With Minnesota’s trees bare right now, the state’s small farmers prepare for next year’s growing season, allowing us to look at the increasingly important role they play.
The locavore movement’s growing popularity has positioned some of Minnesota’s agricultural issues into urban grocery stores. While we’re a long way from getting city slickers talking about corn and soybeans, shoppers are eager to learn more about the state’s locally-developed and locally-bred apple varieties and other specialty farm goods.
Brian Fredericksen, Ames Farm’s owner, has developed an innovative business model. The “farm” has no single base. Instead it’s “a unique virtual apiary and orchard without a centralized area of production,” spread over eighteen locations throughout central and southern Minnesota.
I spent time with, orchard and honey house manager Amelia Neaton, discussing her role with the company and Ames’s role in the community.
Ames is probably best known for its raw honey and honey-related products. It also produces over fifteen apple varieties, demonstrating the market for locally-grown produce and the locavore movement’s firm Minnesota root.
Many restaurants now advertise their locally-sourced credentials. Even Best Buy’s corporate cafeteria displays a list of local farms providing their lunches’ daily ingredients. The most noticeable manifestation, however, is the proliferation of farmers markets popping up in recent years.
Ames Farm has a strong presents at multiple markets each week during the summer and early fall. If you visit the Ames Farm stall, you’ll more than likely meet Amelia, who takes on the educator role at the markets. This allows her to interact directly with customers, explaining the benefits of organically-grown produce, how it’s grown and what makes it different from store-bought alternatives.
Buying directly from the farmer helps ensure the produce is fresh and healthy and that its purchase supports small businesses, helping grow the local economy.
Forming this direct relationship with buyers is key to helping Ames and other similar producers take a greater slice of the market This takes a buy-local education effort beyond just farmers markets to effectively accomplish. Ames and other growers are trying to promote greater awareness of how consumers’ choices can radically affect people and their communities.
Minnesota 2020 recently highlighted the important role consumers play in driving sustainable businesses. Made in Minnesota 2010, Strategies for Growing Sustainable Small Businesses, examines Dutch research highlighting the significance in developing and catering to a political consumer. This is someone who purchases based on social values not lowest price.
While the last few years have brought growing interest in Amelia’s produce, she hesitates to say there’s been a large-scale shift in values. Locally-grown produce is more expensive, and most people prioritize their immediate financial situation above their long-term wellbeing.
She draws this analogy: “The choice of what we eat is a lot like smoking. You can puff away or eat heavily processed foods, and you don’t see the damage it’s doing. Some people have a long view, some a short view. How we succeed in a market is through educating our customers.”
There are signs such initiatives are gaining momentum. First-time customers at her stall tend to be younger, mainly college students and young professionals. Especially prominent are pregnant women and the mothers of young children. “They ask a lot of questions about how the food is grown–‘Where? Why? Are pesticides use?’ these types of questions. I think it’s a greater awareness of what we put into our bodies.”
As the state’s residents become more concerned with the food they consume, Minnesota’s small farms should thrive. Healthy choices we make for ourselves support smaller, local businesses and keep our money in the local economy. Building greater awareness and expanding the knowledge base is mutually beneficial to both Minnesotans and Minnesota.