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Milwaukee Farmers Union Nurtures Urban Growers

Jul. 11, 2017
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With urban farming growing in popularity in Milwaukee, about a dozen commercial urban farmers have joined together to form the Milwaukee Farmers Union. Founded in 2014, the group is seeking ways to make urban farming more efficient, sustainable and profitable. This year, Groundwork Milwaukee became the lead stakeholder, with Outpost Natural Foods hosting and sponsoring the group.

Buy Local is on the Rise

A study by industry research firm Packaged Facts reports that local food sales in the U.S. grew from $5 billion in 2008 to $12 billion in 2014 and predicts that local food sales will reach $20 billion in 2019, outperforming growth of the total food and beverage sales in the U.S. Since 2008, the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program has generated more than $8.4 million in new local food sales, according to the Wisconsin Local Food Network. In organic farming, Wisconsin ranks second in the nation, after California, with more than 1,200 organic farms, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“The purpose of the Milwaukee Farmers Union is to remove barriers for urban farmers and any small local farmer that wants support to help grow their business,” says Nick DeMarsh, food system developer at Groundwork Milwaukee.

According to DeMarsh, the group’s goals include helping farmers develop an infrastructure to share growing, packaging and processing space and tools, as well as education in business, hands-on farming skills and food safety. He says efficiencies in marketing could be realized through enhanced access to a customer base. The group also might be able to realize economies through bulk purchasing of seeds and packaging material.

Outpost supports the Farmers Union because of its broad mission to support local farmers. “Our mission is to have a sustainable, diverse and healthy community for our owners,” says Jessy Servi Ortiz, sustainability manager at Outpost Natural Foods. If the Union continues to grow and expand, Outpost might eventually purchase food from the farmers. “We think it is a potential viable livelihood for members of our community. We hope it is successful,” Ortiz says.

In DeMarsh’s view, Milwaukee’s urban farmers provide increased access to healthy food and reduce CO2 emissions and fossil fuel use because of reduced transportation. Along with many urban farmers in the Union, DeMarsh uses rainwater harvesting systems to water his crops, a practice with environmental benefits.

“How much cleaner could our lake be if we had more urban farms?” DeMarsh asks. “Typically, we don’t associate farming and clean water. But if you’re doing it on a small scale, and you’re doing it the right way, and you’re doing it in a city, where we have to treat that water because it would be runoff otherwise, then that’s a huge benefit. Policymakers really need to consider how much they want urban farming to proliferate, for the jobs, sure, but not just for the jobs alone.”

DeMarsh believes that a growing market exists for locally grown and organic food.

“The challenge is that we as taxpayers, as a society, have subsidized through the federal government, large-scale mono-cropping agribusiness,” he says. “We have very strong competition that we’re up against. But a lot of people recognize that, so I think there’s a market for locally grown food.”

DeMarsh, an urban grower of organic herbs who sells chiefly to local restaurants, says that since 2011, his crop production capacity has tripled.

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