Originally published in Issue 8
From community gardening to developing more food distribution outlets, people in both urban and rural areas of Minnesota are expanding their involvement in the local food movement.
Minneapolis with the adjoining city of St. Paul form the Twin Cities, which is the 14th-largest metropolitan area in the United States. The cities’ metropolitan area has nearly 4 million residents.
Karl Hakanson, University of Minnesota Extension Educator for Hennepin County, of which Minneapolis is the county seat, said he has had to broaden his definition of agriculture since taking his current position in February 2014.
“Most of my career has been in conventional ag—regular farming,” Hakanson said. “I’ve had to broaden my definition to focus on food. I have been involved lately with the whole issue of food equity and the access to healthy, real food. That also involves having access to land. If people want to have community gardens or develop urban farming, just like people in rural areas, they have to have access to land, which is a big deal.”
Hakanson said the land for urban farming is expensive and hard to obtain and sometimes it’s not available even if people can afford to purchase it.
“Minneapolis has a launched a Homegrown Minneapolis website where interested parties can find available lots to lease for urban farming,” he said. “The problem is the lots may be available for a year or two. This can make it hard to have any kind of permanence. But it is getting better for people who are trying to find vacant lots to do urban gardening.”
Assisting with urban ag issues
Hakanson said within Minneapolis more people have gotten involved with community gardening which enables them to grow more of their own food.
“Some of these people may have gotten better at growing their own food that they consider marketing some of it,” he said. “The Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council began operating in 2012 as a resource for all of the activities involved with urban agriculture. The council deals with issues, statutes and regulations related to the city. It also offers various resources for businesses including starting a local food business and business financing. Council members include some urban farming businesses that are trying to succeed commercially including some CSAs (community-supported agriculture).”
Hakanson said the council is a good resource for all kinds of urban farming activities.
“The council was instrumental in allowing urban gardeners to tap into fire hydrants so water for gardening could be metered like it is for regular household usage,” he said. “The council also worked to have the regulations changed regarding people being able to sell their produce from leased city lots and to put up signs to advertise available produce. A recent change is that signs can now be up for 75 days.”
Finding business opportunities
Greg Schweser is associate director of local foods and sustainable agriculture for the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, a program that is part of the University of Minnesota Extension. Located in St. Paul, Schweser said the program he is involved with works with groups outside of the seven-county metro area.
“We bring university resources to community groups, organizations and individuals who have great research ideas in sustainable development,” Schweser said. “We work in the areas of sustainable agriculture and local foods, clean energy, natural resources and tourism. An example of what we do is there may be a group of people who want to do a field trial with hoop houses to see what vegetables varieties grow best. They’ll apply to get a research grant through The Regional Partnerships and we will be able to assist them with a faculty horticulturist, students and extension personnel to get those research projects up and going. A lot of the work that I do involves obtaining grants and doing grant projects focused on local food and agricultural issues.”
Schweser said about 30-40 percent of the RSDP projects are food-related. Other projects are related to natural resources, clean energy and tourism.
“A lot of small scale growers work with our group,” he said. “The farther these growers are from the metro area the less likely they are to sell into that market. Unless growers have a large scale production system, it’s not going to be easy for them to market in the metro area. For that market, growers need to have a method of transportation and storage. There are some growers who specialize in one of two things and sell directly into the metro market.”
Many of the growers Schweser works with are producing and selling in their local communities. He said more than 50 percent of small specialty crop growers are women.
“Each of the rural producers has to have a variety of different marketing streams,” he said. “Most of them do, including CSAs, farmers markets, direct-to-wholesale to a local grocery store or food co-op or school food programs. These growers don’t want to be in a situation where a farmers market closes down and that is their only customer.”
Solving marketing challenges
Schweser said most rural growers have their own individual marketing plan.
“There are very few systems where growers can produce a crop and not have to worry about how to sell it once it’s ready to harvest,” he said. “They have to find a place for it and that can be work. That is one of the things that a lot of producers are worried about. How to sell their products for a price that they can stay in business. Once that is figured out more people will be able to get into this local food movement.”
Schweser said RSDP has been involved with several marketing projects.
“One project in Brainerd, Minn., enabled a farmer to set up a food hub that helps around 100 farmers market locally in area counties,” he said. “RSDP has done a number of farmers markets projects helping people set up their markets and determining what is the best type of products to offer, how to display the products and how much to sell their products for to make a profit. RSDP has also worked with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to develop local marketing labels.”
Schweser said RSDP is currently working with a group at Kansas State University on a project involving rural grocery stores.
“We are looking at how to deliver local foods into rural grocery stores in Minnesota,” he said. “We are trying to identify ways to handle the produce in a way that will make it last longer and look better. And then determine how to get more consumers into the stores to buy this kind of produce.”
For more: Karl Hakanson, University of Minnesota Extension, Hennepin County Environmental Services, (612) 596-1175; firstname.lastname@example.org. Greg Schweser, University of Minnesota Extension, Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, (612) 625-9706; email@example.com.
David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; firstname.lastname@example.org.