postWFHC-1The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative was born of a unique and timely collaboration between the private and public sector. When the Dane County Planning and Development Department realized there was an unmet demand for local food in southern Wisconsin, the organization brought together farmers, consumers, foodservice buyers, local food advocates, and other stakeholders for a food hub feasibility study.

The purpose of the study was to test the hypothesis that agricultural production and economic activity in southern Wisconsin could be fueled through infrastructure that facilitates the relationship between farmers and wholesale customers. To fund the study, the county secured a 2011 HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant of $75,000.  They also used $5,000 of their own funds, received $5,000 from the city of Madison, and received $1,000 from Madison Gas & Electric.

After completion of the study, Dane County issued a Request for Information (RFI) in search of an owner-operator of the proposed food hub. This led to a partnership between Dane County, the Wisconsin Farmers Union (WFU), and a core group of local farmers. After a few years of planning, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative was incorporated in October of 2012 and officially began business operations in April 2013.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative currently has 20 farmer members and, according to Interim General Manager Sarah Lloyd, there is great diversity among its membership.

“The farmer members range from smaller-scale operations that may have a couple acres in production to medium-scale farms that may have hundreds of acres in crops,” says Lloyd.

The co-op carries both organic and conventional products which they sell under the co-op’s brand name, while still advertising the farm of origin. Some of the products they carried in 2013 included peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, green beans, squash, sweet corn, cantaloupe, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, kale, cabbage, and pumpkins. Lloyd says the co-op is also looking to expand into value-added products like salsa, sauces, maple syrup, and teas, which they could sell to grocery stores and other retail establishments.

In its start-up phase, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative offers its farm members sales, marketing, and logistics coordination, and they plan to expand their services as more needs become apparent. Starting in 2014, they will also begin operating two aggregation facilities: one in the Madison area and one in Waupaca, Wisconsin.

The co-op is funded primarily through a commission on product sales. The organization has also been awarded a USDA Value-Added Producer Grant, which Lloyd says is helping it through the growing pains of early implementation. Additionally, to supplement these sources of revenue, the co-op has acquired a line of credit from the community lender Forward Community Investment.

The Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative’s products are currently sold to wholesale markets, grocery stores, distributors, and institutions, including schools, and Lloyd says they are successfully working toward economic sustainability in these initial start-up years.

“We are just entering our second year of operations and are on target to meet our sales goals,” says Lloyd.

Since the co-op is still a relatively new operation, it faces the usual challenges start-ups face when getting off the ground. Its goal, however, is to surpass these challenges through a dedicated focus on growth of services, membership, and overall impact in the southern Wisconsin food system.

“We hope to double our farmer membership and diversify our list of buyers, reaching a broad local and regional market for good food,” says Lloyd.

Overall, the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, like most other food hubs and sustainable agriculture operations, seeks to live up to the ideal of true sustainability, which Lloyd describes as a type of agriculture that supports all people in the food system—beginning with the farmers and ending with the consumers. Sustainable agriculture producers, according to Lloyd, must also remain mindful of their broader impact, which goes beyond a limited definition of sustainability.

“We are seeking a sustainable agriculture, which supports all people in the food system: farmers, distribution and sales businesses, and consumers,” says Lloyd.   “A sustainable agriculture must take a triple bottom line approach, addressing ecological, economic, and social issues of agriculture and the food system.”