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When Julie Wiedmeyer was laying the foundations for her new vanilla extract business, she mentally drew concentric rings around her Sun Prairie home.

She found the vodka base for the vanilla on the south side of Madison, where Yahara Bay uses a grain mash produced from Midwestern corn and Wisconsin-grown apples. She got little brown bottles from WB Bottle in Milwaukee and bought labels in Sun Prairie.

But none of it would be possible without one major import: bourbon vanilla beans, sourced from Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.

"I tried every bean I could get my hands on, in this country and several outside of the country," Wiedmeyer said, "maybe 50-60 combinations. I was looking for the 'wow' factor."

The extract produced by Wiedmeyer's company, The Vanilla Beanery, is local in the ever-evolving sense of the word. For Wiedmeyer and for many others, the concept of "local" food lives on a spectrum.

"What is the closest you can get the aspects of your product?" Wiedmeyer said. "Whether it's the label, the bottle ... what is the closest you could go? That's how I define local."

The cachet for local food has been growing in Madison since long before Michael Pollan's first food manifesto, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," was published in 2006. For some, eating local is primarily about freshness and taste; for others, it's a way to support their neighbors.

In 2007, the Oxford American Dictionary made "locavore" — "a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food" — the word of the year.

Though different organizations define it different ways, one thing has proved consistently true: local sells.

For Vanilla Beanery customers, "the most important thing initially is that it's a local product," said Wiedmeyer, who promotes her extract at food shows, coffee shops and Metcalfe's Markets.

"Learning that causes people to stay interested enough to purchase the product, maybe try it, and then fall in love with the flavor."

Over the past decade or so, the word "local" has evolved from simple geographic indicator to marketing gold. Dane Buy Local, a nonprofit that promotes locally owned businesses, had the biggest boost in its nine-year history in 2012, increasing membership by 18 percent to about 700.

Sometimes consumers "don't realize things are available locally, and in many cases it's better quality than you can get somewhere else," said Dane Buy Local President Colin Murray. "It's more sustainable ... and the shipping costs alone" may make local products competitive.

Another selling point is the pastoral romance of the countryside. An artistic rendering of the state of Wisconsin hangs on the wall between the L'Etoile and Graze restaurants showing where the beef and potatoes came from.

Metcalfe's Market posts "food miles" on its local produce (a problematic measure of sustainability, but a popular one nonetheless). In late summer, the Willy Street Co-Op hosts an "eat local" challenge, restricting eaters to foods from within a 150-mile radius for one month.

Soon, every vendor at the Dane County Farmers' Market will have a sign that shows where, on a map of Wisconsin, the farmer comes from.

"Local trumps organic for our customers," said market manager Larry Johnson. "We do have some certified organic growers, we have some who are transitional. But local seems to be important for most of our customers."

Elliot Cobb of Brooklyn visited the Dane County market on Saturday, which he often does with his wife and toddler son. That evening, he tweeted from @popwilleatme: First #DCFM market haul dinner: RP's sesame linguini, ramps, spinach, Graze demi baguette, Jordandal bacon and chorizo.

In addition to Jordandal, Cobb picks up ground beef and unusual cuts from Pecatonica Valley Farm in Hollandale and Fountain Prairie Farm inFall River. 

 "It's worth spending a little extra to me," Cobb said. "It's also a bit of a health issue, just trusting where the food is coming from, especially meat."

Cobb, who works at a financial institution in Madison, has lived in the area for 16 years off and on. When he was a student, the market was "more of an event" than a shopping trip. Now it's a grocery run.

"Meal planning will be an offshoot of that," Cobb said. "But we still supplement with things that are not local.

"I like to support local businesses, the local farms, that's a large chunk of it. But Sunday, the day after the market, we were at the grocery store in Oregon near where we live and buying blueberries from who knows where.

"We don't limit ourselves, except for maybe the ground beef piece ... we don't limit ourselves to only buying from the market. We supplement with foods that have traveled a great many miles."

In some ways, the word "local" is like the word "natural": The meaning changes based on who's using it.

Is a sirloin steak "local" if the cow was raised and slaughtered in a factory hundreds of miles away, then shipped to your neighborhood butcher in parts? Is butter "local" if the dairy farmers live in Wisconsin but the company that processes it is out of state?

The Dane County Farmers' Market has some particularly thorny rules about what's local and what's not. Farm-raised trout is acceptable; the same fish caught in Lake Michigan is not.

A farmer can't sell homemade soup made with beef or fish she didn't raise. But selling smoked salmon is OK (the smoking/curing being "hands on" enough to qualify as local production).

Similarly, a flour miller in Lone Rock who gets his grain from Wisconsin farmers — but doesn't grow wheat himself — cannot have a booth at the market. But baked goods are exempt from this rule. It doesn't matter where the flour in Stella's spicy cheese bread or Oakhouse Farm's cookies comes from.

