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Western Minn. local foods producers looking to tap growing market

Angela Jackson began marketing her grass-fed beef to a supermarket chain, but the demand led her to line up other producers. The producers have now opened up a store front retail center in Vermillion, S.D. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
Connie Karstens and her husband, Doug Rathke, are serving the growing market for local foods with the Lamb Shoppe, located on Minnesota Highway 7 near Hutchinson. The husband and wife raise and process their own meat, and sell it along with other locally raised foods in a retail store located on their farm. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)2 / 2

MILAN -- If there's any question about the growing demand for locally produced foods in the midst of farm country, talk to Angela Jackson of Prairie Sun Organics of Vermillion, S.D.

She began selling her grass-fed beef at HyVee grocery stores and had to recruit eight other producers to keep them stocked. Jackson soon had so many freezers running in her home that she couldn't turn on the microwave without crashing the circuits.

Last year she and other producers known as Upper Missouri Valley Local Foods opened a 400-square-foot retail store in Vermillion and saw $50,000 worth of sales without even advertising its presence. This year it's doubling its retail sales space.

"The consumer drives it to make it happen,'' said Jackson of the support and demand the producers' venture has found.

Jackson was among local food producers who told their counterparts from throughout western Minnesota about how they're meeting the demands of this growing market. They met recently in Milan as part of an ongoing effort to develop the distribution, aggregation and sales structure believed needed to grow the market here.

"We've been talking about this problem for a long time,'' said Rebecca Terk, healthy food system organizer for the Land Stewardship Project in western Minnesota.

Terk said there is a need to develop an efficient distribution system so that producers can spend their time on the farm, and not waste it and money ferrying small loads of goods to customers scattered all over the map.

There is also a need for a single source to aggregate the supply of foods available in the region. It could coordinate the production and feed the large demand from institutions and commercial buyers who need a single supplier.

Producers who gathered in Milan realized that there is a strong local foods market to be served in the west central region, in an area running roughly from Ortonville to Willmar and Morris to Montevideo, according to Terk.

Consumer demand for healthy, local foods exceeds the supply in communities such as Willmar and Morris, said Terk. Conversely, the supply exceeds demand in areas such as Big Stone County.

There is no right or wrong model for developing the central distributor and aggregator to meet the needs and opportunities presented by this situation.

For some, vertical integration works. Connie Karstens, of The Lamb Shoppe in Hutchinson, told how she and husband, Doug Rathke, operate as producer, processor and on-farm retailer.

Others find their strength in numbers. Johnice Cross, of GROWN Locally in Decorah, Iowa, described how the cooperative has lined up dozens of producers. By joining together they've been able to put a refrigerated truck on the road and oversee a central packaging and distribution center. That's made it possible to sell goods to large institutional customers and commercial food wholesalers.

Small ventures can work too. Holly Tilton-Byrne, of Dakota Rural Action in of Brookings, S.D., said her nonprofit helped the SD Local Food Co-op open an online store for its farmers' goods. It uses drop-off sites located at cooperating churches between Brookings and Sioux Falls, S.D., to distribute the produce. The farmers are making one-to-one sales to consumers via the online store while economizing on the time they spend transporting or marketing their goods.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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