Research: If local growers extend season they might double market

Here’s an addendum to Jennifer Vogel’s story the other day about a rural Minnesota school extending the local food season by freezing produce grown by students:

By using various means to extend the growing season in west central Minnesota, food growers can more than double what they otherwise could sell to local health institutions, University of Minnesota Extension research shows.

University Extension educator Ryan Pesch wanted to get a handle on the level of interest among health care institutions in using locally grown food in the thousands of meals they prepare for residents and patients every day. So he surveyed a collection of operators of assisted living complexes, nursing homes, hospitals and other health care institutions in Clay, Becker, Wilkin and Otter Tail counties.

He found substantial interest and less concern than he expected over the logistics of processing, he said.

He also found implications for the technology of growers who might want to pursue those markets. By measuring how much fresh produce the institutions use now, Pesch concluded that the potential market for food growers in those four counties could amount to $93,245 during Minnesota’s standard summer growing season. That’s nearly 45 tons of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, melons, strawberries, broccoli, carrots and more.

But when he allowed for a number of season-extending techniques — high and low tunnels that act like small greenhouses to keep frost off tomatoes, for example, and better storage after harvest — that potential production rose to almost 100 tons in the four-county area, with a market of $207,115.

Pesch, who works in the university’s community vitality extension office in Moorhead, noted in his research paper that it would be useful to extend the inquiry to the entire state to get a more accurate assessment.