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Banking on Smaller Farmers to Feed Wisconsin's Communities

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

State’s agriculture leaders, food banks partner with new growers and producers to provide food to people in need

By Julian Emerson

Communications Specialist, Wisconsin Farmers Union

DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski

Within days of Wisconsin schools, businesses and other locations closing their doors in March 2020 to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, Sherrie Tussler realized food distribution efforts from the Wisconsin food bank network she oversees would change dramatically.

Tussler, executive director of Milwaukee-based Hunger Task Force received a phone call from a local TV station seeking comment about farmers dumping their milk because they had nowhere to sell or process it. Many of their usual customers, schools and restaurants, were shuttered because of the virus.

Farmers experienced additional backups processing their beef, pork and poultry animals as meat processing plants shut down when workers contracted COVID-19 or needed to distance themselves from other meat processing workers. Likewise, milk couldn’t be made into cheese as those facilities were closed too. Supply chain disruptions were commonplace and brought sales to a near halt.

At the same time, the number of people in need of food grew as many workplaces shut down and unemployment benefits were delayed.

“We had this convergence of everything going wrong at once,” Tussler recalled. “We knew we had to find a way to help as many people as we could, as quickly as we could. And we knew that would mean doing things differently.”

Typically, Hunger Task Force and other food banks in Wisconsin use government funding and donations they receive to purchase food from large commodity producers, often from other parts of the U.S., and then distribute that food through their networks. However, amid the pandemic, food banks partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) to use a significant portion of those dollars to buy food produced by small- and medium-size farmers.

When possible, those purchases were regional in nature. For example, food to Madison schools was bought as much as possible from farmers in and around Dane County.

In the more than two years since the start of the pandemic, food bank staff has worked with DATCP and organizations like Wisconsin Farmers Union to connect with Wisconsin farmers, creating markets for those producers while offering fresh, nutritious, regionally grown food. The effort also is aimed at providing much-needed economic opportunities for those smaller farmers.

“Some of those farmers told us privately that without us doing that, they would no longer be farming,” Tussler said. “That made me start thinking about the little guy. We started using our resources to help them out. Whenever possible, we’ve tried to buy from local farmers.”

Subsequent rounds of CARES Act funding were used, whenever possible, to purchase food “with a special emphasis on small- and medium-size farmers,” Tussler said. “We were buying food from little producers, the ones you had never heard of before.”

As the pandemic progressed, another major state food bank, Feeding Wisconsin, increasingly sought to make food purchases from farmers statewide, said Stephanie Jung Dorfman, the organization’s executive director. Those efforts oftentimes have been focused on small- and medium-size producers, she said. Feeding Wisconsin is a statewide association of six Feeding America food banks that provide local food programs in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

“We are still certainly partnering with commodity associations and big producers,” Jung Dorfman said, “but we are reaching out to more small farms. We are providing them with sales opportunities they haven’t had before.”

Federal dollars for food purchases disbursed through DATCP have not only opened up additional food sales markets for farmers, Jung Dorfman said, but have allowed higher payments to smaller producers. In some cases, those payments have enabled those farmers to remain in business.

“We are paying market prices (to farmers), and that is something that food banks haven't always been able to do. We are able to better support farmers with this government money,” Jung Dorfman said.

Big Move For Smaller Farmers

Alison and Jim Deutsch participated in food bank distribution efforts through the Badger Box program in March and April. The couple provided pork produced on their 160-acre farm near Osseo for the effort during the program’s initial two months, but their small farm couldn’t keep up when the required demand was bumped up.

“We did our best to fulfill as much as we could, but after those first two months we just couldn’t produce as much as they wanted,” Alison Deutsch said.

Despite challenges related to the program, the Deutsches praised the effort to include more small- and medium-size farmers in supplying food banks. The added sales, even for just two months, provided a substantial economic benefit, they said, and a sense of sales certainty the couple usually doesn’t enjoy with their direct sales to customers.

“This would be key to not losing as many farms here in Wisconsin,” Alison Deutsch said, “or even to having enough guaranteed income for more farmers to be able to get started. An effort like this is really needed.”

