STEVENS POINT – Snow was swirling outside the local public high school one night last week, but hundreds of people decided against staying home. They chose to attend a local food fair sponsored by Central Rivers Farmshed, an energetic group bent on building local and regional food networks in central Wisconsin.

Organizers expected about 500 attendees. Lines at the potato bar and crowds gathered around 30 or so vendor booths and educational displays confirmed their hopes. The large crowd also confirmed something else: The local and regional foods movement isn’t a fad. It’s a megatrend that has blossomed all across the country. It’s multigenerational, urban and rural, multifaceted and rich with potential for more growth. Some of today’s most creative entrepreneurs are helping propel the movement.

Politicians interested in sustained job growth, community development and local economic opportunity would do well to study how this movement grew to be so potent. They’ll quickly learn that it’s a blend of many factors, most of them circling around the word community.

Agriculture is continually changing and reinventing itself, and sometimes it happens without much help from government. While farm subsidies, publicly subsidized crop insurance and other government programs are mainstays for traditional, large-scale agriculture, movements like local and regional foods and rotational grazing have been driven by innovative practitioners. It’s exciting stuff.

Yes, today there are government programs that help fruit and vegetable growers pay for hoop houses that extend growing seasons. Other programs support the development of urban agriculture. But the vast majority of public dollars spent on agriculture go to traditional operations.

We have the smaller, more labor-intensive local and regional operations to thank for reconnecting a largely urban public to farming in ways that we could never dream of just a few years ago. There’s an old rube that says many urban people think their milk and cheese come from the grocery story. The local and regional foods movement is changing that, and at a remarkable pace.

Truth is, we need diversity in agriculture in order to assure food security, especially now, when climate change is upon us. Large-scale agriculture is often demonized, but it’s obviously essential in a world of 7-plus billion people.

But no sector has done more to build diversity in recent years than local and regional foods. The markets have yet to fully mature and reach their potential, but the process is well under way. Local and regional foods also connect well with an array of other pluses, from agri-tourism to the arts. Money spent on local foods stays in the community. Especially during the growing season, local foods are affordable, healthy alternatives for people of all economic backgrounds.

Local and regional food networks probably won’t ever meet all of the consumers’ needs. There is much work to be done on developing processing and marketing structures. But they’ve done pretty well so far on innovation, hard work and a few acres of soil.

Central Rivers Farmshed is one of many groups propelling this movement. It offers an array of programs. A centerpiece is The Greenhouse Project, a revitalization of a historical downtown Stevens Point greenhouse. Plans well along the way to fruition call for a community food center that will house a production greenhouse, community kitchen, gathering space and learning space. That’s exciting stuff.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. billnick@charter.net

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