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Sustainable agriculture: Its time has come

What if our food system supported sustainable agriculture, local family farmers and rural communities? For more and more Minnesotans, “What if?” is becoming “Why not?”

In just the past few years, Minnesota has seen a budding interest in fresh, locally grown, sustainable agriculture. If we cultivate this movement right, the long-term possibilities could dramatically alter our food system to the benefit of farmers, rural communities, and all of our health.

From sold out shares at Community Supported Agriculture farms to the bevy of restaurants that feature Minnesota food, it seems that local, sustainable farms are resurgent. Even mainstream grocers like Cub Foods and Lund’s are featuring more locally grown foods. What’s going on?

“A lot,” says Linda Harding, a chef who also works with the Southeast Minnesota Food Network, a group of about 90 farms that sell to co-ops, restaurants, and institutions like St. Olaf College.

“Restaurants, more and more, want to have local products raised sustainably…,” said Harding. As many as 50 restaurants purchase from the food network each week during the summer, and a core group of 15-20 stay through the winter. But “the public,” says Harding, “is also much more aware.”

More inquiries about lamb and beef
That’s something that Connie Karstens, a farmer from Hutchinson, Minn., has noticed too. “We’ve been trying to sell locally for many years,” says Karstens, and “I’m finding more inquires about our lamb and beef, consumers, folks are calling up and asking about it.” The Karstens have run their farm for 18 years, and while rising fuel costs have made it harder to compete, Connie has noticed that, “people are more educated and want to buy locally.”

While it is hard to quantify, the growing interest in sustainable agriculture isn’t just anecdotal. Community Supported Agriculture Farms, or CSAs, are a concrete example. CSA farms sell shares, which account for the cost of the farm, and in return, consumers get a fresh box of locally grown produce.

Glen Hill is the executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, and it has operated a CSA, called Big River Farms, for the past four years in Marine on St. Croix.

“There’s definitely an increase in demand,” said Hill, “On May 15th, we sold out (of shares) … and we increased by 100 the number of shares offered from last year.” Their first year they offered 50 shares, now they’re up to 380.

A single share lasts nearly 5 months, and includes enough vegetables and fruits to feed a family of four. Many CSAs drop off boxes at co-ops and coffee stores in the metro area. Big River Farms’ story isn’t unique; of the 32 CSAs in the Twin Cities Metro area, 26 sold out before mid-June this year. Across the state, the number of CSA farms has nearly doubled in the past four years, from 36 in 2004 to 61 today.

Much local produce goes to big grocers
Individuals and restaurants aren’t alone in their interest in locally grown sustainable food. Big River Farms sells nearly 30 percent of its vegetables wholesale. Grocers like Lund’s & Byerly’s, Cub Foods, and Kowalski’s are all customers. Recently they’ve even begun selling to Chipotle restaurants in Minnesota; about a third of Chipotle’s green peppers now come from Marine on St. Croix, rather than hundreds of miles away.

There are many different reasons for the increased interest in buying locally grown, sustainable food. Glen Hill thinks that determined, long term “efforts by communities and non-profits to promote local food” have begun to pay off. “Regular and persistent issues with our food system” have also been a factor. He cited recent food scares, from this month’s salmonella outbreak in tomatoes to the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach due to factory farm practices.

Harding sees a new movement to connect the public with local food. “Farmers markets,” like the new Mill City Market in downtown Minneapolis, have made “more people aware of who’s growing their food,” said Harding. She also singled out chefs as early “champions of this movement,” who, by showcasing fresh locally grown fruits, vegetables, and meats, have brought forward all their benefits.

And the benefits are plentiful.

Buying local
Buying locally grown foods supports the local economy and is better for the environment. Minnesota 2020’s report last December, “Made in MN: The Value of Buying Local,” found that for every dollar spent locally, 68 cents stayed here – versus 43 cents for every dollar spent at a national chain or store. Of every dollar spent on food in the United States, only 19 cents goes to the farmer; the rest, according to the Land Stewardship Project, goes to “packaging, transportation, processing, wholesaling, and food preparation.” Buying locally means more money goes back to farmers, their local distributors, and vendors.

In addition, local food uses less energy and produces less pollution; it doesn’t have to be packaged and transported across the globe. It’s a fact that Glen Hill finds particularly ridiculous.  “Why are we importing onions? Why are we importing potatoes!” he exclaimed, “My goodness!” Instead of supporting local growers, the average plate of food now travels 1,300 miles from farm to table, that’s how far it is from here to Vegas.

Buying fresh
Local foods are usually sold within 24 hours of being harvested. According to the Land Stewardship Project, such fresh foods, “contain more of the nutrients that come with ripening — nutrients that our bodies need to be healthy.” Local farmers, they add “can offer fruits and vegetables bred for taste and freshness rather than shipping and shelf life.” Simply put, they taste better.

Sustainable practices
Sustainable agriculture is better for the environment and our health. It means cleaner air and water, few to no pesticides or hormones, and the protection of the natural local ecosystem. Sustainable practices work to maintain habitats for animals and to strengthen the long-term health of the land, and the food grown on it. No factory farms pumping animals with hormones, rivers with pollution, and produce with pesticides.

“People are really beginning to understand why local food is important” reflected Connie Karstens; with all the benefits it’s easy to see why.

For many reasons, from supporting family farmers to rural economies, from the environment to simply better tasting food, consider joining thousands of fellow Minnesotans who’ve recently embraced locally grown, sustainable foods. Buy local foods at farmers markets and co-ops, encourage cafeterias and restaurants to use local growers, and share the benefits with friends. With enough effort, we can turn this growing awareness into the beginnings of a new food system that supports farmers, local economies, the environment and our health.

Joe Radosevich is a 2008 George Washington University Shapiro Public Service Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on Minnesota 2020’s website.


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