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What’s possible: Jumping local food system hurdles

What’s possible: Jumping local food system hurdles

Last year, Lillian Salerno from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Development in Washington., D.C., toured the Community kitchen in Deuel County in hopes of using it as a model in other communities. Photos courtesy Deuel Area Development, Inc.

Last year, Lillian Salerno from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business Development in Washington., D.C., toured the Community kitchen in Deuel County in hopes of using it as a model in other communities. Photos courtesy Deuel Area Development, Inc.

Getting local foods into local hands is a task much more difficult than setting up a produce stand.

That was the basic challenge taken up in Mandan, N.D., in April, when policymakers, customers, advocates, producers and people with every connection to local foods came together for the Summit on Local Economies, or SOLE, hosted by FARRMS and made possible by a USDA Rural Business Opportunity Grant. Attendees listened to current research in the field, new ideas for progress, and put their heads together to find solutions to their shared challenges.

Summit participants saw two major problems facing local food systems in the Dakotas: tricky government regulations and difficulty mobilizing to meet demand. But challenging assumptions and enacting innovative solutions could open the door to a new wave of business ventures in this sector.

Challenge 1: Regulation

Annie Carlson and her husband, John, run a pasture-fed meat farm in Mercer, N.D. One might guess she’d sleep soundly after her exhausting days, but she doesn’t. In fact, after almost a decade of work building a strong, face-to-face business of pasture-fed meat, eggs, and baked goods, Annie feels it’s all barely held together.

Her worry, she says, is toeing the line on regulations.

“It only takes the retirement of one official, and we’d be starting over from scratch,” Carlson said. “That’s terrifying.”

Regulations for small-scale farmers are intended to be applied according to the interpretation of the current health district authority. For example, you can’t sell eggs at farmers markets in Mandan, but you can in Bismarck. Or most health districts allow sales of pickles; however, if you would like to sell in Devil’s Lake, you must send one jar from each batch to be pH-tested in the lab. This essentially eliminates the ability to sell because of the cost of shipping jars.

These difficulties can quickly multiply. Not only do North Dakota producers have to accommodate different health districts (it is not unusual for a producer to sell in multiple health districts), they also worry how interpretation of those regulations may change when the current authority retires. Producers trying to play by the rules find themselves walking a tightrope that could be cut at any time.

Getting creative

The Deuel County Community Kitchen is an example of how one community found a way to play by the rules and create a business incubator that increased entrepreneurial opportunity.

When Frank James, Dakota Rural Action director, and his wife, Kim, wanted to begin selling their jalapeño jelly, they ran into the “processing hurdle.” In both Dakotas, farmers can market their unprocessed produce to anyone, but any cutting, shredding, slicing, or chopping must be done in a licensed and inspected facility.

The couple couldn’t afford to build one, but there was a licensed kitchen at their local school. James and a few other partners, including Joan Sacrison, executive director of Deuel Area Development, Inc., met with the superintendent of the Deubrook School District to discuss renting out the school kitchen to small start-ups in the food industry, like James and his wife. James recalls this meeting and says it couldn’t have gone any smoother: “When we met with the superintendent, he said, ‘Well, whatever you charge, it shouldn’t cost much because you’re all taxpayers, so you already paid for this kitchen.’”

The kitchen is now entering its third season. Chefs must submit a business plan and pay a one-time $25 fee, then $5 per use of the kitchen, and they must follow a list of requirements  while using it.

Sacrison says she would like to see more local chefs take advantage of the kitchen, but she has also been excited to see how many other communities have contacted her for advice on how to replicate this model, and she readily makes the contracts and guidelines available to anyone who asks.

“Those who live rurally have so many visions for how to contribute and how to create a second income,” Sacrison said. “Agriculture is a valuable option for them because it is always available in rural communities, even when a formal job might not be.”

A new way of thinking

Some may argue that these kinds of innovative solutions are really only treating a symptom of a system that needs to change. Food safety regulations may actually make consumers feel less safe, less trusting of farmers, and more fearful of their products. Rather than simply regulating the producer’s food handling, the policies could effectively regulate consumers’ food decisions, an approach that may widen the separation between farm and table for the next generation.

Food systems analyst Ken Meter has customized research for various regions of the country, from coast to coast. At the SOLE conference he began his presentation by reminding the audience that good food becomes more than a good meal.

“Food is sometimes the last cultural artifact of a people,” said Meter. A fourth-generation German-American may not know a word of German, except for the name of her favorite family recipe, something she makes to continue that heritage.

“We tend to think of people only as consumers who go to the store and buy something,” Meter said. “But the relationship we have in and through agriculture is so much different than that.” There is social value in a strong local food economy beyond the strictly economic realm.

Current policy creates barriers between consumers and the kind of food they are able to access, Meter said, hindering the positive cultural potential inherent in food that reflects the community in which it’s grown.

“Usually people would create communities around climate and geography, because it affected what they could grow and eat,” he said. “We’re the first to think this is all a technological process separate from how we live and make meaning as a people.”

Many local food advocates are working to change food policies. Carlson said her dream for the future of food policy is unregulated direct sales.

“If that customer sought me out to purchase my product, then the government should not have a say in our private transaction, whether at a farmers market or at my farm.”

