New ‘Project Brix’ highlights the importance of a local food ecosystem

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Almost all the food we eat — 80% of everyday groceries, according to a recent report by The Guardian – is produced by a handful of conglomerates, and only 15 cents of every dollar we spend on groceries goes to the farmer. That’s not the case at Brix Cider in Mount Horeb, where owners Matt and Marie Raboin strive to completely disrupt the food ecosystem.

“The pandemic has shown us how much our community appreciates the local food we buy from the farmers and growers in our network — all of whom are our friends,” the Raboins wrote on their website to announce their latest effort: The Brix Local Food Community Hub project.

The Brix project is a formalization of a shift initiated for the Raboins during the pandemic. While their popular cider house and restaurant were closed, they turned the dining room into a local “grocery,” creating an avenue for farmers and growers to continue their businesses. They also delivered 150 food orders each week to people staying in their homes. In 2020, 77% of Brix Cider’s total food and beverage purchases were either sourced directly from local farms or purchased from Wisconsin businesses or suppliers. For Matt Raboin, this was not so much a change as a natural extension of Brix Cider’s philosophy and practices.

“For me, food is the most fundamental way we connect to each other and to the planet,” says Matt Raboin, adding that he hopes the efforts will catalyze other local food businesses to they do the same. “I think the more we can have some kind of transparency [about] where things come from, hopefully more people will gravitate towards the type of model we offer. »

To achieve this, the Raboins teamed up with a couple they knew well in their farming circles: Jonnah and Jesse Perkins, who ran Jesse’s parents’ now-closed CSA business, Vermont Valley Farm. Now they are local organic seed potato growers through their own Mythic Farm. She’s also a writer and he’s a photographer, and together they have a film production company called Black Krim Creative. They wanted to help illustrate the nuances of the ever-evolving farm-to-table food movement, a movement they’ve had a front-row seat to over the years as it grew in popularity, but also in misleading terms.

“I think there’s a disconnect between what’s healthy farm energy that a restaurant presents and what’s actually on the plate, and that’s just marketing,” she says. “We all want to feel like we’re eating an egg from a hen running around in a nice pasture, but it’s not always easy. I think conversation can be uncomfortable at times.

The Perkins signed on to help the Raboins spark these important community conversations. Operating a three-year grant from the USDA Local Food Promotion Program, they enlisted University of Wisconsin – Madison Ph.D. nominee Jules Reynolds to serve as the Project Outreach Research Specialist to provide a data-driven academic framework around the project. Then they got to work producing what will eventually be 12 short films, each spotlighting a different local farm.

“I hope that by sharing these stories, we tap into a larger community of people who understand what it means to grow local food, what it means to raise local livestock, and what it means to support Wisconsin agriculture, and then in extending that to a national level of discussion, people in their own community,” says Reynolds. “I think we need less to educate people and more to open up possibilities for people to tap into.”

So far, the Brix Project has released three videos highlighting Dorothy’s Range in Blanchardville, Cates Family Farm in Spring Green and Squashington Farm in Mount Horeb. In each case, it is not only about telling the personal story of the business and its local connections, but also highlighting the wider issues that smallholder farmers face that impact the wallet. of the consumer – and why it matters. Perhaps it illustrates through a video the challenges of farming during the winter, or shows how, as agriculture grows, the small processing facilities that farm families rely on disappear.

“This is something that needs to be realized by consumers. By buying from local family farms, their prices might be a little higher than at the grocery store, but there’s a reason for that,” says Eric Cates of Cates Family Farm. “That’s one of the hard things about being a small family farm is that you kind of do your best, and you try to grow, but you’re also limited because there’s just no not many opportunities to transform an animal.”

Cates has long recognized the importance of inviting customers, chefs and servers to the farm to learn more about her animals and tour the operations, but The Brix Project helps convey what is essentially a personal and intimate story to a wider audience, deepening and personalizing their connection with food as well.

“The most important thing for us is being able to tell our story, who we are and what we stand for. If a client has 10 different farms that are all grass-fed, how do they choose which one they want he says. “It goes a little further than just the name on the menu, which is pretty neat.”

Sarah Leong of Squashington Farms feels the same not only telling the story of the Mount Horeb small-scale organic CSA farm she owns with Patrick Hager, but helping guests deepen their true connection with food and families who are producing it.

“The customer knows that every time they buy something from our marketplace or are a member of the ASC, those dollars have real meaning to Pat, to me, and to Squashington,” says Leong. harder to ask how to do this and show how simple it can be.

Leong hopes the Brix project will make people more aware of the interconnectedness of the local food ecosystem here and the role each of us plays in it.

“It’s this beautiful synergistic circle that we’re part of, and it’s a little microcosm, I think, of what could be done nationally and regionally,” she says. “It requires a certain commitment on everyone’s part.

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