Local foods: Beyond the farmers market

Farmers markets have popped up everywhere — from the granddaddies in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to new mini-markets Minneapolis has started up to get into under-served neighborhoods. And “CSA” has entered the vocabulary as shorthand (community-supported agriculture) for consumers buying an agreed-upon amount of produce, eggs, meat etc. directly from a farmer.

Reporter Stephanie Hemphill’s piece today on a Duluth effort by Seeds of Success to turn vacant lots into gardens that grow produce for city restaurants is another example of the growing sustainable, local food movement.

But it’s a movement in which success is spotty and, even where it has worked, people are finding obstacles to take it to the next level. I’ve had conversations with two people in the past few days that illustrate this.

Kathy Draeger, statewide director for the University of Minnesota’s regional sustainable development partnerships, is putting the finishing touches on a proposal for a five-year, $5 million project to look at local foods in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. The project, if accepted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would identify best practices and help figure out what works where.

“The local foods movements are spread all over the U.S. and everybody’s starting from scratch,” Draeger said. “What works in Milwaukee is not going to work in Hallock, Minnesota.”

Look at the fruit and vegetable sections in small town grocery stores in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, she suggests. The local food movement clearly hasn’t hit there and, ironically, people living on some of the nation’s best soil aren’t getting the advantage of food that could grow on that land.

Local foods have fared well on the other side of the state in southeastern Minnesota, partly because the topography is conducive to smaller farmers. Winona County’s officials have identified local food as a top priority and have taken steps to encourage entrepreneurship and to organize marketing for .

But even there, taking the next step is problematic, says Linda Grover of the county’s economic development authority. When it comes to selling local foods to schools and other institutions and retail grocers, “there are so many obstacles and barriers on both sides.”

Farm-to-school efforts have seen some success, but institutional buyers need consistent supply and quality and good prices. Producers need reliable means of distributing their goods and getting them to market. There’s a good opportunity for an entrepreneur in the distribution business, Grover says.

Draeger notes a certain irony in the effort to scale local foods up to bigger regional operations. How long will it be before it becomes what it is trying to replace? “There is some scaling up that needs to be done, but there are places that are nowhere near that.”

As MPR News continues to develop Ground Level’s focus, local and sustainable food is one of the issues — like renewable energy, broadband access, immigration, growth, rural aging and others — that lend themselves to coverage at the very local level but that add up to significant statewide and national ideas.

As I told people at the Center for Small Towns symposium in Morris last week, a bunch of people around Minnesota are working toward a “new normal” as waves of political, economic and environmental change sweep past. Ground Level is becoming an effort to chronicle that. I invite your ideas and contributions.

  • Linda Grover

    Thanks Tom for connecting the dots. It was great to start the conversation in Morris. We’re always happy to share our experiences as we so often learn from others. Local and sustainable foods are truly Ground Level issues. We appreciate your support!!