The Deutsches said they’re heartened to see DATCP and the statewide food bank network including farmers like them in the program. Among efforts to link more small- and medium-size farmers to people in need of food is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program (LFPA).

DATCP received $1.5 million in LFPA dollars in partnership with Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU), the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative and Marbleseed to facilitate connecting those farmers to customers. As part of the partnership, WFU will develop a director of farmers to purchase from, Marbleseed will procure their food for hunger relief and educate producers, and the food hub will take care of transportation and other logistics. The project is scheduled to begin this fall or early winter.

The grant calls for using more than half of the funding to buy food from 150 producers, most of whom must be smaller farmers.

“The fact that those organizations are taking steps to try to do this, it gives me hope that smaller farmers might be more included,” Alison Deutsch said.

Connecting Wisconsin farmers with people in need of food makes sense on multiple levels, DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski said. The effort has provided many small- and medium-size farmers who were struggling financially with additional opportunities to sell their products.

In addition, Romanski said, buying food locally and regionally instead of bringing in products from hundreds or thousands of miles away means fresher, healthier food for consumers. And those purchases keep money circulating in local communities instead of those dollars going out of state.

“We can grow all kinds of food and produce all kinds of food products here in Wisconsin,” Romanski said. “It just makes sense that we use that food to feed our people here, especially those who most need it.”

Regionalizing or localizing food purchases not only helps farmers, Tussler said, but improves the quality of the food people are consuming.

“It brings the food quality up,” she said. “It also makes sense to people to be eating food from their regions. That doesn’t often happen with commodity programs.”

Making Connections

Linking farmers and food banks has provided challenges, Romanski and food bank operators said. Simply finding local producers and connecting them to food banks has taken time. Establishing an improved infrastructure to better communicate with farmers and link them to food sales opportunities will require more work, as will reworking rules and structure to do so.

Those efforts continue, but cooperation between DATCP, food banks and farmers is helping to grow regional food networks. Romanski, Jung Dorfman, Tussler, and others said they hope to continue and grow purchases from local food producers in the future.

“We are rethinking how we can be good stewards of our dollars and still meet the need that is out there, and also how can we use these dollars to support local communities in ways that the history of our work hasn’t always done,” Jung Dorfman said.

To further those efforts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service recently announced it signed an agreement with DATCP to buy and distribute locally grown, produced and processed food from small- and medium-size farmers. That effort will improve food chain resilience while increasing local food consumption, said Jenny Leser Moffitt, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs.

Through the program, DATCP is partnering with Wisconsin Farmers Union, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative and Marbleseed to bring together producers, distributors, tribal governments and various community organizations to establish local food system connections linking smaller and marginalized producers into hunger relief efforts and other opportunities such as institutional purchasing.

Another challenge to local food purchases looms in the form of COVID relief funding that will expire as soon as the end of this year. Those dollars have allowed for food purchases from more Wisconsin farmers, and without them food bank operators worry about continuing to buy from those farmers in the future.

“We know these ARPA dollars will end, and right now there are no state dollars to continue that,” Jung Dorfman said. “We are hopeful that DATCP can come up with that money as part of the (2023-25) state budget.”

Higher food costs and supply chain issues are stretching available purchasing dollars, Tussler said. Current food relief programs rely in part on federal relief program dollars, and without those, new funding sources must be developed or those efforts likely face cutbacks.

“We’re coming off a time when there was so much food because of COVID funding,” Tussler said. “For about four years, even pre-COVID, there has been so much food available through the government that we have taken for granted that it would continue at that level. Suddenly, at a time when COVID is ending and we face a loss of infrastructure and support, it’s the perfect storm.”

Still, there is hope for continuing and expanding gains made in expanding efforts to include more small farmers to meet the big need of feeding Wisconsin’s hungry, Jung Dorfman said. Other funding could help keep those efforts going. For instance, the LFPA grant offers funding for two years. Those dollars are among efforts to create a more resilient food system in Wisconsin that can continue beyond COVID relief money, she said.

“We know it’s not good for the farmers or the people we serve if this all ends once the COVID money runs out,” Jung Dorfman said. “We’re trying to find ways to not only maintain what we have built, but to expand it. Doing that would be good for everyone involved.”

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