Spooner Agricultural Research Station summer employee Hannah Ryba picks bell peppers in the organic field used by the Department of Horticulture’s Seed to Kitchen Collaborative in Spooner, Wis., Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Photos by Michael P. King/UW–Madison CALS

Scores of variety trials are conducted each year by UW’s Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (SKC), a research project led by horticulture’s Julie Dawson that involves plant breeders, farmers and chefs working together to develop improved varieties of vegetables and fruits for local food systems. The project produces quite a bounty.

Throughout the growing season, researchers collect all kinds of field measurement data such as earliness, disease presence and yield. In the end, some of the vegetables and fruit are used for taste testing and lab measurements. But there’s still a lot left intact. This extra produce — amounting to around 20,000 pounds this past growing season — is donated by Seed to Kitchen to various food banks and other organizations.

“I don’t think much if any of the marketable produce we harvested went to waste,” says Dawson, an associate professor and extension specialist in the horticulture department. “We do try to make sure as much as possible gets to people who need it.”

The SKC trials are conducted at West Madison Agricultural Research Station and Spooner Agricultural Research Station, with about half of the bounty produced at each. Dawson partners with Kevin Schoessow, a UW–Madison Division of Extension agriculture development educator stationed at Spooner, who helps coordinate the distribution of the harvest.

Ryba places bell peppers in a bin for transport.

At West Madison, around 3,000 pounds of potatoes and 3,000 pounds of other produce went to the Middleton Outreach Ministries’ food pantry. Another 4,000 pounds went to other food banks, community centers and schools. Some goes to UW–Madison’s Campus Food Shed, and to crew and station staff who help with the field work.

At Spooner, this year’s bounty was distributed to over a dozen entities across Burnett, Washburn and Sawyer Counties, including donations to the St. Croix Chippewa and Lac Courte Oreilles tribes.  According to Schoessow, Spooner’s produce goes to UW–Madison Division of Extension’s FoodWise nutrition educators; other Division of Extension staff and Master Gardener Volunteers who use the produce in their programs (giveaways, for teachable moments, or for featuring in a workshop meal); local teachers who teach family and consumer education or have an interest in nutrition or local foods education; tribal contacts who teach or advocate for local food, nutrition and gardening; aging and disabilities resource centers that coordinate senior meals/nutrition programs; local food pantries; community suppers; and soup kitchens.

“I have been very passionate about making sure the perfectly good ‘by-products’ of our research and outreach efforts here at the Spooner Agricultural Research Station are being used as teachable moments in promoting nutrition, local foods, and research,” says Schoessow.

“Spooner and the surrounding area is very rural and has a high poverty rate,” he adds. “While our total volume of donated produce is not overly large, it has a big impact to those who receive and enjoy it.”