WisBusiness: Milwaukee summit considers food production as next industry cluster
By Kay Nolan
Move over, water industry and wind technology enthusiasts: The latest idea for creating clusters of jobs in Wisconsin is to cultivate the food industry.
From raising crops and fish inside abandoned warehouses to retrofitting blighted buildings into coffee shops or Hispanic food stores, attendees of a community development summit on Tuesday in Milwaukee heard compelling arguments that food production could be the key to growing jobs and prosperity in the state, especially in urban areas.
Armed with a laundry list of ways that Wisconsin reportedly leads the nation in both farming and food and beverage production, the seven-county Milwaukee 7 economic development initiative is actively seeking a site for a "food industry campus" designed to attract manufacturers of food products or equipment as well as food growers, said Shelley Jurewicz, vice president of economic development for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
"We're looking to secure up to 150 acres of land, and we would go out and aggressively attract either food manufacturers or food equipment manufacturers to create kind of a consolidation of employers and we're working with (Milwaukee Area Technical College) on developing three different food manufacturing diplomas," said Jurewicz.
While Jurewicz would not disclose locations under consideration, she said, "we want there to be proximity somewhere to MATC food school so that we tie these industry folks into a talent pipeline coming through the technical college system."
Panelists at the event, sponsored by the Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee, and moderated by Mitch Teich, executive producer with Milwaukee Public Radio, offered tempting tidbits of the potential economic payoff of expanding Wisconsin's food industry.
Among statistics touted at the summit:
* Within 250 miles of southeastern Wisconsin, there are 35 million people who collectively spend more than $100 billion a year on food.
* Farmers markets, which were all but extinct by the 1970s, are now booming nationwide; Wisconsin now has more than 230 of them.
* Such markets reached $4.8 billion in sales in 2008.
* Wisconsin is second in the nation, after California, in vegetable production.
* Wisconsin is No. 1 in the nation in "food industry talent" -- people with experience working in the field.
* Wisconsin is No. 2 in organic food production.
* In the Milwaukee region, there are 243 food manufacturers, which employ more than 14,000 workers.
* Seven of the nation's 11 largest food manufacturers have facilities in the state.
Keynote speaker Jeffrey O'Hara of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that unlike other manufactured goods that might become obsolete, "there will always be a stable demand for food."
Farmers markets are good opportunities for budding entrepreneurs, O'Hara said, and buying locally grown food keeps shoppers' dollars in the community.
Lincoln Fowler, co-owner of Alterra Coffee Roasters, was among a group of business leaders who said creative thinking in other areas of the food industry can create dozens or even hundreds of jobs in urban areas, while simultaneously reducing blight. The family-owned Alterra, started in 1993, has repeatedly converted rundown or contaminated properties into coffee-roasting facilities and coffee shops. It employs 240 people and soon will open its 11th facility.
Similarly, M. Olivia Villareal, corporate secretary of El Rey Foods, says her family's growing business, which operates a string of grocery stores and restaurants featuring Mexican food, has purchased "downtrodden" properties and improved them, bringing new life to their immediate neighborhoods. The company, started in 1978, now employs 500 people.
And Rick Terrien, executive director of president of the Iowa County Economic Development Corporation, turned a novel idea into a business called the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen that, in just a few years, is producing "black ink results," has helped start or launch more than 30 local businesses, and has created over 90 community jobs -- including jobs for 35 people with significant disabilities.
Terrien offers packaging, storing and shipping services in Mineral Point for budding food companies, allowing people who start a business baking pies or making homemade jam in their homes to expand their businesses while having the time to hold down other jobs or focus on the actual food preparation. He said he hopes to open similar operations in the urban Milwaukee area.
Young Kim, who runs the non-profit Fondy Food Center on Milwaukee's north side, sees locally grown food as a way to address hunger and poor nutrition choices in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. But he cautioned that tiny, self-employed "farms" might not be a realistic model.
"I think you need at least two contiguous acres, not a half-acre here and there," he said. And operators need other business skills to succeed, he noted, like knowing how to prepare invoices and ship goods. "These skills are in short supply," he said.
Kymm Mutch, a dietitian with Milwaukee Public Schools, said schoolchildren have been invited to tour Growing Power, a successful urban farm, and are then treated to samples of fresh crops such as sunflower sprouts. She said one Milwaukee high school is reintroducing "home economics" principles, prompting some students to seek internships or additional schooling in the food industry.
But she said using locally grown food to supply MPS cafeterias would be a daunting task given the size of the district and limited funds.
The summit drew mixed reactions from the roughly 200 attendees -- a diverse audience of social activists, business professionals, banking and investment professionals, educators, students and participants in urban farming.
Karl J.M. Grunewald, a business and financial consultant, believes there's an increasing market for organically grown produce. Local producers who make their desirable farming practices known could have strong appeal with health-conscious consumers, he said.
But Grunewald is skeptical that "urban farms" in buildings or on small lots could rescue the Milwaukee area's struggling economy or create many jobs.
"There's going to have to be cooperation between the rural environment and the urban environment," he said.
A lot of coordination and some kind of steering function is needed, said Barbara Markoff, an attendee from U.S. Bank. "Great initiatives don't always produce change," she noted.
But Cathy Henry, president of Sysco Food Services of Eastern Wisconsin, a distribution company that trucks food to 5,000 Wisconsin customers -- mostly restaurants -- encouraged people with creative ideas to "just get started" instead of worrying about pitfalls.
Her firm decided this year to create a mini-farm on 34 acres across from its distribution center. The yield of cherry tomatoes, spinach, carrots, green peppers and other produce not only provided jobs for local workers, but is allowing Sysco to literally deliver food "from farm to fork within 24 hours," she said.