Labels 101

By Emily Schwartz

Organic? Conventional? Local? All natural? With all of the different labels used to describe foods these days, it can be difficult to sort through all of them to make the best decision on what to buy at the grocery store.
The majority of today’s fruits and vegetables are conventionally produced. This means that they are grown using traditional or “common-place” methods that are generally accepted as “safe” and “acceptable.” These methods, which may include the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification, have been used for years to produce larger amounts of fruits and vegetables to help meet a growing consumer demand for affordable produce with a quality appearance and year-round availability.
Many of the local fruits and vegetables available during our Wisconsin growing season are conventionally produced. Although local produce may certainly be organic, organic is not synonymous with being locally grown. Currently, there is no set definition for a food labeled as local; however, it often refers to a food produced within a certain geographical area. Depending on individual perspectives, a local food may be produced within a set number of miles or grown in a certain county, state, region or country where a person may reside. In general, local fruits and vegetables may travel shorter distances from the field to the store. This yields fresher and more flavorful produce. In addition, this shorter travel time gives fruits and vegetables less opportunity to lose important nutrients. Buying local produce may offer the opportunity to support your local community, as well as introduce you to the farmers growing your food.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that a food carrying the organic label be produced using sustainable practices without the use of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically engineered products. However, forms of organic pesticides and fertilizers may still be used in the growing process. To be able to label a product as organic, a producer must become certified by the USDA. This process may take years to complete and may mean that some producers are following organic growing methods even without the organic label on their produce.
With increasing availability of organic products, natural is another label that is increasingly being used to market foods. Unlike organic, there are currently no set regulations qualifying the use of this term. Today, as much of our food undergoes some sort of processing before it reaches our plate, it is hard to define a food as “natural” from a food science point of view. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only loosely defines a “natural” food as one that may be without added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic additives. As this topic is of much debate, the FDA is currently requesting public comments and information to possibly formulate a set definition in years to come.
Regardless of what types of fruits and vegetables you buy, there are benefits to foods in each category. We at Festival like to encourage that all forms matter, but ultimately, the decision to buy organic, local, natural, conventional, or any combination of the above comes down to personal preferences and beliefs.
Emily Schwartz is a nationally accredited registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) serving the Eau Claire and La Crosse communities as Festival Foods’ Western Markets Regional Dietitian.

Drink Locally This Season

By:  Abbie Burgess

Localvores, take note: locally produced isn’t just for food anymore. Why just eat local when you can drink local, too? Historically, wine grapes couldn’t grow in Wisconsin’s cold climate, so only fruit wines came from the region. With the development of cold-hearty grape varietals, Wisconsin’s vineyard production has boomed in the last decade, making it one of the nation’s leading emerging wine regions. Here are five western Wisconsin operations making wine from local vines.

65 Vines Winery

Julie and Scott Andrzejczak’s winery in Roberts, Wisconsin, is on a property they refer to as “our little piece of paradise.” 65 Vines Winery, named after nearby Highway 65, has the distinction of being the first winery in St. Croix Count. The localized naming trend continues with the wines. Creative names such as “Tippy Canoe,” “Up a Creek,” and “The One That Got Away,” are inspired by the Kinnickinnic River.

Using locally grown grapes is important to the Andrzejczaks. “We’re trying to introduce people to products made from cold-hearty grapes,” Scott says. “We want to sell a really good local product that’s custom crafted in small batches.” The 900 vines on the one-and-a-half acre vineyard are still maturing and have yet to be ready for their first harvest. In the meantime,the winery supports neighboring vineyards by sourcing grapes from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

65 Vines Winery seeks to stand out in the region with its sustainable practices. To help customers go green, the winery offers an exchangeable bottle. Pesticide use is kept to a minimum, with the long-term goal to become certified oganic.

Local wineries offer visitors the chance to take a break from routine. “People want to see the grapes, see where it’s bottled, find out how to pair it with local cheeses and sausages,”Andrzejczak says. Customers can even adopt a vine for the chance to customize an engraved plaque in the vineyard marking their vine, allowing them to be part of the grape growing experience. “Check out your vines, come taste the grapes. It gives a sense of place on the local scale.”

Villa Bellezza

This Lake Pepin attraction stands out with its distinctive Italian-style architecture. This is no surprise, since Julianne and Derick Dahlen turned their vacation home in Pepin into a vineyard after becoming inspired by friends in Italy. They invite visitors to “experience the Mediterranean on the Mississippi.” The Dahlens enjoy sharing the beauty of the area with vineyard guests, many of whom discover Pepin for the first time while visiting the winery and vineyard.

