Land Stewardship Project looking to revitalize local foods economy in the Upper Minnesota River Valley


— Long before "locavore" became a buzzword, there was Pride of the Prairie.

The free-distribution publication and its online version served as an easy, go-to guide connecting consumers to the producers of local foods in the Upper Minnesota River Valley counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine.

Those producers are mostly direct marketing their products today. They are doing so without the larger-scale marketing that Pride of the Prairie helped provide. And, they are doing so without a network of producers that could help expand and grow the economic opportunities that local food production offers the region.

That's the feeling in Montevideo, where the Land Stewardship Project is launching an effort to map out the local food assets of the region, and rebuild and re-energize a network that is believed to have so much potential.

Scott DeMuth with the Montevideo office of the Land Stewardship Project has been talking to many local food producers in the region. They are feeling isolated and not connected, said DeMuth.

"(There's) a feeling like not much is going on right now, not connected," said DeMuth.

He and fellow staff members Amy Bacigalupo and Robin Moore, along with Sarah Goldman of the organization's state office, hosted a listening session with a group of interested residents May 24 to start the process of reinvigorating the region's local foods economy.

Farm census data show that the number of farms that direct-market local foods in the region has been slowly growing, from 81 to 101 in the past few years. DeMuth said the census numbers seem to contradict people's on-the-ground perspective. People are generally relying on word of mouth to source local foods, and many would-be consumers of local produce do not know of where to turn.

Local foods generated $612,000 in sales in a year in the region, or just 0.5% of the $90 million that local residents spend on food for home preparation, according to an analysis of census data by Ken Meter with Crossroads Resources. Just boosting those sales by another percent or more could circulate an additional $1.2 million in the region, DeMuth said.

The region continues to see population declines and more economic disparity despite the fact that overall net income in the five counties has grown in the last decade. Yet in the region, nearly 10% of households are termed "food insecure," said DeMuth.

Food expenses are taking up a huge share of their family income. The rate of food insecurity in the region is 26% higher than in neighboring regions of southwest and west central Minnesota, he said.

Local foods alone cannot correct all of that, but growth in the region would undoubtedly benefit the economy as well as the landscape, participants of the meeting said.

The participants discussed a number of ways to promote local foods in the region.

Audrey Arner, and her husband, Richard Handeen, founded Moonstone Farms in Chippewa County. They have been instrumental in promoting the local foods economy in the region. She emphasized the importance of making it easy for people to connect with producers.

"Right now I'm relying on people I know or happen to know," said Arner of how she and others are sourcing local foods today. This word-of-mouth approach fails to reach newcomers to the region who do not know the wide variety of local foods that are readily available, she and others noted.

Pride of the Prairie put this region on the local foods map, said Robin Moore of the Land Stewardship Project. She said the region could do more to add value to the local foods production already established here. She is aware of organic growers whose grains are milled in the metropolitan area. Similar, value-added processing from milling to baking could be done here, she said.

Bacigalupo said the region needs to promote local foods to help diversify its agricultural economy.

One of the first steps will be to connect producers, which can be challenging.

DeMuth said that the hilly terrain of southeastern Minnesota favors smaller livestock and vegetable operations well-suited for local food producers.

In contrast, the wide open spaces and commodity-focused farming practices in this region provide a different set of challenges when it comes to organizing and building community, he explained.

The informal consensus among the participants was to hold similar hearing sessions in other communities in the region to learn what assets and opportunities are here, and how people can work together to make things happen.