A lot of different small-scale growers, academics and communities are tossing ideas into the collective pot, hoping to come up with a cost and fuel efficient model for creating local food systems in Minnesota. “It’s like the childhood story of making stone soup,” said Clarence Bischoff, a farmer near Red Wing who is among people pushing for a Minnesota Food Council.
The idea is making its way through the capitol thanks to Rep. David Bly of Northfield and Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing. With the budget and other priorities dominating the first part of this legislative session, it’s not likely to get much traction until next year.
Southeastern Minnesota is a hotbed for locally grown foods, grocer cooperatives, community supported agriculture (CSA), and efforts to get locally produced foods into schools. These efforts have received support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, University of Minnesota Extension Service, USDA agencies and nonprofit organizations in the past, Bischoff said.
“Most of this help comes on a project-by-project basis. The council could help make information more easily available,” he said.
In that regard, Bly and Schmit’s legislation is consistent with the conclusions of a thorough 2012 report prepared for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and the McKnight Foundation. Report author Jan Joannides of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) at the University of Minnesota noted opportunities exist to accelerate growth of a local foods economy in southern Minnesota.
“New and existing businesses need access to affordable, effective technical assistance; they need to be able to access appropriate financing; and they need assistance in understanding and implementing food safety protocols,” she wrote.
Joannides documents that southern Minnesota has the natural resources to produce abundant quantities of vastly different food products, and has the human resources of “farm and food industry expertise” to do so. And the region’s strengths and potential doesn’t stop there.
“From a market perspective, southern Minnesota has growing cities and towns, but is also close to larger metropolitan areas that can serve as important markets,” she said.
This has been the carrot enticing the local foods movements throughout southern and central Minnesota. Finding cost effective and fuel (carbon) efficient ways to reach consumers, restaurants and retail clients for local foods is more problematic.
These are problems promoters of Minnesota Food Council legislation hope to overcome.
The current legislation calls for the council to have representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; representatives from the Department of Applied Economics, Extension Service and the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota; agricultural legislative leaders, and 10 stakeholders consisting of farmers, consumers, and environmental and public health advocates.
Information sharing and future research are key duties for the council along with making policy recommendations. The latter specifically cites policies for “the development and expansion of secure, local, and sustainable food production systems that promote economic viability, ecological soundness, and social responsibility.”
Bly’s office at the State Capitol said Tuesday that the bills have been introduced but haven’t had hearings. That means no action is expected this year.
Supporters of the legislation, meanwhile, continue circulating information that builds momentum for the future. An example is a study by Pennsylvania State University, Iowa State University and University of Costa Rica researchers that found costs can be higher for farmers producing for local markets, but profit margins can also be higher when done right. Matthew Swayne, the Penn State report author, said farmers “testing the waters” often fail to reach local market potentials and are discouraged when encountering local marketing costs. Added local expenses can include marketing, transportation and delivery costs, and in some cases, special packaging.
The researchers report, published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, did show evidence that farmers committed to supplying local markets are overcoming higher operating costs. They found that 40 percent or more of consumers in local markets are willing to pay premium prices for local foods and ingredients. Further, direct marketing can achieve economies that farmers have sought through cooperatives since the earliest days of settlements on the frontier.
That comes from eliminating the middleman. But with modern logistics and transportation backing up America’s sophisticated food chain, that isn’t a given. Such research, and sharing of information, awaits a Minnesota Food Council.