny restaurant, but the food there is really driven by the creative process and is very typical of where we are in Wisconsin and that we have fresh vegetables available for only a limited time each year,” Hunter says. “We’re limited in many ways, but those limitations help us to make something unique.”

Hunter says the restaurant isn’t themed beyond that description, although root vegetables are prominent in menu items and many dishes are made using fermentation processes borrowed from Asian cuisine. It’s a process that lends a unique character to such dishes as a salad of pickled trout with smoked trout roe, celeriac mayonnaise and shaved vegetables ($14) or fried mushrooms with black garlic, black radishes and caramelized shallot vinaigrette ($8), two of Hunter’s favorite menu items.

The collective will expand sometime in 2015, when Hunter opens his next restaurant, Middlewest, at 809 Williamson St., next door to Underground Butcher. He says the restaurant will be larger than Forequarter, with a focus on Wisconsin culture, but resists getting any more specific than that, except to say it’ll retain a commitment to sustainable foods.

“I think that we run a different kind of kitchen than a lot of other restaurants. The structure has changed from the early days, but the principles stay the same,” Hunter says. “The team that works there is responsible for the food coming out. The menu is not an expression of a single individual, but the expression of the team.”

Hunter’s expression of the collective ethos is one embraced by many Madison consumers. And the more well-known his name becomes, the fewer the limits on how far the Underground Food Collective can spread its influence and further its cause.


Forequarter Restaurant: 708 ¼ E. Johnson St., 608-609-4717.

Underground Meats: 931 E. Main St., 608-251-6171.

Underground Butcher: 811 Williamson St., 608-338-3421.

For more details, visit undergroundfoodcollective.org.