Farmers across southern Wisconsin will have new option for marketing and selling their produce to large buyers.

Under the newly created Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, small and mid-size growers will combine their produce to meet the volume requirements of larger buyers like grocery stores, restaurants, schools and hospitals.

"We're poised to become a one-stop shop for locally grown produce and nobody's really offering that right now," said Lynn Olson, general manager for the cooperative. "You can find lots of folks that have one thing but few that offer an all the produce buyers are looking for."

Cooperatives for locally grown produce are on the upswing. A similar Viroqua-based cooperative called Fifth Season has been operating since 2010.

In 2011 the Dane County Planning and Development Department completed a food hub cooperative feasibility study that surveyed buyers and growers. Buyers indicated a demand for local produce ranging from $18 million to $26 million per year and up to 800,000 pounds per week. The study also concluded that the change from commodity crops to fresh produce could increase growers' profits.

Beyond the financial benefits, Olson said the cooperative will streamline sales by offering the quantities that larger buyers are looking for in exchange for 12 percent of the sale price from the farmers. The cooperative will also provide marketing, insurance, certification training and a network of farming knowledge.

"The farmer wants to be in the field, especially in a summer like last where there was often 24-hour irrigation. Anything other than farming takes us away from what we need to be doing," said Tara Turner, a third-generation farmer with Turners Fresh Market & Greenhouses in Waupaca.

Turner's farm is one of 11 mid-sized growers on board for the cooperative's first year. With the support of the Wisconsin Farmers Union and interest from distributors, Olson thinks the cooperative might add as many as 10 more growers in the near future.

The cooperative will function as a virtual hub at first, with growers coordinating online. Plans for the future include a packing and processing facility where produce can be prepared to buyer's needs.

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