West central Minnesota ag producers writing the menu for a local foods economy


— Ken Meter is encouraging local food producers in

west central Minnesota

to write their own menu, rather than take the one handed to them.

It's exactly what roughly 50 local food producers who gathered March 23 in Montevideo intend to do.

They set goals for strengthening the infrastructure for a local foods economy in the region. They include developing more food hubs, where local foods can be purchased year-round, and improving the network of producers for marketing their products.

They also tossed out the possibility of developing a grain processing facility to produce flour for sale to local consumers and bakeries.

Building a local foods economy is a "huge undertaking," Meter told the West Central Tribune, but he said he is optimistic. The west central region — ranging from Willmar to Morris to Ortonville and south to Montevideo and Granite Falls — is one of the state's most active regions when it comes to local food producers, he explained.

Meter addressed the gathering in Montevideo as a guest of the

Land Stewardship Project

, which is spearheading the effort. Meter is president of the

Crossroads Resource Center

in Minneapolis and is a longtime advocate for a local foods economy.

His menu featured an economic incentive for developing the local foods economy. In the 11 counties comprising the Upper Minnesota River Valley, consumers spent $267 million for foods of all types, according to the most recent available census data. Of that amount, $240 million left the region for foods sourced far away, he said.

If every person in the region spent $5 a week on local foods, it would create a $57 million market for local farms, according to Meter.

It's a market that is being pursued by a wide range of people in the region, from vegetable, fruit and meat producers to those developing the infrastructure for their sale at farmers markets and through food hubs.

The geographic outline for the network of local producers who gathered is already part of the road map for Bev Doughtery of

Real Food Hub

. Her Willmar-based operation is delivering locally produced food to locations in the region, from Willmar to Sunburg to Benson to Morris.

Food hubs are developing in the region. The Madison Mercantile in Madison and the Bluenose Gopher Public House in Granite Falls were among the hubs cited at the gathering. Local food producers in the region are connected, but not as well as they could be.

Tara Maireid Conway is a doctorate candidate with the University of Minnesota who conducted a survey of local food producers in the region. She told the audience gathered in Montevideo that, despite the relatively large geographic distribution of producers in the region, they are informally connected.

But Conway said she found that there are "disconnected clusters" of producers within the region. Her survey also suggests that more could be done to encourage "cross pollination" among the producers to help develop a stronger infrastructure in the region. "You're not all working together," she said.

Conway's work identified 179 assets in the region, ranging from producers to locally-owned bakeries, that could work together for a stronger local foods economy.

Meter pointed out that the event brought together many local food producers, evidence of this region's strong interest in a local foods economy. Also, he noted that the region's local food producers have a history of working together. The region has been one of the early leaders in the state in promoting this economy.

Yet he also made a note of the challenges in his presentation to the producers.

"Ironically, some of the most difficult work we do is to get rural communities to feed themselves," said Meter.

Our commodity-based farm economy poses many challenges for those working for a local foods economy, he told his audience.

"The hardest thing to do is to get food from the farm to the neighbors," Meter said.