Local Food Legacy

New Year’s Day takes a back seat to no holiday when it comes to traditions. Frankly, we can do without the polar bear plunges. But we do look forward to a visit from our friend, Topf Wells, who always bears a bowl of black-eyed peas and ham, one spoonful of which will bring us all the luck we need for the new year. 

There are variations of the popular dish. It’s known as Hoppin’ John in some parts. The New Orleans version uses red beans. Topf’s is true to his Arkansas roots and as far as we’re concerned it wouldn’t be New Year’s Day without it. It’s a generous gift, sharing one’s traditions—especially food, and what’s a warmer wish than a year of good luck? 

As for Topf, his good luck in 2011 looks like it’ll include retirement. He’s been the ham to Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk’s black-eyed peas for the last fourteen years, and when Falk decided to step down from the post this spring, it opened the door to allow Topf to join his wife Sally in retirement. More time to visit the farmers’ markets around the county, among other things. 

Topf cares about food. And so does Falk. In fact, a reading of the county exec’s accomplishments includes significant contributions to the areas of sustainable agriculture and local food economies. We’ve been known to challenge our regional government leaders to do more to support local farmers and producers, in particular by offering more local food at institutional buildings and settings. Late last year Falk sent us a press release showing five years of growth in local food initiatives at Centerplate, the food service at the county-owned Alliant Energy Center.

It’s an impressive list—nearly forty percent of food purchases are from local providers, including ninety-six percent of the dairy products served. The goal is to reach fifty percent locally produced food in three years. Further, Centerplate offers to accommodate any customer requests for an all locally grown menu. That’s progress.

So is the work of the Institutional Food Market run by Olivia Perry, which is buying over 1.5 million pounds of locally grown produce every year. So are the ongoing outreach efforts by the Dane County Food Council, the citizen committee of the Dane County Board that develops recommendations for creating sustainable local food systems. All of these efforts came under Falk’s watch and they’re important.

Of course even more important are the critical land use and environmental decisions that have marked Falk’s tenure. While development pressures will always exist, the tensions that arose with every single pending subdivision proposal have been eased by a decade of building countrywide consensus around conservation, environmental protection and saving family farms. In the meantime organic farm and dairy operations have thrived in Dane County and along with them, industries like the local specialty cheese sector. Manure digesters may not be on the top of everyone’s legacy list, but the cow-powered machines will play an important role in food safety as well as energy production.

Falk’s many accomplishments will be duly noted elsewhere. But we want to acknowledge the food-related genuine articles that resulted from her leadership. And we very much hope food is high on the list of priorities for the next county executive.

Given that we had Topf Wells’ peas and ham, we expect it will be.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.



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