Research ensues: Michael Fields Ag Institute

The challenge is on, especially Sept. 14-23, to use as much locally grown and sustainable food as possible when eating. The Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin initiative is spreading statewide, and the goal is to spend at least 10 percent of your food budget on edibles produced close to home.

“Local” is defined as within 100 miles. The culmination of a largely terrific growing season and surge of farmers’ markets make this an easy job, with health advantages.

A longtime leader in this effort – way before the good-intentioned hype became fashionable – is the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, on the outskirts of East Troy. The nonprofit ag researcher and mentor has existed since 1984, and today is the steward for 1,000 acres, about 600 acres of which are sublet to a dairy farmer.

Marsh, woods and prairie buffer strips also are under Michael Fields’ watch. Nine-month programs teach farming as a second career, and coach young adults about gardening. Shorter workshops focus on culinary tours, youth education, urban agriculture – or a course that is self-designed by the students.

Food systems work – through crops, policies and research – take up much of the rest of the staff’s time. The average person is welcome to visit and walk field roads over roughly 100 acres, following the tree line and Honey Creek past patches of flowers and ponds, crickets and grasshoppers, berries and greens, a crop of corn and parcels of wildflowers.

Seasonal cooking classes occasionally occur in one of two commercial kitchens. Guided tours of Nokomis Organic Bakery, on the grounds, and the ag operations are possible for groups who make reservations.

This is a place to learn, instead of being amused. Materials at the institute remind us that food, on average, travels 1,494 miles before it is eaten. Development projects, in Wisconsin alone, destroy 25,000 acres annually.

For more: www.michaelfieldsaginst.org, 262-642-3303. The institute is at W2493 County ES, East Troy. Use directions at the website, not as posted through online search engines.

For more about Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin: www.wirural.org.

Michael Fields celebrates the bounty of autumn 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 6-7, during its annual Harvest Festival, the only organized opportunity for the public to see what the institute is about.

The day includes farm and garden tours, an explanation of research activities, an antique tractor show and activities for children. Admission is free.

Lecture topics are home-brewed beer and renewable energy. An exchange among seed savers will be ongoing. On Sunday is a reception to note the release of the book “Renewing the Countryside – Wisconsin” by Jerry Hembd, about environmentally friendly businesses.

Open on weekdays all year is Fields Best, W2463 County ES, a small food and gift shop with in-season fruits and veggies for sale. The building’s commercial kitchen also bakes tasty wheat/garlic/basil bread, various cookies (cranberry walnut is the most popular) and other baked goods (Sunshine Bars, like moist granola bars, use orange juice and honey as sweeteners).

Fields Best, the institute’s for-profit branch, also is a vendor at the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N. Water St.

In Madison, the ninth annual Food for Thought Festival celebrates the use of locally produced food and regional food traditions. This year’s event, 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 15 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard downtown, matches local celebrities and chefs in a cooking contest.

Contestants will have a time limit to create a meal with only ingredients purchased from Dane County Farmers’ Market vendors.

Other cooking demos, children’s activities, food exhibits and samples make this free event a fine reason to swing downtown before the 11 a.m. Badger football game.

For more: www.reapfoodgroup.org, 608-294-1114.

Local food fans with ambition may want to check out “Bike the Barns,” a hilly, pretty, 60-mile loop from northern Madison to the Black Earth area on Sept. 29.

It’s $35 to register; the cost includes a chef-made breakfast at a community farm, fresh goat cheese tasting and farm tour 17 miles later, gourmet lunch and farm tour at the 27-mile mark, and a final vegetable farm tour and snack before calling it a day.

For more about this event, which benefits the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition: www.macsac.org, 266-0300. The pedaling begins at 8:30 a.m.