Villa Bellezza is open year round for wine tastings and private events. Julianne Dahlen says that the winery produces 60,000 bottles per year. About a third of the grapes come from two vineyards on premises, and the rest are grown locally up and down the river valley. “I hope more wineries come to this area and it becomes a destination,” she says. “It’s an exciting time to be part of this developing wine region.”

Autumn Harvest Winery  and Orchard

Nestled in the heart of Wisconsin’s apple orchard country, the McIlquham family has been growing apples since the 1920s. In 2005, third-generation owners Marykay and John McIlquham added a winery, becoming Autumn Harvest Winery and Orchard. This year, their cousin Chad and his wife Jean took over ownership and became fourth-generation McIlquham apple growers.

Jean McIlquham says their Chippewa Falls winery is continuing the Wisconsin tradition of fruit wines. The orchard’s own apples create several varieties of Autumn Harvest Winery and Orchard wines, and the blueberries, pears, blackberries, and raspberries grown onsite are also used in winemaking. The grapes are sourced locally when possible. One of their popular wines is made from Honeycrisp apples. “Everyone loves Honeycrisp, so why not drink it?” McIlquham says of the sweet wine. “Apple wines are great even for guys who only drink beer.”

The McIlquham’s six-year-old daughter Violet, has inspired many of the family-friendly features of the orchard. With a gift shop, corn maze, wagon rides, pick-your-own apples, and a wine tasting patio, the McIlquhams strive to offer something for everyone. The winery and orchard are closed in winter, but the wines are available at local retailers year round.

River Bend Vineyard  and Winery

A big red barn with a meticulously landscaped patio for outdoor seating welcomes visitors to River Bend Vineyard and Winery in Chippewa Falls. The rolling hills are dotted with active farms that yield fields of cornand soybeans. Despite the rural setting, it’s easy to get to from the highway. It’s a popular second stop for tourists of Leinenkugel’s brewery. Owners Donna and Al Sachs were part of the Wisconsin vineyard boom of the last decade. In 2006 they planted cold-hearty grapes developed by the University of Minnesota and were open for business by 2009. “We specifically wanted to have a real vineyard setting,” Donna Sachs says, “that makes visitors say, ‘Oh my word, this is what I would expect to see in California!’”

Sachs says that interest in local wines is growing steadily. Production has doubled since River Bend Vineyard and Winery opened in 2009, and Sachs anticipates that trend continuing in the years to come. “A lot of people are really into local foods, which helps enormously.”

Cottage Winery and Vineyard

What stands out immediately about this Menomonie winery is the European-inspired architecture. “Depending on where they’ve traveled, visitors will remark that it looks exactly like Italy, England, or France,” says owner Teresa Jorgensen. In reality, the buildings are all new construction complete with the geothermal heating.  Tom Jorgenson, Teresa’s father and co-owner of the property, became inspired after a trip to Europe with his wife. As a contractor, he created his own little piece of Europe in Menomonie to share with other wine lovers in 2012.

With gorgeous views of rolling hills surrounding the European-inspired farm, guests comment how peaceful and relaxing it is. Cottage Winery and Vineyard offers tastings of both locally produced and worldwide wines. “We’re a winery-meets-wine-bar,” Teresa says. “You must come out and do a tasting to see what you like!” The winery is open through December.

Inga Witscher: Organic Farming Rocks!

inga witscher

By:  Jan Carroll

Inga Witscher, host of Wisconsin Public Television’s Around the Farm Table, has been farming for nine years and now runs a thirty-acre certified dairy farm, milking eleven Jersey cows with the lower-tech bucket milking system. She is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and it was her dad who talked her into moving to West-Central Wisconsin and trying her hand at this farm. The family had lots of experience with big vegetable gardens and an organic creamery as she was growing up. She was not sure about the new venture at first,but it didn’t take long before she felt at home. “I just fell in love with it. It completed me,” she said.

Witscher uses managed intensive grazing for the cows, a method that involves moving the cows to new pasture every twelve hours. This gives each patch of pasture a forty-day rest. Milk from her farm is shipped to Westby, Wisconsin, where it is made into butter, cottage cheese, and cheese and then sold in the Madison area. Witscher notes that even her cows eat locally, since she supports local farmers by buying hay and grain from them.

