• WisBusiness

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

GreenBiz: Wide-ranging Fifth Season Co-op to start growth this spring

By Gregg Hoffmann
After months of planning and organizing, the Fifth Season Cooperative is ready to start operation with this coming growing season.

“We are planning on starting with a select number of vegetables and then developing from there,” said Sue Noble, executive director of the Vernon County Economic Development Association and a catalyst to the co-op formation.

Fifth Season has drawn interest regionally, statewide and even nationwide because of its somewhat unique structure. It is a multi-stakeholder cooperative that includes membership classes of producers, producer groups, food processors, distributors, buyers and co-op workers.

“This represents all of the key players in the food system at the local level,” reads a promotional brochure for Fifth Season. “The goal is to keep local dollars circulating in the community and to develop long term relationships between the institutional buyers and the farmers in order to ensure a fair price for everyone.”

Members so far in the co-op include organic and conventional farmers, Organic Valley, Westby Coop Creamery, Premier Meats and other producers and processors and Gundersen Lutheran, Vernon Memorial Healthcare, UW-La Crosse, Western Technical College, Viroqua Area School District and other institutional buyers.

Fifth Season also has drawn interest because it received the largest Buy Local Wisconsin Grant in 2010, a $40,000 grant for starting up.

Long range plans -- as co-op sales and activity scale up -- call for housing Fifth Season storage, processing and distribution in the Western Wisconsin Food Enterprise Center, a remodeled former manufacturing building in Viroqua. That renovation project received a $2 million grant in September from U.S. Economic Development Administration and is in the planning and early stages of development. VEDA and the City of Viroqua received the EDA grant.

Fifth Season was recently featured in the USDA’s Rural Cooperatives publication posted on the Rural Development web site and has received other media attention regionally.

The coop grew from an 18-month food assessment in the Vernon County region. That assessment was undertaken in part because of concerns about large quantities of food leaving the region for larger cities such as Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and the Twin Cities without economic benefits to the businesses in the county and Driftless region.

From the assessment, potential projects and policies to move toward a more sustainable food system were identified. Goals were set.

The Valley Stewardship Network, which works on several projects in the Kickapoo Valley and beyond, launched a Food and Farm Initiative (FFI) to encourage the development of a sustainable, equitable local food system.

“The work of VSN and other groups in the assessment and early stages of developing a food system has proven to be invaluable,” Noble said. “It gave us a foundation to start bringing people together for the cooperative effort.”

Fifth Season was incorporated in August of last year. Signers of the incorporation papers include Brian Wickert of EZ Farming, Marilyn Volden, food service director for Viroqua Public Schools, Terry Hoyum, owner and manager of Premier Meats, Peter Kondrup, general manager of the Westby Co-op Creamery, Larry Ringgenberg, director of student centers at UW-La Crosse, Mark Hutson, food services director for Gundersen Lutheran, and Nicole Penick, a co-op employee and the Buy Local Development Coordinator.

“This co-op is one of a handful of multi-stakeholder cooperatives in the United States,” Penick recently wrote in Pea Soup, a newsletter of the Viroqua Food Cooperative. “The Fifth Season Co-op Board is currently in its initial planning stages, working to connect the dots between generating a fair price for produce, meat and dairy products and the tight budgets of our area’s hospitals, schools and college food service departments.”

Penick also said that the co-op is now accepting investments from the community to raise capital. Shares are available for a minimum investment of $500. The co-op will pay an annual dividend of 5 percent.

Fifth Season’s mission statement reads: “To produce, process and market healthy, local foods in our region by supporting the values of environmental, social and economic fairness for all.”

This vision has been evident for quite some time in Vernon County -- which has the most organic farms in the state -- and elsewhere in the Driftless Area. In part, it is driven by the terrain and geology of the area, which does not lend itself to vast farms that produce huge volumes of food.

Instead, small farms producing quality food has been emphasized. Organic Valley and Westby Co-op Creamery have brought that approach to dairy and developed it into markets regionally and around the country. It’s been more of a challenge with produce, meat, eggs and other farm products.

Many of the small farms bring their produce to farmers markets in the region and to Madison, Chicago and Twin Cities, but there has not been an integrated system in place for them to distribute to those cities and closer to home.

“Many producers will continue to supply those markets individually,” Noble said. “Fifth Season’s coordination helps these businesses scale up and distribute their products to area schools and institutions, and other new markets.”

-- Hoffmann has written on a variety of topics for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com. He writes the GreenBiz feature column monthly.


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