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Recipe for economic growth: Add local foods

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HECTOR -- Renville County is known throughout the world for its agricultural products.

The idea of keeping more of those products at home is starting to attract the attention of a growing number of farmers, for the very same reason that they are so good at raising corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

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"What I hear from farmers is 'show me how I can make money.' It's as simple as that,'' said Chris Hettig, economic development director for Renville County. She spoke last week in Hector as part of a program focused on local foods. A similar program was also presented last week in Appleton.

The Renville County Economic Development Authority is working to promote more local food production as an economic development opportunity. The market for locally produced foods is growing, and dollars spent at home have a multiplier effect in the local economy, Hettig and other speakers said.

"We are beginning to see it take off,'' said Terry VanDerPol of the Land Stewardship Project in Montevideo, speaking of the effort to develop and grow local food markets in the region.

The demand for local foods has grown to the point in the Morris area that VanDerPol said they have now found themselves in an unexpected pickle: Demand is outpacing the local supply.

Ironically, it has led to discussions with food cooperatives in the Twin Cities about the possibility of transporting beef and vegetables from farmers in eastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin to Morris, said VanDerPol.

It speaks to the heart of the dilemma now facing the local foods movement, and the reason that Melvyn Houser of Council Bluffs, Iowa, made the trip to Appleton and Hector. Houser is a farmer in Pottawattamie County in Iowa's southwest corner, and a newly re-elected Republican on its board of supervisors.

Houser said the county supervisors unanimously agreed last August to commit $30,000 a year for the next five years to develop the county's local foods economy.

There is a need to interest more farmers in raising local foods, and to develop the connections that can put the fresh, nutritional fare on local tables.

It is economic development aimed at what economists call "import replacement,'' according to Houser. "Just raise it yourself,'' he said.

The greatest share of the grains and livestock produced in west central Minnesota is destined for outside markets, while almost all of the table-fare is imported, according to Ken Meter, president of the Crossroads Resource Center in Minnesota.

Meter has completed economic analyses of 39 agricultural regions in 19 states. His work raises questions about the local economic benefits of commodity-based agricultural and points to opportunities for producing food for local markets. His study of 10 counties in west central Minnesota found that if farmers could supply just 15 percent of the foods now imported into the region, they would realize $28 million a year in revenue.

A similar study by Meter in southwestern Iowa helped convince the Pottawattamie County supervisors that a local foods economy was well worth the development, according to Houser.

Hettig said efforts in Renville County to develop a local foods economy are aimed mainly at educating consumers and producers about the opportunities that local foods can provide.

She said there are lots of indications that local foods are capturing more interest. In a county known as one of the state's leaders in corn, soybean and sugar beet production, it is now also home to 12 vineyards.

To learn more about the economic analysis performed by Meter for west central Minnesota, visit: http://www.crcworks.org/msi.html

To learn about efforts to develop local foods opportunities in Renville and Swift counties, view: www.renville.com and www.swiftcountyrda.com

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