VIROQUA - When many people walk through the 100,000 square-foot former NCR building that now houses the Food Enterprise Center, they undoubtedly see wide-open spaces. Sue Noble sees wide-open opportunities.
"We are in the very early stage of operation," said Noble, the executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association and the spearhead behind the purchase of the building and development of the FEC.
"Our first tenants have moved in and are operating from here," Noble said. "We have space for many more, and interest from additional entrepreneurs and companies. There are opportunities here."
The Food Enterprise Center currently has about 20 employees and three tenants leasing about 20,000 square feet in the building:
* Keewaydin Organics processes, stores and distributes organic food products from about 70 producers; * Lu Sa Organics, run by Rachel and Pete Wolf, makes soap products and lotions, which are made from food ingredients and distributed regionally and globally; * Fifth Season Cooperative is a multi-stakeholder cooperative made up of producers, producer groups, food processors, distributors, and buyers from the 7 Rivers Region.
"Keewaydin started on a farm, Lu Sa in a basement of a home," Noble said. "They have the space and opportunity to grow their businesses here."
Noble is talking with potential tenants all the time. "It comes in waves," she said. "At one time, I had about 20 people interested. Right now, I have about six others at various stages of planning and development."
The center was funded largely by a $2 million U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to the city of Viroqua and VEDA. That grant was announced in September of 2010.
Many months were spent in planning, meeting requirements of the federal government and others for a food enterprise and converting a manufacturing plant into a facility that could be used for local food initiatives.
The effort has attracted attention. Noble received a Champion of Change award from the White House in 2011. U.S. Ag Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan visited in April of this year. Small Business Administrator Marianne Markowitz visited in July.
Fifth Season and FEC have been featured in the Rural Cooperatives magazine and other media. Fifth Season also has drawn interest because it received the largest Buy Local Wisconsin Grant in 2010, a $40,000 grant for starting up.
Representatives of the Fifth Season and FEC were among 150 cooperative leaders from all sectors of the economy and across the nation who met with top policymakers at the White House earlier this year.
"This is a local food initiative, yet part of a nationwide movement," Noble said.
Fifth Season is run by operations manager Diane Chapeta, who came to FEC about a year ago from the Farm to School movement in eastern Wisconsin. She has 27 years experience in food service.
"We primarily aggregate, coordinate and broker from here," Chapeta said. "Some of our producers send their produce here to be distributed. Others work from hubs we have in our 150-mile radius of operation."
Fifth Season doesn't own a truck. Instead, it works through Reinhart FoodService, based in La Crosse, which picks up produce on the back end of its routes and distributes it.
"The trucks are empty after they make their deliveries from Reinhart, so this way they are full on their return trips, We and Reinhart benefit from the arrangement," Chapeta said.
Drought conditions have affected many of the farmers that are working with Fifth Season. Most will survive, but some have lost crops. "Carrots and onions have been difficult to get," Chapeta said. "Apples have been just about impossible."
Customers for Fifth Season include restaurants, delis, grocery stores and institutional markets, such as schools, day and senior care centers, government institutions, hospitals and others. Gundersen Lutheran, Vernon Memorial Healthcare, UW-La Crosse, Western Technical College, Viroqua Area School District are just some of the institutional buyers.
Fifth Season plans on processing, storing and distributing more produce from the Viroqua center over time.
Ridge Top Foods, run by Jonah Curley, will soon move into the FEC and run a kitchen at which value-added food products will be produced and distributed.
"If you want to sell Grandma's jam commercially, Ridge Top will be able to produce it here from your recipe," Noble said.
While Noble acknowledges there still are some open spaces to lease in the FEC, she believes more and more food entrepreneurs are learning about the center and see the opportunities within it to join a national and global trend. Noble is not alone in her belief.
When Merrigan visited, she cited a a recent National Grocers Association poll that showed that 85 percent of consumers said having locally-grown products was "a major factor in where they decided to shop."
"From the small food co-op and corner store to the Wal-Marts of the world, everybody is getting that this is the biggest food trend that we've seen in decades," Merrigan told the Vernon County Broadcaster. "There's money to be made, jobs to be grown and we should be all in it."