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When Julie Dawson starts making farm visits, she may face a problem many of her fellow UW-Madison agricultural extension specialists don’t: battling city traffic and finding a place to park.

“Much of my work will focus on farmers who are marketing directly to consumers, and they often have farms in or around urban areas,” says Dawson, a new urban and regional food systems specialist who joined the university as an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture this past July.

Dawson, the first UW-Madison plant scientist hired to specialize in urban and peri-urban agriculture, will focus on the needs of Wisconsin’s small, diversified, direct-to-market farms — including those located in and around urban areas — that sell their produce at local farmers markets, restaurants and grocery stores, and through Community Supported Agriculture shares.

Her program will also support the state’s community gardens, particularly those in urban areas where residents have limited access to good-quality, fresh produce. Her work, in both cases, will take into account the whole food system — including growing, processing, storing, distributing, transporting and selling — as appropriate and needed.

Photo: Julie Dawson
Julie Dawson

And much is needed.

Local agriculture has seen a lot of growth over the past decade, with local food sales soaring from an estimated $1 billion in 2005 to nearly $7 billion last year. Likewise, the number of farmers’ markets across the country has grown from 5,000 in 2008 to around 8,000 in 2013. Yet there are relatively few resources available to farmers in this agricultural segment at the UW.

UW-Extension gets a lot of calls from people interested in starting small farms or have questions about small farm management, and there aren’t as many on-campus resources for this group,” she says. “I’m hoping I can help meet this need.”

Dawson came here from Cornell University, where she helped develop small grain varieties for organic farming systems. It’s a bit of a switch, but she thinks her background will translate well to her new assignment.

“My previous research was with the same type of farmers that I’ll be working with here. They are all interested in value-added, organic, small-scale production,” she says. “And the participatory research I was involved in — where I worked directly with farmers to develop and answer research questions — is applicable to any crop.”

Come spring, Dawson plans to run variety trials to start identifying the best-tasting, highest-quality produce that can be grown on the state’s urban farms. “The goal is to add value to farmers’ products, either through growing better varieties or by differentiating by quality, so they bring a higher return,” she explains.

She also wants to help farmers and community gardeners set up their own trials to assess which farming practices work best for them, and she plans to develop an online portal where farmers can share their results.

“Growers do a lot of experimenting. I want to work with them to help design research projects and implement them in a way that gives them reliable results that they can trust — so they’re sure that what they’re observing is caused by the treatments they applied,” she explains.

Dawson also envisions developing a college course that will help students understand the skills needed to run a small farm or community garden, and she plans to connect with student groups interested in local and sustainable food systems such as Slow Food UW-Madison and F. H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture.

Horticulture Professor and Chair Irwin Goldman thinks Dawson will be a great fit.

“Our department feels Julie will bring absolutely top-notch science to the tremendous challenge of urban food systems,” he says. “We also feel that she will be an outstanding team member — exactly the kind of person we need to advance our efforts in this area.”

Getting started: If you’re interested in the topic, Dawson suggests the following websites: Community and Regional Food Systems Project, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, The Wisconsin Master Gardeners Program and Wisconsin Horticulture.