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‘Backhauling’ pilot project: Expanding Greater Minnesota farmers’ ability to sell produce

Challenges facing rural Minnesota are reflected on many of our Main Streets. The brunt of shifting farm policies, demographic changes and declining commodity prices — to name a few — is shouldered in small towns.

Kathryn Draeger

A pilot program of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) offers hope. At its core is a concept called “backhauling,” which, if successful, will benefit small- and medium-sized farm producers and strengthen rural grocery stores, the anchor businesses in many small towns.

When you think about it, turning small-town groceries into local food hubs makes sense. Wholesale food suppliers’ truck drivers deliver fresh and processed food and dry goods to rural grocery stores throughout the state on a weekly basis. The trucks, then, return to the distribution center empty.

Our project connects local growers with rural grocery stores as a network of docking sites. They’ll bring produce there for pick up and “backhaul” to the wholesale distribution center. Locally grown fruits, vegetables and other produce would be redistributed via commercial markets: grocery stores. Over the next two years, Extension RSDP will pilot and test the idea, starting with three crops: garlic, organic potatoes and strawberries.

We’ll begin with garlic grown in Big Stone County and work with two wholesale distributors. The project will also assess rural grocery store capacity to provide cooler and freezer space to maintain the quality of perishable crops from farm to wholesale distributor.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the project, sees it as an innovative approach with the potential to make a big difference. We agree. The long-term goal of the project is for small- and medium-sized farms to increase their viability and competitiveness, with rural grocery stores as the linchpins of the effort.

There are nearly 300 grocery stores in Minnesota towns with less than 2,500 people. They are closing at an alarming rate; their owners face aging buildings and equipment and competition from larger stores in regional centers. It’s an uphill challenge to reopen a community grocery store that’s closed.

Keeping Main Street going will require new approaches, but we can all help. One thing Minnesotans can do right now is spend their grocery dollars at these businesses. Ask grocers to stock favorites if they don’t have them. Then buy them and thank the grocer.

If our study proves successful, the new opportunities created for Minnesota producers, grocery stores and rural communities will be truly exciting — not just for those entities but Minnesota as a whole. Our state is the sum of its parts and the stronger those parts — including Greater Minnesota — the better off we all are.

Kathryn Draeger is statewide director for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and adjunct professor of agronomy and plant genetics. She has been a Bush Leadership Fellow and a MacArthur Scholar; she currently leads several projects, including ones focused on local foods, rural grocery stores and deep winter greenhouses. In 2007, Draeger and her family moved to rural Big Stone County to live and farm sustainably. She has a doctorate in water resources and master’s in soil science from the University of Minnesota.

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