With our food's mileage and freshness becoming a prominent social issue -- on average, food travels 1,700 miles before it reaches our plates -- it's no surprise that Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is on the rise.
Simply put, CSA is a model of food production and distribution that connects local farmers with local consumers who would otherwise buy from a grocery store. The number of CSAs is estimated at 3,000 nationally, with more than 100 in Wisconsin.
Chef David Swanson, owner of Milwaukee's Braise Culinary School, is now expanding the reach of local CSA farms by organizing the state's first Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA) system that connects local famers with local restaurant owners.
This summer Gov. Jim Doyle awarded Braise the "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" grant, a program aimed at keeping food spending in local communities by encouraging Wisconsin restaurants and businesses to make 10 percent of their food purchases in state by 2010.
It doesn't sound like much, but it's a pretty lofty goal that could have a significant impact on our economy. Currently, Wisconsin buys less than one percent of its products within its geographic boundaries.
"There's no checks and balances for it," says Swanson. "A lot of restaurants say they source locally, but what does that mean? They can buy one tomato from the farmers' market every September and say they source locally, which a lot of restaurants do. When a restaurant says they source locally and we get 15 inches of rain in June and their menu hasn't changed, you know they're not getting local food."
Braise Culinary School locally sources about 92 percent of its food and part of that practice involves traveling to local farms for cooking classes and seasonal dinners that take place right in the fields. When he launched Braise in 2006, its only rival was Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg, Calif.
"We can't do spices, chocolate, teas, stuff like that, but we work with local companies in that regard," he says. His real motivation, he says, is spreading awareness of where food comes from, since the local food movement is still in relative infancy.
"When chefs graduate from culinary school, their first though is to call an 800 number for a national food distributor. They're not told how to work with local food, so there is a whole disconnect between the chefs who need food and the local farmers supplying it."
It's a seemingly backward system that makes it easier to order organic food from New Zealand than from the next county over. There are hurdles for the restaurants industry, especially, small, independent, chef-owned places, to overcome as well; buying local meat, for example, means buying the whole animal, not a set number of frozen filets as needed. Most restaurants are not designed to clean, cut or store these types of products, but Swanson hopes his RSA can help change that.
In its first year, Braise's RSA is working with eight area restaurants, including Meritage, La Merenda, Café Manna and La Reve, and eight farms, including Full Harvest Farm in Hartford, Rare Earth Farm in Belgium, Afterglow Farm in Port Washington, MoonStar in Elkhorn and Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, where co-owner David Kozlowski works as a liaison between the RSA farmers and restaurants.
Swanson sits down with each restaurant to discuss their weekly needs for staple products: 50 pounds of potatoes, 20 pounds of onions, five pounds of garlic, 10 pounds of spinach, plus specialty items. Like the CSA system, members pay a portion of their fee upfront in exchange for 20 weeks of produce. This revenue finances the farm's whole seasonal budget, including seeds, tools, maintenance and land payments. There is little waste involved since farmers know exactly how much to plant and prepare for.
There is overlap among the RSA farms, so that if Pinehold's potato harvest is suffering from two feet of standing water -- as it was earlier this year -- they can call another farmer to make up for the loss.
Garnering support for Wisconsin farmers is a large factor in Swanson's efforts, he says.
"When you get down to it, we have a lack of supply in this state. If every restaurant that claims to be doing local food was actually doing what it said, you'd go to a farmer's market and you wouldn't find any food. Everything would be sold to the restaurants. An average 10-acre farm around here has about $60,000 to $70,000 worth of food sales total for the year. It would take the average restaurant 10 farms to really get all the food they'd need in one year."
He understands that agriculture is struggling, especially with a commercial restaurant industry that believes the "best onion is the cheapest onion." But as a James Beard-recognized chef who's worked at Sanford in Milwaukee, Le Francais and Carlo's in Chicago and Commander's Palace in New Orleans, he stands by his assertion that if you strive to produce the best tasting food and the best nutritional value for food, local is the only way to go.
He's hoping his RSA helps instill this value in both consumers and farmers.
"We need more farmers to grow things other than corn and soybeans. We're trying to show other farmers through this system that they can make a living on this."
He's also doing his part to easy the impact of a harsh Wisconsin winters by helping to construct a new storage facility at Pinehold Gardens that will enable long-term storage for crops like potatoes and onions.
"Many farmers store such crops in barns or basements where the climate keeps them for only about a month," he says. "But if stored properly, they can last up to four months and supply restaurants over winter."
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”