What could be more exciting to a food fanatic than a place that showcases a plethora of locally produced edible treasures? Nothing, really. Local food hubs are extremely important to those of us who want to not only enjoy and showcase our uniqueness here in the Driftless Region, but to strengthen our local and regional foodways. The USDA’s working definition of a regional food hub is “… a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products, primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.”
When we knew little about COVID-19 and the ways in which it spread, when restaurants shut down and grocery stores were worrisome places to travel to, consumers, particularly in the household income category of $100,000-$149,999 per year, increased their consumption of local fresh fruits and vegetables purchased directly from farms and also procured many goods from alternative food sources like food hubs.* At the onset of the crisis, several online local food stores popped up. Specialty food shops that already existed increased the diversity of their inventory to provide their customers with more options, from tortillas and herbal teas, mushrooms and grains, to dairy products and meat — the most interesting of which were the ones that chose to source products made or grown right here in Wisconsin, food hubs like Avrom Farm, Brix Cider, Enos Farms, Gavin Farms, Landmark Creamery, Vitruvian Farms and others. They amped up their online presence and inventory to not only come to the rescue of their customer base and maintain their own income streams, but to help other farmers in need who were sitting on product or produce they could no longer sell through their typical channels, like to restaurants and even through farmers markets that were closed for some time. Some even went as far as to offer delivery directly to the consumer.
The pandemic shed light on the weaknesses and limits of the dominant food-supply systems and also the innovative ways in which alternative and local food systems stepped up to fill the niches and provide for their communities. One such niche-filler and food hub is Wander Provisions, owned and operated by Kyle Adams in Spring Green. Wander Provisions is a Wisconsin producer-focused provisions and catering company specializing in outdoor dining experiences. Adams says, “When I found myself unemployed during COVID, the support system I found was in the local food scene. [They] gave me the only work I could find for six-plus months. So when it came time to start my own business, I wanted to pay it forward.” That’s not the only reason Adams chooses local whenever possible. When I posed the question, “Why local?” She retorted with a smile (behind a mask), “Is there any other way? I can’t source 100 percent from this area, but I will when I can. As business owners we make choices, and to me, it’s just a better choice all around to source local and regional from people I know. Plus the products tend to be higher in quality and taste better.”
Adams spelled out the exact notion of “Driftless terroir” for me right there on Albany Street: “If you’re traveling in Europe, don’t you seek out the food that comes from each place you visit? Why should Wisconsin be any different?”
And why have we become so disconnected from where our food comes from that a shop like Adams’ is a novelty? Our food system today is so centralized and industrialized that our options lie in a handful of mega-corporations and giant meat processors. Why did we stop growing our own vegetables and keeping our own animals or, better yet, what happened to mid-scale and regional processing like local creameries and breweries, mills and sauerkraut makers? National industrialization of the food industry made life easier in so many ways, that is certain; it made procuring “food” more convenient and less costly up front. But at what price? Today our environment, our personal health, and our interconnectedness as a community are all under threat. Famous chef and Slow Food advocate Dan Barber says, “In the rush to industrialize farming, we’ve lost the understanding, implicit since the beginning of agriculture, that food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.”
When the pandemic hit, we farmers and producers and small businesses banded together. We checked in with each other, we bought each others’ products, we cross-promoted events and ideas, we physically worked in each others’ kitchens and farms. Nobody got a call from Sysco or McDonald’s, from Walmart or Reinhardt inquiring about our welfare. It’s more important now than ever to pump our dollars back into our community, into our food hubs, into businesses that support local businesses so we can watch the facilities, institutions, connections, webs, networks that help fulfill our wants and needs as a community grow. There are plenty of ways in which we send money out. I challenge all of us to find as many ways as possible to keep it in and see what happens. Let’s cultivate more Driftless terroir with our dollars.
Huang K-M et al. (2021) “How did COVID-19 impact U.S. household foods? an analysis six months in,” PLoS ONE 16(9): e0256921.
Gusztáv Nemes et al. (2021) “The impact of COVID-19 on alternative and local food systems and the potential for the sustainability transition: Insights from 13 countries,” Sustainable Production and Consumption, Elsevier.
Erin Crooks Lynch and her husband, Jeremy, pasture-raise pigs in a unique way on Enos Farms in the Wyoming Valley (Spring Green). They also run an online frozen food store sourcing from local area organic farmers and producers with pickup and delivery options. For more information, see www.enosfarms.com or e-mail email@example.com.
Driftless Terroir (ter-WAHR) is a series featuring guest voices celebrating the intersection of land and culture — the essence of life in the Driftless Area — with topics including art and architecture, farming and gardening, cooking and eating, fermenting and drinking, and more. To contribute to Driftless Terroir, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.