TOWN OF SPRINGFIELD — Area farmers frustrated by their inability to sell more of their products locally may be getting help soon.

Dane County plans to spend $28,000 to help develop a business plan for a regional clearinghouse that can sell local produce to local wholesale buyers such as restaurants, grocery stores and hospitals, County Executive Joe Parisi said Wednesday.

He said studies show a demand for more than $18 million of produce locally each year, or about 800,000 pounds per week during the 40-week growing seasons. 

"We want to put more food grown in Dane County on Dane County tables," Parisi told reporters at the Hillsong Farm, which has already pledged its support to the project. "We want to help farmers increase their bottom line."

The facility is projected to create 16 full-time jobs and up to 30 part-time jobs once it reaches capacity, said Parisi, who added that it would not run by the county. The operation's cost and location are yet to be determined, but Parisi hopes ground can be broken this year.

"We want to help it get off the ground," he added. 

The Wisconsin Farmers Union, the UW Center for Cooperatives and area growers also will work on a business plan and site selection for the project. 

There is one other such facility in the state, in Vernon County, according to the Farmers Union's Darin Von Ruden.

Olivia Parry, an economic development specialist for Dane County, said there is a national trend toward local food, but local markets lack the highly integrated, efficient plans of the global food sector. This kind of facility can change that.

"Whenever you open a new market for a grower they can potentially make more money," Parry said. "We're opening up a new market and giving them access to wholesale markets that they don't have access to now because we don't have the infrastructure to deliver that produce."

Unlike farmers' markets, the facility would handle massive amounts of produce that can be processed or packaged for sale.

"What's exciting is that the distributors are stepping up to the plate and are saying, 'We want to work with you and figure this out,'" said Mark Olson of Renaissance Farm of Spring Green.

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