"Hands-on, participatory activity is required," Johnson said. "The overall concept is producer-only. The person behind the table has to be the one who grew the product on the table."

Slow Food Madison, the 14-year-old local chapter of the international sustainable food movement, prioritizes "taste education and preserving the culinary heritage and identity of Wisconsin through food."

Slow Food encompasses many different ideas, with a focus on both locally grown, traditional food (like heirloom seeds) and authentic global cuisine. In the Slow Food Madison annual meeting in April at the Goodman Community Center, the room was full of cooks with CSA boxes, ethnic food lovers and community gardeners.

But in spite of Slow Food's overarching commitment to sustaining local food, chapter head Matt Feifarek doesn't have a personal litmus test for what local means. He knows it when he sees it.

Local ownership is key, and "local sourcing is important for Slow Food," Feifarek said. "If we know a restaurant has relationships with real live farmers, that's bonus points."

Beyond that, if a restaurant is deeply involved in its neighboring community — Feifarek offered Bunky's Café on Atwood Avenue as one example — that's a selling point, too.

"That's a little more informal, and it's harder to define," Feifarek said. "While I don't think (Bunky's) are probably doing a stellar job of sourcing, they are amazing citizens in Madison. They sponsor everything."

(According to Bunky's general manager Tina Calantoni, the Mediterranean restaurant does use Black Earth Meats, Sassy Cow Creamery and Johnson Brothers Coffee, as well as local produce in season.)

Even the most obviously local products may rely on out-of-state sources. Nathan Clarke runs Mad Urban Bees on Madison's north side, producing small batch honey sold at a few boutique stores and through a honey CSA.

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Unfortunately, this past winter, Clarke lost all but 10 of his 40 hives. Until he can sustain a local strain of honey bee, he must stock most of the 80 hives he has planned for this year with new colonies from California or Florida.

"That's where the breeders are," Clarke said. "They supply the packages of bees, so when the weather turns warm here I have bees to start with."

The move toward placing proximity ahead of price, organic status and (in some cases) quality isn't fading.

Bartlett Durand of Black Earth Meats said his buyer's club — a monthly meat CSA for pork, beef and lamb — is split about equally, 45 percent each, between grass-fed and "Grandpa's Way" (from livestock raised on small farms). Only 10 percent of buyer's club members choose organic.

The grass-fed beef is slightly more popular because of its stronger flavor and health benefits, Durand said. But Grandpa's Way offers the best value.

"The reason Madison is way in the forefront of this stuff is because we have this incredible nexus of very good land and a history of diverse farming," Durand said. "Because of the Driftless area, we never had to go with the corn and bean operations ... we have a lot of small farms looking for a diversified crop."

Black Earth sources from a 200-mile radius of its processing facility (Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa) and asks farmers to sign a waiver promising they didn't use antibiotics or hormones, which the facility periodically tests for.

Madison and Milwaukee "totally take for granted" our access to local food, Durand said.

"We've got some wealth, and a very high level of education," Durand said. "Because of the farmers' market, we have this strong tie between the rural and urban folks.

"We are in pole position with local foods compared with every other place I've visited, including California and Portland. They don't have all the stuff we've got."

The return to eating from our own backyards is not a momentary trend, and savvy entrepreneurs know it. Last year, Tiffany Kenney left Madison Magazine to launch Locavore Roar, a marketing business aimed at connecting local restaurants to local producers.

This September, she plans to launch the first annual Wisconsin Food Festival, a three-day event in Delavan aimed at chefs, specialty store owners and national media. She's holding the number of vendors to 50 "hand-picked" Wisconsin businesses.

"We want to help promote the authentic and the original," Kenney said. "It's hard to sort out the copycat, the person who's using the buzzwords for marketing.

"If you use 'local,' you have to back up all the levels of your product, because someone's going to dig deeper. Especially in Madison, no one can just say 'I'm local.' We're going to evaluate that, we're going to ask more about it."

Kenney said that defining "local" as an individual can be "almost a spiritual thing."

"You have to find your own truth for what you consider local," she said. "It has to be a balance. You can't be all or nothing ... it doesn't really work in Wisconsin to be 100 percent only local. You just try to do the best you can."

For farmers' market customer Cobb, "locavorism" is a shifting goal. He might stock his freezer with locally raised ground beef, but he won't turn down a good burger made at a custard shop — or even a fast-food sandwich.

"I strive for things, but I certainly make exceptions, Cobb said. "Having a toddler, you're driving around, and you're like oh, it's 6:30 and we're not home yet. There's a McDonald's on the way home, and you end up there after all."

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Lindsay Christians covers Madison life for The Capital Times.

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.