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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Leafy, green and still good for ya
Wisconsin spinach farmers hang on amid catastrophe

Hard to believe, but the nationwide spinach panic may actually prove a benefit to local producers. Last week, Governor Doyle assured residents that Wisconsin-grown spinach was safe. 'I want to encourage Wisconsin residents to support our local farmers and farmers markets by purchasing and consuming locally grown spinach,' he said.

And people appear to be listening. At least one local farmer reports no slowdown in customers buying spinach from her stand at the Dane County Farmers' Market.

'People at the market are so educated about food,' said Annake Witkop of Harmony Valley Farm. 'We've gotten a few phone calls about it, but people trust our spinach and how we grow it.'

But for everyone in the spinach business, the last few weeks have been rough. Since Aug. 2 at least one person, a Manitowoc woman, has died after eating spinach tainted with E. Coli, and according to the Food and Drug administration, the deadly bacterium has sickened 183 nationwide, including 47 in Wisconsin and seven in Dane County.

The outbreak has been traced to bagged spinach from California's Salinas Valley, sold under more than 20 brand names. The FDA has advised everyone in the country to avoid all fresh spinach, unless they can verify it did not come from the California counties in question ' a potentially devastating blow to farmers with a field of spinach just about ready to harvest.

Grocery stores have pulled packaged spinach from the shelves and many restaurants, like Cafe Zoma on Atwood Avenue, have eliminated spinach from the menu and substituted other vegetables.

Vendors at the Dane County Farmers' Market are required to sign affidavits that their products are grown locally, and market inspectors periodically visit farms to verify that what is sold on the Square is Wisconsin-grown. In addition to farmers' market and CSA shares, Harmony Valley also supplies produce to many restaurants. Witkop said one restaurant owner told her that city health department and the FDA had contacted the eatery about their spinach.

'The restaurant told the officials that they know where the spinach comes from, and that they will continue to buy and serve spinach from us,' said Witkop. As an extra assurance, Harmony Valley has given customers copies of their farm sanitation policies and practices.

Judy Hageman and Bill Warner of Snug Haven Farm, southwest of Belleville, are famous for their winter spinach. While they admit that the news of the recall and the FDA warning was scary, they too feel confident that customers will continue to trust that their spinach is safe.

'I think what's more scary is that so much of the nation's spinach comes from such a small area of the country,' said Hageman. 'There's something really wrong with our food system when what happens in three counties in California can affect people 2,000 miles away.'

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