An Agriculture and Economic Development Dance in Madison | submitted by Michael Gay

Cities across the country — and Madison in particular — are very aware of the potential and need for social and economic development change surrounding agriculture and food.

With respect to later, it is estimated that food production in the next decade will become much more decentralized due to food safety, food quality, and energy issues (to name a few reasons). Consumer education will help drive this market change toward sustainability. Locally, citizens are questioning how food is grown (organic), where it comes from (local), is it healthy (fresh, safe, slow foods), and is the product and it’s packaging sustainable (environmental, economic, and land use impacts).

Citizens and businesses of Madison and the region have a history (in some cases long term) of supporting: 1) “buy local” restaurant campaigns; 2) zoning code modifications to allow historically ag uses (i.e. chickens) in urban areas; 3) the creation and expansion of local food coops; 4) the institutional food market coalition efforts with produce auctions in Wisconsin; 5) backyard composting; and 6) some of the best farmers markets in the nation. The entrepreneurs that make these rural-to-urban connections happen have created many enterprises and jobs throughout the region.

MPM – Madison Public Market

One of the city’s current food and entrepreneur-related initiatives is the Madison Public Market (MPM). It seeks to create a 60,000 square foot public market that not only provides a winter home for the nationally recognized Dane County Farmers Market vendors, but also creates new market opportunities for local entrepreneurs selling locally grown and made products of all types — much of these valued-added food and agriculture related.

When reaching out to potential venders associated with local farmer markets during early market feasibility study phases, a small percentage of existing farmer market vendors showed great interest in participating. The market scope and success would benefit from a much greater interest and level of participation from these vendors. New business models could be created that make it easier for current farmers to find value in participation, diversify their crops for new market opportunities while reducing risk.

New storage (dry, cold and freezer) and distribution and processing (value added) enterprises/facilities need to be funded, created and integrated into systems that producers already know. And a new customized financial assistance tool box — capitalized by all parties involved — needs to be created and paired with networks and customized marketing programs that make it easier for farmers to evolve into this new food economy.

Public markets are community spaces that bring young and old, rich and poor, customers and producers, locals and strangers together. They are opportunities for entrepreneurship, better living, economy diversification and learning.

Food for Thought

Land use, zoning and architecture in the built environment will need to continue to evolve as new food and agriculture initiatives bring the countryside and food production into cities.

Case in point is the 2008 Governor’s business plan winner that proposed construction of large scale greenhouses on grocery store rooftops. The potential for more community gardens, food pantry gardens, individual backyard and community greenhouses, and urban farm incubators (i.e. Intervale, a Vermont Farm Incubator supporting itself for a decade from composting revenues) are also being discussed by planners, zoning officials, economic developers, community organizations, and other interested parties.

Maybe a Madison version of Intervale could be part of the sustainable neighborhood plan being discussed in NE Madison?

New Economy Employment Centers

The City’s Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development works collectively with economic development partners on creating employment centers for the future. As the country and world move more into a carbohydrate-based economy (from the current petroleum based situation), Wisconsin’s agriculture will play an important role.

One of the most recent initiatives is the BioAg Gateway Campus and the Midwest BioLink Commercialization and Business Center (BioLink) in Southeast Madison. This project endeavors to create a regional focal point for the research, development and most importantly, the commercialization of agriculture-based products. A convergence of biotechnology, food science, sustainability, and agriculture will create new industrial proteins, nutraceuticals, biopharmaceuticals, biofuels, bioplastics, bioresins, chemicals and better food.

This campus will have three components: A commercialization center with incubator; a showcase field for crop field testing and marketing of Wisconsin crops; and an Ag Discovery Center that provides a training, conference, education and marketing space. This campus will use advanced technology for controlled environments and greenhouses.

Orbital Technologies (Orbitec) is a Madison company that has an operational controlled environment system. The City hopes to build upon this technology so we can extend and enhance the currently limited Wisconsin growing season inside our incubator. This is evolving into a statewide initiative that involves the State of Wisconsin, Madison Area Technical College, the University of Wisconsin, corporations, and local and regional economic development partners. The BioAg Gateway is physically located within a block of the Department of Agriculture (DATCP), the State Hygiene Laboratory, and the UW Extension Agriculture office.

The City wishes to build on existing efforts through coordination, and make sure we embrace regional and state wide commercialization initiatives and assets whenever possible. Workforce development and partnerships with UW-Extension really need to be explored and developed, especially with respect to careers and management expertise for crops in the Showcase’s agriculture fields. The WIRED initiative from South Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board may grow into a perfect partner for new job creation in new agriculture markets. We also will need to pair up the BioAg Gateway scientists with the farmers that want to diversify the crops grown own the land.

With respect to agriculture’s impact on urban economic development, and more specifically business development opportunities, Madison may benefit from regional agriculture-related initiatives. Thrive’s Director of Agriculture Initiatives, Greg Lawless, is leading these efforts in South-Central Wisconsin and Olivia Parry, Economic Development Planner, inside Dane County. A local food incubator and Institutional Quick Freeze new market product development are two Thrive initiatives, and the Institutional Food Market Coalition is facilitated by Dane County.