Survey could aid push for local food

Small farmers are looking for help to sell their produce in larger markets.

Ethan Nelson

A University of Minnesota-assisted initiative seeks to help local farmers distribute their produce to a larger market — especially to groups that buy food in bulk.

The Building Farm to Institution Markets initiative, organized in part by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, hopes to use improved communication to promote the exchange of food between small local farmers and large entities, like hospitals and universities.

University Extension community economics educator Ryan Pesch helped stakeholders conduct a survey, which ended Sunday, to determine whether farmers are interested in selling produce to large institutions.

“We’re trying to find out if producers are ready, willing and able to sell and grow [their market],” Pesch said.

Large organizations, like hospitals and schools, might be more willing to purchase local produce if the food came packaged in specific ways — a fact farmers often don’t realize, said Courtney Tchida, student programs coordinator for the University’s Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

Along with Pesch, MISA worked with the Institution for Agriculture and Trade Policy to develop and
distribute the survey to farmers.

“We want to ask if there are ways we can better build relationships,” Tchida said.

The push to bring local food to the table spans years and includes other University- and city-based programs.

As part of Tchida’s job with MISA, she helps organize the student-run organic farm Cornercopia on the University’s St. Paul campus. The farm sold more than $6,000 worth of food to University Dining Services last year, she said.

“There’s a great demand for local food,” said MISA Executive Director Helene Murray.

Minneapolis’ own local food initiative, Homegrown Minneapolis, looks for opportunities in the Twin Cities for local growers to work together to sell food in bulk, said Tamara Downs Schwei, Homegrown Minneapolis’ local food policy coordinator.

“There’s a certain challenge for smaller farmers to reach institutions,” she said. “But when they’re looking to scale up, they look at these large institutions.”

But Downs Schwei said scale can pose a problem for small farmers. If they can’t grow enough produce to attract the interest of large institutions, they may be passed up for bigger producers, she said.

But Pesch said the challenges of scaling up might not bother farmers who want to stick to sales at farmers markets and
cooperatives.

“Farmers may be asking, ‘Why sell wholesale when you can sell retail?’” he said. “You’re getting retail at a farmers market.”

When it comes to connecting small farmers with large institutions, producers aren’t the only ones who need help, Pesch said. Universities and hospitals may not be aware of local producers looking to sell, he said.  The survey will help identify potential partnerships that farming groups can establish.

The push to connect local farmers with large institutions has lasted at least a decade, said Pete Huff, director of food systems for the Institution for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Now, he said, the recent survey and help from the University will allow the group to educate producers statewide about the market and will potentially begin conversations for legislative policy that better supports local farmers.

“We need to dig deeper and find out how these institutions and producers work together,” he said.