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Diagnosing our regional food system

A loaf of miche from Madison Sourdough. Photo credit: Michelle Miller

Back in 2011, we heard from farmers in the Driftless about the many challenges you face in accessing the Chicago market. Your concerns initiated a multi-year effort at the UW-CIAS to figure out why and support transformative change.

The work to diagnose our food system is documented in a new journal article entitled Identifying Critical Thresholds for Resilient Regional Food Flows: A Case Study From the U.S. Upper Midwest. This article is part of a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, Achieving Food System Resilience & Equity in the Era of Global Environmental Change.

The number of Driftless residents involved in this project over its three phases and many years is too long to list here — hundreds attended one or more public meetings, shared your thinking and experiences one-on-one, and served as speakers, project advisors or reviewers, and most importantly are building our new food system every day. This one is for you!

Check out new organic research projects, dairy supply management policy research

The UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems is revamping its web site and it has news to share!

  • The 2021 Organic Report is out!
  • Four new organic projects are funded in the coming year!
  • Dairy supply management research – including information specific for graziers – is available as a report, a video, and coming soon – a farmer friendly app!
  • We are looking for cover crop farmers interested in sharing their experiences in a citizen science project!
  • This year’s Great Lakes Apple Crunch is gearing up for October!

All these stories can be found on the front page. The web site is far from finished – this is just a taste of what is soon to come!

NOW: 10-minute online survey for Wisconsin dairy farmers

Respond before May 15! Andrew Stevens, on faculty at UW-Madison, needs your input. This quick survey asks about sources of agricultural credit, but it does not ask any specific financial questions. If you take this quick survey before May 15, you can enter a drawing for one of five $200 gift cards. Eligible participants must be 18 years or older and an active dairy farmer in Wisconsin or a surrounding state.

Tell us your experiences!

Thinking like a farmer: University challenges in sustainable agriculture and food systems work

Want to know what Universities are doing to organize their work around sustainable agriculture and food systems? Many faculty, staff and students have experienced the challenges of doing trans-disciplinary work inside silo-prone academic institutions. What does it take to build and maintain a home for the kind of research, teaching, extension, and engagement we need? How do those homes weather the storms of budget crises, academic unit reorganizations, leadership changes, and more?

Webinar #1: Thursday, May 27, 3pm Eastern/noon Pacific

  • Casey Hoy, Ohio State Univ. Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation;
  • Nina Ichikawa, Berkeley Food Institute;
  • Tom Kelly, Univ. of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute

Webinar #2: Tuesday, June 22, 3pm Eastern/noon Pacific

  • Kamyar Enshayan, Univ. of Northern Iowa;
  • Nancy Creamer, North Carolina State Univ., (retired) Center for Environmental Farming Systems;
  • Tom Tomich, formerly with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, Univ. of California Davis

Use this link to register now.

These webinars are brought to you by INFAS – the coalition of sustainable agriculture centers on campuses across the US. INFAS envisions a US food system that is environmentally sustainable and socially just.INFAS catalyzes frontier work in food systems research, higher education, extension, and institutional change that we can achieve much better together than by working alone.

Learn about INFAS:

INFAS webinars are open to all. Membership is not required.

Measuring a farm’s ecosystem services

Farm 2 Facts, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Kaufman Lab at UW-Madison, is developing a new Ecosystem Services metric to quantify farms’ efforts to conserve the natural environment.

Farm 2 Facts works with farms and farmers markets to help them collect and analyze data in order to measure their economic, social, and ecological impacts. The concept for the Ecosystem Services metric came from suggestions from several farmers and market organization leaders, including Justin Cantafio from the Farmers Markets of Nova Scotia Cooperative in Canada, who said the organization should create a tool to help farmers communicate their environmental impact.

Initially, the Ecosystem Services metric was envisioned to solely measure a farm’s greenhouse gas emissions. Almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are due to agriculture, according to the EPA. The introduction of monoculture and large-scale conventional farming drastically changed the natural landscape worldwide and led to a decrease of carbon sequestration in soils. When carbon isn’t stored in soil, it is released into the atmosphere and causes what is called the “greenhouse effect” – causing pollution, destabilizing natural climatic conditions and, ultimately, driving climate change. Many small farms are taking measures to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions and increase their soil’s carbon storage capacity.

However, during the process of creating the metric, our team learned that farms use a wide variety of practices beyond carbon sequestration to benefit the environment. We spoke to a diverse array of farmers including Dan Guenthner and Margaret Pennings of Common Harvest Farm, a diversified vegetable CSA operation in Osceola, WI, April Prusia of Dorothy’s Range LLC, a heritage pork producer in Blanchardville, WI, James Stoll of Silver Sky Ranch in Petaluma, CA, a sustainable grass-fed, free-range beef and poultry ranch, Farmer Stephen (who prefers not to use last name), a regenerative vegetable farmer in northern CA, and the Thompson family at Thompson Farms in Dixie, Georgia.

Along with research on best practices, the practices and environmental impacts we found through discussions with these and other farmers and experts pointed to six key aspects of how farms affect the ecosystem: farm infrastructure and machinery, livestock, soil health practices, alternative power, biodiversity, and transportation to markets. Together, these components create a comprehensive overview of the benefits a farm provides to the environment, or “ecosystem services.”

To use the Ecosystem Services metric, farmers fill out a survey addressing each of the above six components. The results from the survey can then be used by both farmers pursuing environmentally friendly methods to distinguish themselves in the marketplace and farmers market managers and other organizations to apply for grant funding to support their work and expand their efforts!