As a kid, Witscher says, everything the family ate was off their farm. She feels the trend toward organic sustainable farms that serve local markets will continue to grow because people are becoming more aware of it and more educated about it. She feels small and midsize farms will guide the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement. Although it can be an adjustment learning to eat some of the new foods you receive in CSA, she adds that “CSAs are great, because they push you out of your comfort zone.” Also, kids are growing up with fresh organic local food as the norm, so they will expect the same as they grow into adults who buy produce and other farm goods. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got rid of labels of local and sustainable because they had become so common?” she wonders.

Living in the city, it can be hard to connect with local organic farmers. Besides looking for them at area farmers markets, Witscher offers three ways to cultivate relationships with your local farmers:

  • Throw a local-food potluck party, where each guest brings some local organic food or a dish made with a local organic food.
  • She advises, however, to remember that these are working farms, and although farmers love to have you stop by, they will be taking time away from their work to talk with you, so limit your time there, bring a small token of appreciation like a bottle of wine, or offer to help with tasks around the farm, like weeding the garden. Leave your dog at home!
  • Invite local organic farmers to speak to your group or at your event or dinner party. This is nice, she adds, because it allows farmers to get off the farm.

Witscher lists two challenges to small and midsize organic farmers. One is the lack of available land. She’d like to increase her herd to fifty cows, but she’d need more land to do so, and it’s hard to come by. If you can find afordable land, if it hasn’t already been transitioned into organic land, that process takes three years, which is quite an investment since it is expensive to convert regular land to organic land. That process of going organic is also an emotional commitment for the farmer because it can often mean you lose the camaraderie of local conventional farmers. Second, she agrees that organic food often costs more, but she explains that is because the cost of farming is high, especially organic farming. But, she says, even though the cost of organic milk is high, there is a huge demand for it. There aren’t enough organic farmers producing organic milk to meet demand. Witscher says she strategizes often about how to make the farm more financially feasible.

In looking to the future, Witscher would like to have better communication and mutual learning opportunities between organic and conventional farmers, to get to know and interact “just as farmers,” sharing ideas such as cover crops to prevent erosion. In organic farming, “the soil is the foundation of everything else,” she explains. From there, the main thing is to make sure the cows are happy and relaxed, and then fewer other issues arise healthwise. She is happy to report that women “are the fastest growing sector in agriculture,” though it has taken a while to become accepted.’

Season 3 of Around the Farm Table will be on public television later this fall, probably in October sometime. Check local listings for day and time. Witscher says the goal of the program is to promote original local products and to show people what those products are like and how to use them, with recipes and ideas. By visiting and featuring organic farmers from all over the state, Wisconsin viewers can become more educated, and hopefully this will encourage them to try more local foods! Witscher loves the way the program “connects the consumer to the farmer.”

Feeding Baby Homemade Whole Foods

By: Beth Martin, Just Local Foods Cooperative

When the time comes to begin feeding baby solid foods, consider skipping the cute little jars of baby food that line store shelves.  Yes, organic baby food is available and a great option when traveling or in a pinch.   Making your own baby food is very easy, cost effective, fun, and allows you to provide your precious bundle with a nutrient dense, delicious, first experience with food.

Does is matter if we use organic produce?   Truth be told, YES it really is.* Cooking with fresh wholesome foods is always best.  Use fresh, well cleaned fruits and vegetables – organic when you can.  Feeding baby fresh foods helps develop healthy early eating habits and packs more nutritional value per serving than jarred foods

*If affordability is a concern when purchasing organic fruits and vegetables, consider familiarizing yourself with the Environmental Working Group list of the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” which measures pesticide and herbicide toxicity in conventional produce. You can find these lists at www.ewg.org

Advantages of Organic Foods For Infants

  • Pound for pound, a baby consumes more pesticides due to their body size than adults.
  • Babies who eat organic are not exposed to the levels of pesticides and herbicides found in conventionally grown produce.
  • Studies are now showing that organically grown foods are higher in nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts.
  • Organic foods are NOT GMO foods.

Where to Begin!  Wonderful First Foods for Baby!

Healthy Fats are essential to brain and nervous system development. Use organic, hormone-free butter, extra virgin olive oil, avocado.

Fruits & Veggies Lightly steamed fruits and veggies are packed with vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Use banana, carrots, apples, sweet potato, papaya, avocado, cooked greens (well pureed).

High Quality, Local & Pastured Meat Healthy proteins provide better sources of iron and zinc.  Try cooked, well pureed dark poultry and organic, chemical free red meat, organic chicken liver, and egg yolk.

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends trying these as better sources of iron than plant based foods. Wild caught, cold water fish:  Salmon.  Avoid farmed salmon.  Wild fish provides high level s of DHA, crucial to retinal and brain development.