A new three-year initiative is setting out to create a more sustainable food system in southern Minnesota.

The Local Food Producer Sustainability Project kicked off in November with the goal of removing barriers that food entrepreneurs face in the region, which in turn will provide communities with economic development and more connections to local food. The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation is partnering with the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association on the project.

The organizations hope to impact hundreds of farmers, local food producers, farmers markets, stores that buy local food and people with limited access to local food in SMIF’s 20-county region, which includes Nicollet and Le Sueur counties.

Jan Joannides, the executive director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, said she’s excited about the collaboration and its potential for supporting rural entrepreneurs.

“A vibrant and sustainable food system is vital in maintaining a strong rural community,” she said in a statement.

Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association, said the project could “revolutionize farmers’ markets in Minnesota” because they’ll have knowledgeable people considering the operations of farmers markets from all aspects during the project.

At the end of it, they hope to have vendors at farmers markets who grow good, healthy food for the community and all people will have access to that food.

“We build communities,” she said.

The organizations are hiring two members of the AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America program to staff the project. James Harren, who graduated from Carleton College in 2019 with a degree in environmental studies, has been hired to focus on local foods and economic development.

An advisory committee of 10-15 people is also forming to lead the project in learning more about the local food system in the region.

Pandemic impacts local food systems

The idea for the project hatched from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food producers’ contracts to provide food to schools and restaurants dried up, but planting had already started.

“COVID-19 certainly shined a harsh spotlight on how fragile our food system is,” said Zeman, who directly sells meat and eggs to people on her farm Simple Harvest Farm in Nerstrand.

Zeman received an email about New Mexico farmers markets with some interesting ideas to help local food producers during the pandemic and sent it to everyone she knew. One of the recipients was Pam Bishop, the vice president of economic development at SMIF.

SMIF has been involved in the food space for a decade, with a primary focus on small scale farmers and entrepreneurs. The organization has also expanded its partnerships in the last decade, Bishop said.

Bishop said they noticed during the pandemic that there have been greater challenges in starting and growing a business, including for farmers in southern Minnesota. They wanted to find ways to help business owners be successful post-pandemic by creating a “process to listen, learn and devise a plan to help entrepreneurs in a more intentional way,” she said. It was clear that they needed to build their capacity to identify the needs, thus turning to an AmeriCorps member to step in.

She said they hope the work can have an impact by building programs, resources and partnerships that fill the needs of farmers. They want more entrepreneurs and farmers, stronger companies, more profitability and more people buying local food, she said.

“At the end of the day, we want to help more farmers,” she said.

Understanding the landscape

A lot is known about commodity farming, but there’s little data available on food producers who sell their products directly to the consumer, Zeman said. They know there are 5,000 registered cottage food producers in Minnesota, but she believes there are more who aren’t registered.

Harren came to the position having already toured area farms, including Zeman, as part of his coursework at Carleton. He said he had an interest in sustainable farming in college and it has expanded to include supporting communities.

Harren will spend the next year interviewing food producers, hosting focus groups and doing surveys to find out where local food producers need more support. He’ll produce a report at the end of the project’s first year outlining needed improvements and where there are gaps that need to be filled, he said. The overall goal is to understand what needs to be done to support small farmers, cottage food producers and people who buy local food, he said.

The project is for people who are considering starting their own farms and for those who are already doing that work.

“It’s a recognition that local food in southeastern Minnesota could be a really important vehicle to provide a robust economy in the region,” Harren said.

Improving farmers markets

Farmers markets are one of avenues producers have to market and sell their products and there are more than 300 farmers markets in Minnesota. They provide an entry for producers to sell their products locally while providing access to local food to the community, including people who receive government benefits, Zeman said.

“But we don’t know how to help them be successful,” she said.

The AmeriCorps member focusing on farmers markets will examine how to help them become bigger and better, she said.

At the end of the three years, Zeman said they hope to have enough data and curriculum developed that they can provide training to local producers on topics such as profitability and finances.

Overall, they want to drive the discussion about local food in Minnesota, she said. They want local producers to earn a living wage, but they also want food to be affordable for everyone.

“We want the poorest of the poor to be able to buy eggs from their neighbor farmer,” she said.

Reach Associate Editor Lisa Kaczke at 507-444-2371. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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