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Finding Food in Farm County


Fri, Apr 6th, 2001
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Economics of food and farming in SE MinnesotaBy Nancy Overcott Monday, April 9, 2001

"As much as $800 million each year flows out of our agricultural region as local families grow and buy food. Almost none of this money builds wealth in our neighborhoods. Creating our own regional food system is one way to reduce these losses."

This is the key determination of "Finding Food in Farm Country," a 32-page assessment of the food economy in Southeast Minnesota. The project was commissioned by the Community Design Center, a St. Paul based non-profit organization founded in 1969 to assist Minnesota communities in realizing their sustainable economic, social, and ecological goals. According to Ruth Murphy, executive director, the Community Design Center commissioned this study because it believes in the value of building local food systems and wanted to learn how much of the food dollar circulates within Southeast Minnesota and how much flows out.

Project coordinator Nancy Bratrud of Lanesboro says, It's not innovative just to try to figure out how to haul more food from Southeast Minnesota to Twin Cities markets. That's exploring a new market - which we're not averse to doing, as long as we're selling our surplus - but it's not changing the food system. We want to focus on regional stability, the money that circulates here. We want to bring the producer and the consumer into a face-to-face relationship.

As the original owner of Mrs. B's B&B in Lanesboro, Bratrud put her ethic to use in preparing locally raised food for her customers. She purchased meat from farmer Terry Huckstadt of Chatfield, and vegetables from local growers such as Paul Gardner in Lanesboro, and Master GardenerVirginia Baker of Wykoff.

The authors of "Finding Food in Farm Country" are Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center in Minneapolis and faculty member at Metropolitan State University and Jon Rosales, Research Fellow for the Institute for Social, Economic and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Minnesota.

Using existing data, they looked at the region's economy from the viewpoint of the region itself and found that area farmers sold $866 million of farm products in 1997, but spent $947 million raising this food, almost half ($400 million) of which was spent on services, products and loans from suppliers and creditors outside the area. At the same time, area residents spent $506 million buying food, mostly from out of state producers.

In 1997, the region's 8,436 farm families earned an average of $15,000 per farm each year, most of which came from rental income, custom service work, government payments and investments rather than through crop production and animal husbandry. In spite of investing heavily in technology to produce immense harvests and selling crops and animals to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, many of the area's farm families live close to poverty. At the same time, resources, such as agricultural land required to produce food are increasingly controlled by absentee landowners and corporate owners of lending institutions whose primary interests are in global markets.

The report notes that international trade policies have undermined commodity prices; economic uncertainty has weakened foreign markets; and corporate mergers are increasingly failing to add value to farmers. Since global interdependence seems to create more losses than wealth, farmers and their communities must ask if it is in their self-interest to compete in the global market.

In response to the eroding local capacity to create wealth, several citizens' initiatives have emerged. The report profiles four such initiatives (see accompanying article).

In addressing the ecological impacts of current farming practices, "Finding Food in Farm Country" reports that southeastern Minnesota has a stable farm community built on lasting social bonds and that local farmers are leaders in adopting conservation practices such as contour plowing and reduced tillage.

However, the fragile soil and vulnerable water systems of our karst topography demand the strongest stewardship. Although the loose soil of this topography provides an excellent medium for growing food, it also makes the soil highly vulnerable to erosion. With each rainfall, tons of soil accompanied by bacteria, fertilizers and farm chemicals are washed into surface waters. As the contaminated water enters long fissures in the underlying limestone bedrock, pollutants can quickly migrate into distant wells and bodies of water. The Pollution Control Agency lists Southeast Minnesota as the part of the state most affected by nitrate contamination.

Recent economic changes may worsen this situation. With falling milk prices, many farmers have sold their dairy herds. Although the number of dairy cows in the region has remained the same over the last decade, the number of farms has fallen by 60 percent resulting in more farmers shifting to row crops, such as soybeans, instead of raising pasture crops for diary animals. With fewer green or cover crops and less rotation, soils are no longer strengthened.

Concern for the soil and the economics of food and farming has motivated citizens to organize farmers' markets, wholesaler cooperatives, Community Supported Agriculture farms and to sell food directly to consumers. A detailed resource list of these producers and organizations along with pertinent web sites and state agencies appears at the end of the report.

In conclusion, "Finding Food in Farm Country" acknowledges that the expansion of local food production and consumption is not the only way to reduce flow of money out of the region. It does say that food is central to the strength of our region and the traditions communities build around food are among the most powerful bonds in a local culture.

"It is unlikely the region can achieve greater self-reliance without reconfiguring the ways food moves from farm to table," the authors write.

For more information, contact (507) 467-3446 or foodnet@acegroup.cc.

Financial support for the report came from the USDA Food Security Grant Program, the Bush Foundation and the Experiment in Rural Cooperation.

By Nancy Overcott

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