Saturday, November 21, 2009

Regional Food Systems


My friend Mark Olson and I, with a scary-smart group of emerging friends, have been working out possibilities for our Iowa County initiative. This is an economic development prototype to build interrelated local food processing clusters, operated at a scale to meet institutional demand. These facilities will be located strategically across rural economies and organized in a way that is mutually self-supportive. The design of this system moves the bulk of the revenue through the management and production levels, delivering it to the producers and their communities. There is a link at the end to the summary white paper about this initiative that we presented at the Slow Money Institute in Madison this summer.

To me, creating experiments in all kinds of regional food systems is needed. This is a startup effort and startups are not straight-line endeavors. Stuff needs to get learned. Policies and procedures need to get worked out. That doesn't mean go slow. It means to hurry up. Let's make our mistakes early, often, and inexpensively. Our Iowa County / Driftless Foods initiative is a startup designed to to develop and document the knowledge needed take the next steps.

With that base in place, our goal is replication elsewhere: finding ways to deploy successful regional food systems models in other places and at bigger scales.

I had a great meeting this week with a nearby multi-state region of 10 to 15 counties. This may become an opportunity to replicate the Iowa County prototype in a larger, more diverse region sooner than later. I've got some great new friends across this area. I am not only confident, but flat-out excited that we could knit together a world-changing leadership team for this project. Our goal is to create a reproducible regional food system, this time at a bigger scale. The idea is that a successful multi-county (and especially multi-state) model would be one that could be replicated nationally in short order.

Of course, every area will have its own ag (and non ag) resources to contribute to these regional systems. However, I believe the process of organizing and deploying regional food systems is what's critical for making them successful and reproducible. That's at the heart of what is valuable here.

And, to walk-the-walk, I had a chance this week to say what I thought local food processing clusters most needed right now in response to a question from people who could make my answer happen. I had a chance to ask for a lot of money but (per last week's post) I actually said enabling legislation.

On first review I was sure I should have said money, mostly because it's likely true. However, if regional food systems are to be made replicable, they really need some meta support, like enabling legislation, that will give people working on local food initiatives some actual tools to help them move the discussion forward. We need to quit talking about this and take some action steps. We need to create opportunities, enable infrastructure, build markets, create jobs and jump start economic development by nurturing market demand and giving our entrepreneurs a stable platform to grow from.

I remember the early days of recycled paper. It was a good idea that everyone talked about but was stuck in kind of a niche market of early adopters. When the Wisconsin government decided to emphasize the use of recycled paper in its purchasing, that business took off and we've never looked back.

I would suggest that we don't need more requirements, but if the enabling legislation were to just say that opportunities to utilize locally grown and locally processed foods should be explored, it would be huge. The locally processed language would give permission and support to people within local institutions - schools, hospitals, etc. - to see what they can do with local foods. Their buying power will ultimately most enable the success of this process. I would not make these institutions buy locally grown and locally processed foods. I would make it easier for them to do.

If the enabling legislation just indicated that locally grown and locally processed foods were included as a recommendation, but not a requirement, many valuable interests could be served, bypassing potential battle lines.

So, a really wonderful week for local foods processing. Future's so bright… I gotta wear shades. Based on what we learned this week we're planning on ramping up the pace of the rollout of our Iowa County initiative.

As my friend Mark always signs off, be well.


Download PDF white paper on our local food processing initiative first presented to the Slow Money Institute gathering in Madison this summer.

A great interview with Salli Martyniak of Forward Community Investments and Wally Orzechowski of Southwest Wisconsin Community Action Program about community investing. Wally is a friend and is a leader in our team rolling out the Driftless Foods / Iowa County initiative. Salli is a new friend who leads one of the most valuable enterprises I've come across in any field, Forward Community Investments

An interview with Mark Olson about his wonderful Renaissance Farm and adding value to agriculture.

3 comments:

Marywin said...

Looks like exciting work Rick. Be sure to catch up on our project here in Australia looking at similar rural problems and solutions; www.livingcommunities.typepad.com

Rick said...

Thanks Marywin. I enjoyed your blog very much. Just subscribed. Keep up the great work. I've been immersed in books about Australia all this month. Someday...

Thrive said...

Excellent. I have no doubts about the 1) scary smartness of the emerging network 2) the amazing capacity to pull this off (I'm seeing it unfold and wow!) and 3) the exciting nature of the project. Big plug.