New ‘Brix Project’ highlights the importance of a local food ecosystem

Brix Cider’s three-year initiative will produce 12 original short films, as well as host screening events to showcase custom ciders, featured farmers and guest chefs.
Eric Cates kneels and pets a cow outside at Cates Family Farm.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Perkins.
Eric Cates takes care of a cow at Cates Family Farm.

Almost all of the food we eat — 80% of common grocery items, according to a recent report by The Guardian — is produced by a handful of conglomerates, and only 15 cents of every dollar we spend at the grocery store goes to the farmer. That’s not the case at Brix Cider in Mount Horeb, where owners Matt and Marie Raboin are working to disrupt the food ecosystem entirely. 

“The pandemic showed us just how deeply our community values the local food we source from the farmers and producers in our network — all of whom are our friends,” the Raboins wrote on their website to announce their latest effort: The Brix Local Food Community Hub Project

The Brix Project is a formalization of a shift that began for the Raboins during the pandemic. While their popular cidery and restaurant was shut down, they transformed the dining area into a local “grocery” store, creating an avenue for farmers and producers to continue their businesses. They also delivered 150 food orders each week to people sheltering at home. In 2020, 77% of Brix Cider’s total food and drink purchasing was either directly from local farms or bought from Wisconsin businesses or suppliers. For Matt Raboin, it wasn’t so much a shift as a natural extension of Brix Cider’s philosophy and practices.

“To me, food is the most fundamental way that we relate to each other and relate to the planet,” Matt Raboin says, adding that he hopes the efforts will catalyze other local food businesses to do the same. “I think the more we can kind of have some transparency [about] where things come from, more people will hopefully move towards the kind of model that we’re doing.”

To help make that happen, the Raboins teamed up with a couple they knew well through their agricultural circles: Jonnah and Jesse Perkins, who used to run Jesse’s parents’ now-closed CSA business, Vermont Valley Farm. Now they are local organic potato seed farmers through their own Mythic Farm. She is also a writer and he’s a photographer, and together they have a film production company called Black Krim Creative. They wanted to help illustrate the nuances of the still evolving farm-to-table food movement, one they’ve had a front row seat to over the years as it has grown in popularity—but also in mischaracterization. 

“I think there is a disconnect between what is a wholesome farm energy that a restaurant presents versus what is actually on the plate, and that’s just marketing,” she says. “We all want to feel like we’re eating an egg from a chicken that’s running around in a beautiful pasture, but it’s not always easy. I think the conversation can feel uncomfortable sometimes.”

The Perkins’ signed on to help the Raboins spark those important community conversations. Harnessing a three-year USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant, they enlisted University of Wisconsin–Madison Ph.D. candidate Jules Reynolds to serve as a project outreach research specialist to provide an academic, data-driven framework around the project. Then they got to work producing what will ultimately be 12 short films, each highlighting a different local farm. 

“I hope by sharing these stories we tap into a broader community of people who understand what it means to grow local food, what it means to raise local livestock, and what it means to support Wisconsin agriculture, and then by extending that to a national level discussion, people in their own community,” Reynolds says. “I think that it’s less we need to educate people and more open up possibilities for people to tap into.”

The Brix Project has released three videos thus far spotlighting Dorothy’s Range in Blanchardville, Cates Family Farm in Spring Green and Squashington Farm in Mount Horeb. In each case, it’s not just about telling the business’s personal story and its local ties, but also highlighting the broader issues small farmers are facing that impact the consumer’s wallet—and why that matters. Maybe that’s illustrating through video the challenges of farming through the winter, or demonstrating how as big agriculture gets bigger, the smaller processing facilities farm families rely on are disappearing.

“That’s something that needs to be realized by consumers. By buying from local family farms, maybe their prices are a little bit higher than the grocery store, but there’s a reason why,” says Eric Cates of Cates Family Farm. “That’s one of the hard things about being a small family farm is that you kind of do the best you can, and you’re trying to grow but you’re also limited because there’s just not very many opportunities to process an animal.”

Cates has long recognized the importance of inviting customers, chefs and servers to the farm to learn about his animals and tour the operations, but The Brix Project helps take what is essentially a personal, intimate story to a wider audience, thereby deepening and personalizing their connection to the food, too.

“The big thing for us is being able to kind of tell our story and who we are and what we stand for. If a customer has 10 different farms that are all grass-fed beef, how do they choose which one they want?” he says. “It takes it one step further than just the name on the menu, which is pretty neat.”

Squashington Farms’ Sarah Leong feels the same way about not only telling the story of the Mount Horeb-based, small-scale, organic CSA farm she owns with Patrick Hager, but of helping customers deepen their genuine connection to food and the families that are producing it. 

“The customer knows that anytime they buy anything from our market or a CSA membership, those dollars have real meaning to Pat and I and to Squashington,” Leong says.“It’s easy to say, ‘eat local, shop local,’ but it’s more difficult to ask how to do that and show an example of how simple it can be.”

Leong hopes that The Brix Project will make people more aware of how interconnected the local food ecosystem is here, and the role each of us plays in it.

“It’s this beautiful synergistic circle that we get to be a part of, and it’s a little microcosm, I think, of what could be done nationally and regionally,” she says. “It takes some commitment on everyone’s part.”

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