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Shaking the hand that feeds you Print
Guest column
Thursday, Apr. 19, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

The warmer than usual early spring weather has unleashed a flurry of activity and interest in gardening projects (urban and rural), farmers’ markets, and local farm produce available from our area farmers.

The Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities receives calls from those seeking local, fresh produce grower information so, in this section of the Catholic Herald, we will provide some basics for understanding different models of Wisconsin farming production and the communities they serve.

Conventional farming

Wisconsin has a long and esteemed position in providing for our nation’s food system. Our dairy herds are of all sizes and produce dairy products for direct sale through grocery businesses as well as providing the major ingredients for world renowned, artisan-crafted cheeses throughout our state.

Many of our farm families produce grain products, which may supplement their own animals’ feeding and/or is shipped out of state to be processed into a wide variety of food products for retail sale.

Fresh produce farms, local food system

An increasing number of food producers are concentrating in non-grain production of locally grown fruits and vegetable produce.

This model of farming is smaller scale, not supported by federal subsidies, and grows fresh produce for immediate use or sale. Many of the farms work to grow local fruits and vegetables with natural growing methods, avoiding herbicide and pesticide usage, and utilizing much less heavy equipment due to planting to a much smaller volume of production.

We need both of these models of farming in Wisconsin. The Catholic Church has spoken to the need for both conventional farms and the re-emerging local produce farms.

Relationship between farmer, consumer

Local farming producers survive only by direct marketing relationships with consumers and the need to have a direct relationship is crucial to their sustaining their farms and to many of us as consumers, who need to learn about choosing and using fresh fruits and vegetables in our meal planning.

Forming and maintaining a relationship with “our family farmer (of choice)” can provide us as food consumers a reliable source of knowledge about the food we see at the markets. This is also the safest path to the freshest and most nutrient-rich meal ingredients, and for those concerned about food safety, buying locally means produce is fresh, not delivered over 1500 miles and a week of travel.

How local is local?

This is really more a matter of personal choice, to a point. If I hear of sweet corn ears for sale at a farm-stand in Paoli or Lodi, that is local produce, with my home in Green County. That falls well within the standard measure of local, which is often stated as produce grown within 100 miles of one’s home. Some will make allowances out to 200 miles and still refer to it as local. My standard has become anything grown in the Diocese of Madison fits my definition of local.

This farmer/consumer relationship is multi-beneficial to both parties. This direct relationship can be fostered through several ways:

  • Community farmers’ markets. We can purchase at a community farmers’ market where we have a group of different farm vendors, with a wider selection of produce and selling on a regular weekly schedule. This is a great way to learn about fruits and vegetables, including tips for their use.
  • CSA farms. “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA) allows for growers and customers to develop a more committed financial arrangement, assuring the farmers of upfront income throughout the season and the CSA customer of a set number of weeks to receive fresh weekly harvest share (normally a bushel-sized box of produce in season).
  • Family farmstands. These are single family farm produce market stands where passersby can choose from a selection of produce featured on the farm-stand. Since these often allow for a grower to stay in their field/barn and the customer to make their own selection, purchase is often made “on the honor system”.
  • Community gardens. A community supported effort to grow fresh produce for local food pantries and families in need.

Living/eating within the natural cycles of growth and seasons, gifted to us by a loving Creator, reminds us of the joy of creation and the natural contentment of the good steward to the wonders of the world around us.


Tom Nelson is coordinator of the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Madison.