Graphic by Channing Smith

Community, business, opportunity: Madison’s urban and rural culture meet in the middle

When asked how he would describe the relationship between the city of Madison and the surrounding farms in a single word, Dane County Food Councilman Carl Chenoweth answered with just one word: “Opportunity.”

Dane County, second only in the state to Milwaukee County in population, has had a long relationship with the farms and agricultural producers within it — along with a large urban population in the city of Madison.

Former Madison Mayor Bill Dyke in 1972 recognized this unique juxtaposition and seized an opportunity. Dyke’s idea, the Dane County Farmers’ Market, has grown to become the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the U.S., according to their website.

In order to facilitate local participation, the market abides by a simple rule: all products must be Wisconsin-grown.

The yearlong market has bridged the gap between city-living and farm life. Madison, while a capital city, turns to less populated farmland very quickly the further one gets from the Capitol. The proximity from field to table in the area has helped farmers and businesses grow together in their endeavors.

Madison’s farm-to-table relationships blossomed because of the market and well-known restaurants on the square, said Bill Warner, co-owner of Snug Haven Farm in Belleville and chair of the Dane County Food Council. Odessa Piper, founder of L’Etoile, championed the growth of the network of farmers who helped set her restaurant apart from the others.

“She started buying from farmers, big time, before that was even a thing to do. Now restaurants wouldn’t think of not doing it,” Warner said. He added that when others saw her success, it soon became common for local restaurants to buy local produce.

Warner and his wife are gearing up for the opening of the county’s outdoor market in April with produce like tomatoes, radishes and arugula. Warner, having farmed in the community since 1989, said there is “tons of opportunity to grow and sell in the area.”

While Madison and Dane County already have a flourishing and symbiotic relationship with producers in the area through events like the farmer’s market, the drive to improve that association is never-ending. Part of that improvement comes in keeping the surrounding environment clean and safe.

To support that mission, the Healthy Lakes and Healthy Farms Task force (HLHF), of which Chenoweth is a member, works to decrease farms’ phosphorus runoff into rivers and lakes of the area.

Phosphorus runoff from farms and agricultural centers is a contributing factor in the increased growth of algae and plant life in lakes. This increased growth affects recreational use, property values, and public health from water sources. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has identified this is as a major issue.

Lake Mendota, which is the largest watershed in the Yahara Lake Chain, is particularly important in the fight to decrease runoff. Because the Mendota Watershed feeds into the lower lakes in the chain, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa, the HLHF task force is exploring avenues of curbing the increased phosphorus at the head in order to help downstream.

By working with farms and producers in the area, the county hopes to reduce the amount of phosphorus runoff while keeping farmer’s opportunities for business growth present.

Chenoweth, calling it “a severe environmental problem,” is optimistic that the task force can yield a “very detailed, comprehensive plan of how we’re going to deal with phosphorus and agricultural contribution to phosphorus runoff in the next 10 or 20 years.”

The Healthy Lakes and Healthy Farms Taskforce is expected to release its recommended policy by the end of this summer.

Another opportunity for the city and county to bolster the relationship between rural producers and the urban centers is with urban agriculture, or the use of land within city limits to grow and harvest produce that directly improves the lives of those growing it.

Chenoweth emphasized the importance of having fresh, healthy produce as close as possible, saying, “The closer we get to downtown Madison, the closer we are going to get to being able to get good, healthy produce to our urban population.”

Currently, Madison is host to gardens where members of the community can grow fresh produce within the comfort of their neighborhood. However, food grown in those gardens can’t be sold to local businesses —or anyone — like produce sold at the farmers market. Warner hopes to change that with urban agriculture projects.

Warner, who utilizes greenhouse technologies similar to those that would be implemented in urban agriculture projects, was optimistic about the impact of city plots being used to grow produce. Warner stressed the opportunities available to urban residents, saying that they “can grow a lot of fresh food on a little space.”

“You want to keep people here, you want to keep new people looking for new niches,” Warner said. “If you’re here, there’s tons of opportunity to grow and sell in the area.”

J. Adan Wigger byline box

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