Producers may also need to challenge their own assumptions about what it looks like to be an entrepreneur: It may require more cooperation and collaboration than they are envisioning.

“There are a lot of independent thinkers in the local food sector,” admits Tyler Demars, former director of community and cooperative development at Common Enterprise Development Corporation in Mandan. “It’s not our intention. It just tends to be our personality.”

The Petrovic family purchased this building and plans to turn it into a food processing facility. Contributed photo

The Petrovic family purchased this building and plans to turn it into a food processing facility.
Contributed photo

Challenge 2: Meeting demand

In 2014, Meter did a study of the local foods systems in the Dakotafire region of North and South Dakota that was featured in last year’s July/August edition of Dakotafire (see p. 30). His latest research segment covered the southwest corner and north central regions of North Dakota and was presented at the Summit On Local Economies.

According to Meter’s study, if each resident in those areas purchased $5 of food directly from local farmers each week, farms would earn $10 million to $11 million in new income. The problem is, there isn’t $10 million worth of locally produced food available to buy.

Local producers have a more difficult time increasing production than it might seem. For starters, seed isn’t the only input. There’s also every other aspect of a business taking place for each of these producers, and more than likely, they are fulfilling every role: marketing, finance, safe practices, research and development, and labor … lots and lots of labor.

And meat is a whole different animal (pardon the expression). The push and pull goes all the way down the line from the supplier to the processor. For example, because of the limited number of meat processors in the state, Carlson must give a date and number of pigs to be processed six months ahead of time, and a lot can change in six months.

Some producers have started working collectively with other growers to ease the burden of supply. This arrangement often starts as a “production node,” where a group of producers begins collaborating. From there, it can evolve in myriad directions.

Near Anamoose, N.D., Mirek and Julia Petrovic are launching their production node, which they hope can transition into a full-scale food hub in the future. The Petrovics operate Slavic Heritage Farm, which is a very active node in and of itself, bringing in regular “wwoofers” who offer work in exchange for room and board (see for more information on this cultural exchange experience). They sell fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and direct from their farm. They recently purchased an old post office in Anamoose, and they have big dreams for how it could transform their current operation.

They plan to convert the basement into processing and storage facilities, rent apartments from the upper-level rooms to help with cash flow for their food hub business, and eventually include a small store and bakery for those living in and visiting Anamoose. They also hope to renovate a large room upstairs into a commercial kitchen where they and other producers can process extra product to sell.

“We want to help producers reach their full potential,” Mirek said. Currently, they have 11 growers interested in supplying the hub, and others who are not growers but interested in using the commercial certified kitchen.

The Petrovics have a long road ahead, but they are off to a great start. Food hubs are not new, but they can be difficult to replicate sustainably. Most hubs are funded largely by grants and work best in a large urban setting with dense producer and corporate consumer populations—hospitals, schools, elder care facilities, etc. Still, even in low population-density states like North and South Dakota, the problem isn’t finding enough consumers, it’s having enough producers.

During his days at Common Enterprise Development Corporation, Demars worked on a feasibility study funded by the USDA and FARRMS to determine what it would take to start a food hub in North Dakota.

The result of his study was that demand is there. To remain sustainable, however, the hub would need to reach $1 million in annual revenue, which translates to 133 acres of land dedicated to produce in a concentrated region (accessible for easy pickup and drop-off by the food hub) in order to meet the demands of consumers in that same area. To put it plainly, Demars says, “To push forward with food hubs would set North Dakota back.”

Demars and a team of partners and volunteers instead launched something that the urban population of Bismarck and Mandan are already familiar with: a grocery store. The BisMan Community Food Co-op’s goal is to source 20 percent of all their goods locally by their fifth year of business. That means all meat, dairy, bakery, produce and most value-added goods as well will be supplied locally through a variety of producers in the area. Their model lowers the risk for producers trying to scale up, because of the increased predictability in sales through a grocery store model.

Demars said the first step toward local food hubs is local collaboration in any form. “We need local food producers to start looking around their communities to figure out, ‘Which other producers here would complement my operation? Who else would be willing to build something bigger that we could offer to our community?’” Demars said. “When those production nodes start multiplying across the state, we’ll be in a position to begin filtering them into the large base of consumers who have expressed interest in something like a food hub.”

John and Annie Carlson are making those connections as they continue to scale up to meet demand. “We have to keep reaching that next level of customers,” she said.

Morning Joy Farms has scaled up significantly every year it has been in business because of overwhelming demand. Last year the Carlsons joined with three other farmers to create a buying club. Customers log onto their website, click the items they want and give an amount, and their order is delivered to one of the prearranged monthly drop-off points. They’re selling more than ever. “Even as my freezer is dwindling, the club is still growing,” says Annie.

This kind of success is a symbol of what is possible through collaboration and a new perspective that isn’t so new. “We’re probably the first society in the history of the world to consider agriculture separate from community,” says Meter. “And we are victims of the communities we build for ourselves.”

A life disjoined from a sense of the land and what it offers will undermine the progress of any community in the end. But society seems to be making slow movements back to that new-old way of thinking.

“It’s a movement I see happening in every state,” says Meter. “People want better food choices, fresher food. They want to know a farmer.”

View all of the articles from this month’s Prairie Idea Exchange by following this link Connecting Ag and Community.

Update: A food hub is in the works in South Dakota! Read about it here.

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