DODGEVILLE - The fields of Iowa County were frozen, snow-covered and windswept, but the discussion here Wednesday was about carrots and onions.

A handful of area farmers gathered at Sam & Maddies Restaurant for an informational meeting about a proposed $3 million quick-frozen food processing plant in Highland, in western Iowa County.

The 10,000-square-foot facility, which could be completed in time to process this fall's harvest, would freeze vegetables grown locally and sell the products as ingredients to school districts, universities and private companies with their own cafeterias. The products would not compete against large providers but harness the demand for locally grown foods.

"The reason (wholesalers) are interested is consumers wanting it," said Mark Olson, a Spring Green herb farmer who is leading the project. "They want to sell what their customers want. The goal of this plant is that local foods or regional foods are not costing more than a couple of cents more than the traditional choices."

The project began last year as a cooperative, but Olson said that business plan was dropped in favor of a limited liability company model that was more attractive to investors. Grants would also be sought, but the majority of the financing would come from bank loans guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Olson said.

The plant is planned for 2.5 acres of in the village of Highland's industrial park but the land has not yet been purchased. The plant would initially process, bag and freeze carrots and onions, but other vegetables could be added as demand grows. Olson also envisions other processing plants in the county for local dairy and poultry products.

"We're trying to make opportunities," said Rick Terrien, executive director of the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corp. "The freezer will be the hub."

Tom Novak, a dairy farmer from Highland, said he came to Wednesday's meeting out of curiosity.

"I'm looking for opportunities," Novak said. "There's a lot of things to be worked out yet, but it's interesting. There's definitely interest in locally grown products."

Jeremy Litchfield, 35, of Dodgeville grows a variety of vegetables that he sells to Sam & Maddies, where he is a cook, but would like to more than double the size of his acreage, which is now a three-quarter-acre plot of land. He says the proposed plant would be beneficial for growers.

"It's a way to keep their farms growing," Litchfield said.

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