Oct 23, 2014

The M-List 2014 Local Food Perspectives: Rooted in the Future

As published in Madison Magazine

By Paul Jadin

Our deep roots in agriculture have sprouted hundreds of farms, account for annual business sales in the billions and support more than sixty thousand regional jobs. But in this era of the new economy, when our collective attention and admiration seems to land on the information technology sector, how does agriculture align with an emerging vision of the Madison area as a region of the future—one that leads the way in innovation, technology and discovery?

It fits quite well, as it turns out. The Madison Region Economic Partnership, or MadREP, has taken a deep dive into the region’s agriculture, food and beverage industry, exploring its rich density of assets—from research and development to growers and producers to processing, packaging and storage and, finally, to the marketplace, both local and global. In a detailed report on the industry’s entire supply chain, which we produced in partnership with UW–Extension, evidence of the expansiveness of the local food ecosystem in the Madison region and its neighboring Driftless region to the west is profound. Not only can we boast about a breadth of companies that range in size from small startups to billion-dollar giants, our many physical, natural, educational and financial resources have exploded over the last two decades.

And our reach and our scope go well beyond the borders of the state, ranking us among the nation’s top regions for density of these types of businesses. Clearly we are a leader, but what is it in particular about Madison’s food ecosystem that sets us apart? What will allow us to turn a longstanding agriculture legacy into a forward-thinking, ever-rising industry that will propel our leadership even further into the future?

At MadREP, we are leveraging the many assets already in place, and organizing the industry’s organic growth around a formal, comprehensive business model. Future growth hinges on access to water for growing and processing, food safety and security, collaboration, entrepreneurship, the availability of capital throughout the entire supply chain and enhanced and integrated infrastructure and distribution channels. Our analysis (find it at madisonregion.org/ag-analysis) puts legs to this business model, outlining a number of projects that are essential to the growth of our food ecosystem. The Madison Public Market District, for example, will not only provide residents with access to fresh produce, but it will also become the state’s center of excellence for local foods through its capacity to process, package and store products and then move them to other markets and institutions. Business accelerators for food-based entrepreneurs will ensure that these companies are investor-ready if that is the path they choose to take. A regional farm technology competition for high school and college students can showcase innovation by the next generation of agriculture leaders. Continuing to invest in research, development, education and training will allow the Center for Dairy Research, UW–Madison and our technical colleges to have an even greater impact. And concrete efforts to expand the national and global distribution of our food and beverage products will help scale our companies and ensure the sustainability of our local food system.

We are excited to support, nurture and grow the extraordinary agricultural industry on which our region was built. By partnering with the many like-minded companies and organizations in the Madison region who recognize and celebrate that there is just as much innovation occurring in agriculture as there is in information technology, we can seize this moment to rediscover our roots, knowing that they are already planted firmly in the future.

Read the full article.