This weekend we traveled up to Minneapolis to visit friends and see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza -which was amazing. While there, we took an extra day to add in 3 more meals so we could sample more fine dining – it has been several years since I have eaten at Hell’s Kitchen and we also wanted to try some great vegetarian/organic/local food paces as well. We had a pre show bite at Goldens’s Deli (organic and almost zero waste) and then dinner at Galactic pizza featuring a “CSA” pizza with a revolving toppings list (2 die for!) ended up at Cafe Agri for lunch (veggie biscuits and gravy!) ,and capped the weekend off with stop at Common Roots for dinner on Saturday (they had a sign up asking patrons to come weed the onions at their featured farm!). Awesome weekend with the family, and we got to eat other people’s garden raised food for a change! On the way home I wanted to eschew the interstate as much as possible and cruise down the Mississippi for a bit as well as visit the Organic Farming Mecca of West Central Wisconsin -specifically Viroqua (the town that Beat Wal-Mart).
I absolutely idolize the area around Viroqua and La Farge, WI. They beat Wal-Mart; its the home of Organic Valley Co-Op and hence, has what is arguably the highest density of Organic Farms in the country. And thanks to the vagaries of the last Ice Age – alot of the topography is still intact meaning that the counties in this region are breathtaking -full of bluffs, rushing rivers and the land is mostly wooded. Thanks again to that topography it is very hard to have large farms here – too much of the land is hilly. This favors smaller garden operations, diversified farms, and small dairies which are typically organic to make it economically viable on less than 50 head. We often dream of “unplugging” and moving to Mecca. But this trip was a bit of an eye opener. While we didn’t spend much time in Viroqua, we spent several hours talking about it on the final leg of our journey home.
First off, it is exactly what we are looking for in a “sustianable” community. That means it is so dang far from everything (85 miles to Madison) that it is used to living just fine on its own, thank you very much. They have lots of local culture, a strong community spirit, and all the other things that I look for in where to raise a family in Energy Descent. It also means that, if anything, there is too much local food (is that possible?!). Prices for local organic veggies at the co-op were less than what we pay in Madison, and the quality was significantly better. That tells me that the market is flooded with local produce and the Co-Op, rather than the farmers, can set prices. More than that, with the quality on hand, either their farmers are way better than me (very possible) or the Co-Op is only taking their top 20% in quality. That adds up to making it very, very hard to make a living as a farmer. In fact, median income for Virquoa is a staggeringly low $33kish -for an entire family!- vs $50k for my working class hamlet. Sure, farm prices are significantly lower, but there aren’t many homes with even 2-3 acres for less than $150k.
On our way into Virquoa, my wife and I had been kicking around our perrenial idea of what our cafe/store would be like if we ever opened one. This is as much to wile away the time in the car as anything, and we came up with alot of good ideas. In Viroqua, every one of the niches we had planned to fill with a corner in our “Cafe and Sustainable Sundries” shop has its own dedicated store. Again, a bittersweet note to how prepared they are, and how difficult it would be to eck out a living with so many niches filled. Most telling, after a quick run through Realtor.com, and especially a long look at the “for sale” board at the Co-Op and we left with a feeling that plenty of idealistic people have left the city to try to make a go at This Organic Life in Viroqua only to fail to either makes ends meet. Lots of supply, and not much demand. Great for thriving on the downside of the Peak, not so great when you are wallowing in more debt than you would prefer. Virquoa is a paradise for those paying cash for capital assets. We are not those people yet.
Also, to be perfectly honest, the fine dining and culture in Minneapolis was excellent and we had a fabulous time. There is still a strong portion of both my wife and myself that really enjoys the accutrements of a medium to large city like a Madison, WI or Minneapolis, MN. We both agree we could never live *IN* a city that size, but we definitely enjoy visiting, and -at least for now- we need access to a market that size for our produce and services. I could easily see myself selling produce to any of the restaurants we ate at, but not driving 90 miles to do so. A few months ago in a fit of strategic planning, we came to the conclusion that we would like to live on 3-10 acres (no more!) of land about a 20-30 minute drive from Madison. Preferably in the 90 degree ark west and north of the city. Close enough to have a market and a cultural outlet, far enough away to be able to afford land, and have some peace and quiet.
Now, after having spent a great weekend in a large city, followed by a day spent touring the hinterland along the Mississippi and then on into Organic Holy Land, I can say that where we are now, is actually pretty close to where we should be (HOA notwithstanding). Would I prefer to be on acreage and have a masonry stove heated strawbale home? Of course! But this is a “long emergency” and will be more of a Journey than a Sprint. We have likely have the time to be planful, learn skills, and to try things out on a small scale before making firm commitments. It felt good to come home, and I’m enough of a poet to think that perhaps that there was something symbolic in the fact that we entered our driveway to see one of the boldest double rainbows I’ve ever seen flying over the town.