From an article by Mike Ivey in the La Crosse Tribune:

VIROQUA – Fifth Season Cooperative of Viroqua could serve as a model for business development in rural Wisconsin.

Ready to open for this spring’s growing season, Fifth Season connects small farmers and processors with large institutional customers such as schools, universities or hospitals. The idea is to directly tie producers to markets, eliminating the middleman, to keep prices affordable for local meats, produce and dairy.

“We’re one of just a handful of multi-stakeholder cooperatives in the United States,” says Nicole Penick, coordinator for the co-op.

Members so far include organic and conventional farmers; processors Organic Valley, Westby Co-op Creamery and Premier Meats; and purchasers Gundersen Lutheran, Vernon Memorial Healthcare, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Western Technical College and Viroqua Area School District.

After nearly two years of planning, Fifth Season was launched last August as a for-profit venture. It was helped with a $40,000 business development grant, the largest issued in 2010, through the state’s Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program.

The Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program was part of former Gov. Jim Doyle’s 2008 budget and was designed to connect local food producers with local buyers. It has awarded about $220,000 annually in development grants over the past three years. Recipients in 2010 included the Bayfield Apple Co., Perfect Pasture in Ashland, the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition and Green & Green Distribution in Mineral Point.

But the grant program is on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget chopping block and was not included in his proposed 2011-13 budget – a development some call short-sighted and contrary to Walker’s goal of growing the private-sector economy.