Fresh veggies

The appetite for locally-produced foods, especially in places like Madison, appears insatiable. Just look at the popularity here of both CSAs and farmers markets.

But getting more local products into the mainstream grocery supply chain has remained a challenge. It's one thing to sell tomatoes or spinach off the back of a truck versus getting them ready for the shelves at Roundy's.

Now, an effort is quietly moving forward in Dane County to develop a commercial-scale processing facility for local food items.

Plans call for a 15,000-square foot refrigerated "packing house" where fresh produce can be delivered, sorted, washed and prepared for distribution on a wider scale to large institutional buyers or retailers.

The facility would be located somewhere in the Madison area and could provide anywhere from 30 to 50 jobs, according to Olivia Parry, economic development specialist for Dane County.

"One thing we know for sure is there is a tremendous demand for local foods," she says. "The question is how can we better meet that demand."

Developing the facility could cost $2 million to $3 million, Parry estimates, with a variety of ownership options under consideration. The packing house could be grower-owned, investor-owned, a cooperative or some other combination.

"There are dozens of models out there," says Parry.

Parry says some 85 different institutional buyers representing $40 million worth of food purchases have already expressed interest in the project.

A 2012 or 2103 opening date is possible depending on who gets involved and what sites become available, Parry says.

And while groundbreaking is a year or more out, the effort is already drawing raves from Brandon Scholz, president of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.

"This is the great next step for the local food guys if they want to move from the farmers market into warehousing and distribution," he says.

Scholz says the ongoing problem facing smaller producers is simply getting their stuff into the food delivery system, which remains dominated by large distributors. He thinks more grocers would carry local products if they were easier to get, more reliably available and came ready to sell.

"A guy can't just pull up to a big grocery and say ‘I've got a truck full of beets. Where do I drop them off?' " says Scholz.

The project in being coordinated in part by the Dane County Institutional Food Market Coalition, which was founded in 2006 to connect local fruit and vegetable growers with institutional buyers such as hotels, school districts, hospitals or conference centers.

But the idea for a local food processing facility really started to take shape after the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC) last fall landed a $2 million Sustainable Community Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

One project identified in the grant is preparing a business plan for "an aggregation, storage and distribution facility that connects growers in the Capitol Region with wholesale buyers in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois for the purpose of preserving, strengthening and promoting local Wisconsin agriculture and improving food access in underserved communities."

Scholz, for one, is excited to see the warehousing project moving ahead.

"The whole organics thing has had a great growth pattern on its own," he says. "Getting into distribution is the logical next step."

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