Developing Consumer Driven Markets for Southern Wisconsin Farmers

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $84,951.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $32,274.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Greg Lawless
University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bovine
  • Animal Products: dairy, meat


  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, marketing management, feasibility study, market study, value added


    This project sought to strengthen prospects for small and mid-sized family farms in Wisconsin by connecting “clusters” of farmers with promising consumer markets in the region. Working with eight diverse groups, we learned that (a) the cost of market research and market development should not be underestimated, (b) ambitious ideas should be grounded in realistic business plans, (c) shared leadership is critical to successful collaborative ventures, (d) university extension and non-profit institutions can provide valuable support, and (e) a group of farmers pursuing an opportunity together can be remarkably persistent.


    Background and Context for the Project

    The rapidly developing food commodity sector makes it increasingly difficult for all but the largest farming enterprises to remain viable. These enterprises focus on producing high-volume, low-margin commodities, and are often linked to vertically integrated food chains. While managers of traditionally independent, mid-sized family farms increasingly find struggling in this sector to be a poor management strategy, they see few alternatives and feel “stuck.”

    Also developing is a more locally or regionally based food sector focusing on specialty or niche markets for agricultural products. For example, the nationally known Dane County Farmers’ Market is part of a 63% increase nationally in the number of markets in the second half of the 1990s (Klotz 2001). Southern Wisconsin’s large and growing number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms is part of a similar national trend (deMeurisse 1999). Further, nationwide farmers are finding that selected stores and supermarkets increasingly will buy from local or regional sources (Pool 1999). Larger specialty marketing systems include the growing organic industry with its regional and national marketing nodes. But there is a large information gulf between farmers seeking production and marketing alternatives and reliable marketing opportunities for them.

    Three important needs emerge. First, most farmers lack reliable information about barriers and opportunities related to marketing locally grown and processed foods. Second, there is a need to organize farmers to explore marketing opportunities that they can address collectively. Finally, we expect to encounter limitations imposed by scarce public resources supporting such initiatives in the state. Our objectives’ sequential order reflects these changes.

    Project objectives:

    Three of our four project objectives correspond directly to the three needs identified above.

    (1) To identify, analyze and selectively respond to the markets in southern Wisconsin for food products from local, sustainably oriented sources. This objective corresponds to farmers’ need for reliable market information.

    (2) To share market information gained from meeting Objective 1 with southern WI farmers and to coordinate their response to that information. This objective corresponds to organize together to pursue market opportunities.

    (3) To explore and organize the development of legislative and state programs and policies supporting alternative marketing initiatives in Wisconsin. This objective corresponds to the shortage of public resources to support farmers’ effort to develop new markets.

    (4) To share lessons of this southern Wisconsin project within the state and region. This objective is intended to ensure that our research results are extended beyond the project’s immediate participants.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.