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Local Food Systems: Linking People, Land and Community

April 07, 2010 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow
>As farmers work to prepare fields for planting, people all over rural Minnesota are working on building food systems that link people on the land through community supply chains to area consumers.

This is happening in various ways in communities such as Madelia, Montevideo, Morris and around cities stretching from Winona to the Twin Cities and on up to Duluth. Among them is the old river town of Red Wing and surrounding communities such as Welch.

"We're getting a lot of people involved, and that isn't easy because a lot of different interests are involved," said Clarence Bischoff of Vasa Gardens farm at Welch. The expanding circles of people, however, include "experts from groups and from the University (of Minnesota) who can do research and write the papers we need so we can think through what we're doing."

This is no small task. Interest in building community food systems vary from support for local farmers on through interest in accessing fresh fruits and vegetables, specialty crops and organic foods. Others are attracted to local food systems for environmental, energy consumption and other agronomic reasons.

At a more arm's length distance, however, are community benefits of supporting agriculture that in turn keeps people on the land and in the community that can work as a generator of local economic development.

The major field crops that dominate Minnesota agriculture end up supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in farm supplies, processing, manufacturing, marketing, distribution, retailing and food service. The first stage in the food supply chain, however, requires fewer people on the land as science and technology constantly replaces labor in farming.

Minnesota's fragmented farms 

In the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture (2007), nearly a third of Minnesota "farms" were shown to be what are called "hobby farms," or rural residences that produce less than $1,000 in annual farm income.

Another 11 percent of farms have from $1,000 to $5,000 in annual revenue from agricultural activity that simply contributes to household and farm upkeep. Another 21 percent, or 17,209 farms, have annual farming revenue of between $5,000 and $50,000 that in most cases means the farm operator and family lives off other income sources and supplement their lifestyle with farming.

Minnesota Farms at a Glance
Number of Farms 80,992
Land in Farms (millions of acres) 26.9
Average Farm Size (acres) 332

Farm Value of Sales (No. of Farms)
Less than $1,000 26,286
Between $1,000 - $5,000 8,843
Between $5,000 - $50,000 17,209
Between $50,000 - $500,000 22,228
More than $500,000 6,426
Source: USDA, 2007 Census of Agriculture

What this means is that 65 percent of Minnesota farmers don't sustain themselves with farm income. It also means that only 35 percent of Minnesota farms can be viewed as "commercial" enterprises that produce upwards of 90 percent or more of Minnesota's approximately $13 billion in annual farm revenues.

The latter group's productivity made Minnesota the seventh largest agricultural state for the agriculture census. This abundance from the ground is the first stage in a farm to table integrated food industry for which Minnesota - with its multinational food and agriculture companies - is a national center

The economic importance of food is represented by employment statistics that show from one in five to a quarter of all jobs in Minnesota are connected in some way with food and agriculture. It is a strength, but a fickle one; the average age of the Minnesota principal farm operator is 55, and sciences keeps lessening the amount of labor needed to produce crops and livestock.

This is where food systems like that in Red Wing are so important. Specialty crops, such as organic vegetable and fruit production, are comparatively labor intensive and is usually the activity of smaller farm operators. This keeps people connected to the land and contributing to the local economy regardless if farming is merely a secondary source of farm family household income.
Emphasis on the major field crops shows up in public policies that support agriculture production of corn, soybeans, and principal crops such as wheat, and in support for building processing plants, markets and transportation infrastructure. Only in recent times have public policy and institutional support started to emphasize community agriculture systems that help people stay connected to the land and serving communities.

For comparison, Bischoff and colleagues around Red Wing have steadily built community interest in a localized food system. Looking back, Bischoff said people in the area began looking at the Natural Step movement that came out of Sweden and followed a United Nations report from about a decade ago.

This partly led to starting the Red Wing Farmers' Market in 2007 that has now grown to having 45 member growers. That, in turn, has farmers and community members exploring the start of Riverbend Market Cooperative, a food co-op that is now in a membership drive.

This spills over with some of the same people working with civic leaders in a Red Wing Eastside Sustainable Development Group that has looked at ways to connect the emerging food markets with available city land and property, with city parks and trails, and with other merchants.

And, in a further evolution of community activity, community members have started Red Wing Region Local Foods Council that has worked as an affiliate organization with University of Minnesota-led research and development projects for southeastern Minnesota.
Going forward

Public support for such community-developed food systems is justified on grounds as diverse as the community interests cited above. But for purely economic reasons, it is justified by the economic activity generated by people engaged in the supply chain from farm to kitchen table.

Rural Minnesota learned painfully in the 1982-1987 farm financial crisis that acres of land do not support a community. People support a community. People connected to the land support local communities regardless how big or small their farming operations and regardless if farming is their primary source of income.

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