By Jeff Iseminger —
Snake your way up the hollers of southwest Wisconsin and you can find a store smack in the middle of a polarized America that captures the spirit of its city and county—a spirit nurtured by people setting aside blue-red differences for the sake of their community.
The place is the town of Viroqua in Vernon County, and the store is the Viroqua Food Co-op at 609 N. Main St. On Nov. 8-10 the co-op will celebrate the completion of a huge expansion project doubling its retail space. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a co-op in a largely rural area. And, if you take a peek behind all the November hoopla, you’ll find some revealing statistics:
- The number of members (nearly 4,000) is almost equal to Viroqua’s population (approximately 4,300).
- The membership is drawn from a 30-mile radius, which means the Viroqua Food Co-op is truly a regional enterprise.
- Sales totaled $7.1 million last fiscal year. Annual sales growth is projected to jump over the next three years to $12 million, with an increase in staff.
- The co-op’s retail space now totals 9,250 square feet, compared to 700 square feet when it opened its doors in 1995. That’s an increase of more than 1,000 percent—a stratospheric number you rarely see in the world of food co-ops.
Growth and Stability
Since 1995, the co-op “has enjoyed slow, tempered growth, even through the 2009-10 recession,” says Jan Rasikas, who has overseen most of its growth serving as the general manager since the year after the co-op opened.
The co-op’s growth stability stands in contrast to many other food co-ops that opened in the ‘90s. Many of them, says Rasikas, were started out of nostalgia for the ‘70s and staffed largely by volunteers—not a recipe for long-term success.
The new expansion is not just a space for jamming more cans of food into more rows. It features a suite of big changes in the service mix the co-op can offer its customers.
The project features a significantly larger deli and bakery, a larger produce department for more local and organic products, increased public seating indoors and outdoors, and an educational multipurpose room. The expanded deli includes a hot bar, salad bar, burrito bowl station, meat and artisan cheese case, heat-and-eat meals, grab-and-go options, and an espresso and smoothie bar.
Woven throughout the expansion are environmentally sustainable elements: an electric vehicle charging station, LED and natural lighting, energy-efficient refrigeration, reclaimed heat for hot water needs, and 130 solar panels providing 13 percent of the store’s electricity.
Business people say differentiation is crucial to success in a marketplace crowded with competitors. “We stand apart from other grocery stores by telling the story of our products,” says Rasikas.
“For example, a full third of our total sales comes from producers within a 100-mile radius.” In fact, more than 175 local growers and producers sell through the co-op. Another differentiator: 42 percent of the co-op’s sales are 100 percent organic.
The Viroqua Food Co-op is in the middle of an organic-food nirvana. Wisconsin is second only to California in the number of organic farms within the state, and Vernon County is a hub of organic agriculture with the highest organic acreage per capita in the nation.
A big chunk of that nirvana has been created by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative producing 40 percent of the organic milk in America. Organic Valley and its related Organic Prairie meat-producing cooperative, headquartered in La Farge, include more than 2,000 farmers in 34 states, Canada and Australia.
Vitality and Resilience
The food co-op and Organic Valley are only two of 22 cooperatives in Vernon County—an unusually large number for a rural county. Other local co-ops deliver such services as cable, electricity and even car repair.
Rasikas thinks the nature of a cooperative makes it more resilient when times are tough. “The food co-op did well in the Great Recession because people had skin in the game,” she says.
A major stimulus for the region has come from the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA). Since its founding in 2006, VEDA has leveraged more than $7 million in grant funding and investments for economic projects.
VEDA owns a 100,000-square-foot industrial building in Viroqua called the Food Enterprise Center. Its tenants include successful businesses like Kickapoo Coffee, Wisco Pop and LuSa Organics.
“The Food Enterprise Center is nurturing an innovative, entrepreneurial environment and building wealth in the region,” says Susan Noble, VEDA’s executive director. “More broadly, VEDA supports a growing base of small businesses by providing tools and resources to help people develop their ideas and assist business expansions.”
Vernon County is blessed with being in the Driftless Area, a mecca for trout fishing, bicycling and canoeing. And business owners have been active agents in enhancing those natural assets.
The Driftless Angler fly shop has supported the work of Trout Unlimited and other groups to protect and restore cold-water streams. And Bluedog Cycles, owned by Pete Taylor, created Vernon Trails, a nonprofit staffed by volunteers to create new bicycling trails.
“When I moved here in 2006,” says Taylor, “there was not 1 mile of single-track trails. In 12 years Vernon Trails has designed, built and maintained 50 miles of trails in the county, with a target goal of 100 miles.”
Here are more markers of the economic vitality that’s made Vernon County one of the fastest-growing counties in Wisconsin:
- A new library opened in Viroqua in 2016 that doubled the space of its old Carnegie library.
- The Viroqua Chamber Main Street project, with roots extending back to 1989, continues to thrive, in part by sponsoring projects like SOUP. Each SOUP meeting invites residents to choose mini-projects for voluntary community funding, such as toys for children at the new library and a music therapy room at the local community radio station for Alzheimer’s patients.
- Viroqua and the county also support a strikingly diverse set of K-12 education options.
Support for these investments has come from a wide demographic and political spectrum, including local multigenerational families, back-to-the-landers who moved to the area in the ‘70s, well-educated newcomers, and Amish and Mennonite families.
One bridge in this demographic mix is the new mayor of Viroqua, Karen Mischel. She graduated from Viroqua High School, took on numerous endeavors including 17 years spent in the Merchant Marines, and returned to Viroqua. She’s now the mayor of Viroqua, vice president of the Viroqua Food Co-op board of directors, and an organic farm inspector.
Mischel points to the economic model of a cooperative as one reason blue-red and other differences have been transcended for community betterment. “Most of the economic structure in our area is cooperative-based,” she says, so cooperation as both principle and practice comes more naturally.
An example is the response to record floods that hit the region this past summer. Six communities were under water and entire farms were washed away. Teams of Amish joined others to dig out homes and make meals, and a flood relief concert raised $42,000.
“We have an incredibly strong community,” says Mischel. “When people need to come together, they don’t ask questions.”
Highlights of the Nov. 8-10 Viroqua Food Co-op Grand Reopening Celebration:
- The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held Thursday, Nov. 8, at noon.
- Each day features 10 sampling sessions from local and cooperative producers, food giveaways, education classes for adults and kids, and live music.