The ecosystem services metric celebrates farms for the beneficial practices they use and suggests tailored methods for strengthening on-farm sustainability. For instance, for a farmer who responds that their farm does not include any practices to support pollinators, the Ecosystem Services metric might encourage them to plant prairie strips, which foster biodiversity while fulfilling several other ecosystem services (including carbon sequestration, decreased water runoff, increased soil and nutrient retention, and increased bird and pollinator abundance according to this study).

Farm 2 Facts has begun its initial stages of testing the metric and will be launching the Ecosystem Services metric soon; keep an eye out as we report out on the metric’s progress in the months ahead! We are excited to provide this service to support all the great work of our local farms and farmers. For more information about the metric or how to become involved with our work, please contact Catie DeMets at 

Photo by Anna Feldman.

Webinar: The Next Normal

Register for live session April 15, 3:30 central.

As part of a series on Covid-19 & the Food System: Understanding Impacts & Exploring Solutions, CIAS researcher Michelle Miller will present The Next Normal: Restructuring Food Supply Chains, on April 15, 3:30pm. The series is sponsored by the University of Missouri Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security and MU Extension Community Economic Development Food Systems Team. This presentation is offered in conjunction with the MU Deaton Institute Within Reach: Zero Hunger conference, April 12-15.

To register:

Presentations are recorded and available on the web. Earlier presentations include:

Emerging Issues in Emergency Food (Recording)
Thursday, February 18, 2021, 3:30-4:30 p.m. CST
Speaker: Darren Chapman, Ph.D., Project Coordinator, University of Missouri, Interdisciplinary Center for Food Security

Covid-19 Brought Us Together: Building new collaborations between Ohio’s food and agriculture sector and State Emergency Management (Recording) Thursday, March 18, 2021, 3:30-4:30 p.m. CST
Speaker: Shoshanah Inwood, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Ohio State University, School of Environmental and Natural Resources

Webinar: Planning Democracy

Apr 8, 2021 02:00 PM in Central Time

Join CIAS and the students of Agroecology 702 Thursday April 8 for a special guest lecture by UW Professor Emeritus Jess Gilbert on his book Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal.

“Late in the 1930s, The USDA set up a national network of local organizations that joined farmers with public administrators, adult educators and social scientists. The aim was to localize and unify earlier New Deal programs concerning soil conservation, farm production control, tenure security, and other reforms, and by 1941 some 200,000 farm people were involved. Even so, conservative anti-New Dealers killed the successful program the next year. This book reexamines the era’s agricultural policy and tells the neglected story of the New Deal agrarian leaders and their visionary ideas about land, democratization, and progressive social change.”

To register:

Update: Fruit and Nuts

Interested in craft hard cider? Our final project report was released in December 2019, with lab and tasting results, and apple profiles. Comparing Apples to Apples: Single-varietal hard apple cider testing is available on-line. We distribute hard copies at conferences around Wisconsin, or can mail you one, if you are interested. We are supporting a farmer-crafter network to support more Wisconsin craft cider. Want to join us? We are meeting monthly via conference call and want to hear from you.

Funding to accelerate work on hazelnuts for the Upper Midwest is in place, thanks to the leadership of Jason Fischbach and Lois Braun. We are forming farmer networks and will be field testing native and hybrid shrubs to identify commercial cultivars. If you are interested in participating in a network to learn more about cultivation, let us know.

The Fruit and Nut Compass will soon be released. This tool will help farmers interested in planting these perennial food crops to understand the economics of choices available to them. The tool will go live on, before planting season.

Compass Tools are free downloadable spreadsheets created at the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, University of Wisconsin-Madison. These tools help farmers actively manage for increased farm profits by helping them understand their cost of production, by product and by market channel. This enables farmers to make strategic decisions to adjust prices, reduce costs, shift market channel focus, reduce or drop unprofitable products, and expand production of their most profitable ventures.

The Compass Toolbox is an ongoing project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that responds to the need for tools to address farm financial viability. It involves the development of whole farm profit management tools and training workshops. Our tools are designed to help growers improve on-farm decision making and financial farm planning in order to maximize profitability and ensure the continuation of sustainable farms.

Webinar on COVID19 and regional food systems

WHAT: The first webinar of the Lessons from COVID-19: Positioning Regional Food Supply Chains for Future Pandemics, Natural Disasters and Human-made Crises project that will include a brief introduction of team members, a holistic project overview, survey tools used and example questions from the first survey, preliminary data from an environmental scan of available resources and insights from prior assessments of the impacts of COVID-19 on the Florida food system. 

WHERE: Register, for free, at

WHEN: January 28 1 p.m. CST (11 a.m. PST, 12 p.m. MST, 2 p.m. EST)

FOR WHO: Those engaged in the food supply chain at any level


UW-CIAS is partnering with researchers at University of Minnesota, University of Florida, UC-Irvine and Kansas State to document lessons from COVID-19 so that we may better position regional food production to respond to future crises. To share what we are learning in real time, we are offering four free webinars over the course of the next year. Please join us for the first webinar, January 28.

This is a great way to learn more about the supply chain survey we’ve developed, too.

This work is supported by USDA-National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

Organic Strawberry Production

UW-Madison fruit horticulturist Amaya Atucha is working with colleagues at the University of Minnesota to determine interest in adopting/integrating day-neutral strawberries into pre-existing production systems.

This brief survey is intended for specialty crop producers in the upper Midwest using organic practices (certified or not). This survey will take less than 5 min to complete and you can choose to end the survey at any time.

Link to the survey: