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MILWAUKEE (AP) – Ken Ruegsegger struggled after he sold his dairy herd a few years ago and concentrated on raising animals for their meat.

A coalition of religious groups stepped in and paid an electric bill for his farm near Blanchardville in southwestern Wisconsin. Now he’s paying them back and earning a profit as he sells his wares at indoor markets that have become popular in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa in winter months.

“It’s a real good feeling,” Ruegsegger said.

The markets in church halls, which began in December 2003, are being coordinated by the Churches’ Center for Land and People, a coalition headquartered at Trinity Episcopal Church in Janesville. It is composed mostly of religious denominations and orders in the three states.

The indoor markets provide farmers with a place to sell until outdoor markets reopen in the spring, said Tony Ends, the coalition’s executive director. The farmers are asked to donate 10 percent of their market proceeds to the Harvest of Hope emergency fund to help farm families get through financial difficulties.

Ruegsegger – who raises grass-fed beef, free-range eggs and chicken, goats, turkey and lamb – said the Harvest of Hope helped his farm stay in operation by paying his electric bill. Then sales at the winter markets “helped us survive through winter the first couple of years.”

The number of farmers markets in the program has grown from three in the first winter to about 50 now, said Ends, who operates a small farm.

“We’re trying to connect urban and suburban consumers with farmers through the church,” he said. “This helps people of faith practice stewardship of the earth through what they buy and how they eat. It fulfills basic expectations of all faiths to support economic justice, ecological practices and community.”

Don Wambles, president of the national Farmers Market Coalition, said efforts are being made nationwide to hold farmers markets in winter. But but he is not aware of any others that try to help farmers in need.

The Harvest of Hope fund is administered by the Madison Christian Community, an ecumenical ministry that includes the Community of Hope United Church of Christ and the Advent Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Ingrid Snyder, a member of a Catholic Church in West Allis who attended the farmers market there, said she appreciates the opportunity to buy from a person who produces the food.

“It’s nice to see the face behind the food that we eat, and see the pride that they take in growing it,” she said. “Getting it at a farmers market, I know where it came from, and that it has not been sitting in a warehouse for a long time or been transported over a long distance.” On the Net:

* Churches’ Center for Land and People: