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Falk: Packing facility for local produce could dovetail with 'buy local' movement

By Brian Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Building on the popular Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square, as well as a successful program to link area farmers with large institutional buyers, officials are now looking into opening a 30,000-square-foot packing facility to wash, label, distribute and market local growers’ produce and other products.

In a recent interview, outgoing Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk said a group that includes private businesses wants to find out if a packing house could support itself.

Falk said she’s not certain what crops would be processed at the facility or where it might be located.

“That’s what this study is for, to explore that,” she explained, noting that the survey should be complete in June or July. If the results of the study support the packing house, it could be built and operating by next summer, she added.

The survey is being paid for by by Dane County, the city of Madison, Madison Gas and Electric and funding from the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, which is a partnership between Housing & Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and Environmental Protection Agency.

She said a fiscal analysis based on similar-sized packing house around the country showed such a facility could create 20 to 30 year-round jobs.

She predicted it could generate $20 to $30 million in tax revenue in the first three years. As it grows, it could do processing for large-volume wholesale buyers and add additional jobs.

“We have been successful over the years with helping agriculture grow business in Dane County,” she said. “It is incredibly important, $3 billion part of our economy, let alone for the quality of life it enhances for the rest of us in the county.

“Whether it is one of the most successful farmer’s markets in the country or these efforts to grow and buy more locally, this is an area where we can and are making a difference in sustain agriculture.”

She said the proposed packing facility could dovetail with the “buy local” movement.

“We in are practicing what we are preaching by buying more and more of what Dane County produces,” she said. “We feed 1,000 inmates every day, as well as 100 frail and elderly at our nursing home, so we are also trying to buy better locally through county purchasing.”

In 2006, she said, Dane County created the Institutional Food Market Coalition to link area farmers and producers with large food buyers like universities, hospitals, hotels, and conference centers. This effort successfully sold and delivered well over $1.5 million of locally grown vegetables, meats and cheeses to dozens of public and private sector users in 2010.

Moving on to politics, Falk, who announced last fall she will retire next month after 14 years as county executive, said she was stunned by the political firestorm that unfolded in Madison over the past month and concerned by the negative effects that Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bills will have on Dane County.

“But I still would have made the same decision to step down,” said Falk, who plans to ride her bicycle 1,500 miles from Florida to New York in April and May to “clear her head and start thinking about what the next chapter is.

“I know I want to take on another big challenge. There are a number of things I care deeply about. I’m hopeful I will create that next chapter so I can continue to make a difference.”
See a separate story on Falk’s thoughts on Gov. Walker’s budget and the political fallout from his budget bills at WisPolitics.com.

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