Smaller farms, big community impact

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Working an agricultural operation the size of a football filed or two—mostly by hand—Adam Ellefson is not your typical Minnesota farmer.

As one of the state’s newest ag producers, he’s cultivating a very different growth pattern from his neighbors working 500-1,000 acre fields.

With traditional farming’s (corn, soybeans and wheat) start up costs at more than $2 million, small and medium scale growing* is a more affordable and environmentally sustainable entry into agriculture.

Such farmers usually grow higher value commodities on smaller plots. They might expand operations, but few transition into traditional grain growing operations, which are usually handed down or purchased within families.

While grain growers’ ship harvests across the country or the world, Ellefson’s peppers, potatoes, greens and other vegetables—including the Brussels sprout and kale still holding strong in the field into last week—are carted a few miles into St. Peter.

He’s also unique from many other small and medium growers because he farms fulltime. Many Minnesota vegetable and fruit growers use ag to supplement off-farm income, it’s an especially advantageous for venture for retirees and stay-at-home parents.

These producers make up a growing buy local movement in Minnesota. In the last five years, farmers’ market sales have more than doubled by some calculations cited by Minnesota 2020’s researchers. This contributes a $64 million net economic impact to Minnesota’s economy.

Community supported agriculture operations have gone from just 2 in the 1980s to more than 350, as of our most recent count, helping finance more than $10 million for small growers’ annual start up expenses.

It’s nowhere near California’s scale, but right here in Minnesota a widening variety of growers source everything from small town coffee shops to top Twin Cities eateries, and lots of co-ops and locally-owned grocery stores in between. Winona grower, Herbal Turtle, supplies an excellent crop of shitake mushrooms in Winona, Olmsted and Wabasha counties.

Because they’re still relatively small, these growers don’t have grain producers’ lobby power. They need help navigating financing, regulatory and other hurdles. However, more attention to their economic contribution should help state and local leaders develop policies to help them grow.

*According to the USDA, a farm with less than $50,000 annual farm sales is a small farm, one with annual farm sales between $50,000 and $500,000 is a medium farm, and farms with more than $500,000 annual farm sales are large farms.