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Community-owned grocery effort attracts interest from Japan


WILLMAR -- Willmar's attempt to organize a community-owned grocery store where locally grown foods are sold is attracting international attention.

Later this month, Daisuke Asano, overseas researcher for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry for the government of Japan, will be in Willmar to learn how local farmers sell directly to the public.

Asano will be looking at the local foods system, according to Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator with the Willmar Design Center.

The center sponsors the downtown Becker Market where area farmers and vendors sell their crops and wares to the public during the summer and is working to establish a for-profit, full-service cooperative grocery store in response to farmers who want to a place to sell their crops year-round.

The date of Asano's arrival in Willmar will be announced.

Dougherty said she met Asano at the National Main Streets Conference April 1-4 in Baltimore, Md. The conference convenes community development staff people, volunteers and others from around the country to share best practices and celebrate successes in revitalizing historic downtowns and communities.

Dougherty said the Japanese government's equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture controls all food.

She said there isn't a local foods movement in Japan right now, but farmers are eager to start one because their prices and profits are being squeezed to make food cheaper and they're looking at ways to establish local farmer groups.

Dougherty said Asano was fascinated with how Minnesota has proceeded in the local food movement because he would like to take that information back to Japan.

"He wants to see how this all works with local farmers and how that is a direct sale,'' Dougherty.

Dougherty said he has been in the U.S. for two years at Johns Hopkins University and will return this summer.

Dougherty said the National Main Streets Conference provides an amazing amount of information and support.

"It's a good reinforcement for what we do here,'' she said.

The Design Center has been working since 2005 to renew downtown Willmar as a social, cultural, government and economic center.

Dougherty and former Design Center board member Carol Laumer, who attended the conference on her own, presented a program to a standing room-only crowd entitled "From Becker Market to a Co-op Grocery: The Return of Community.''

"It was a competitive request for proposals to put on a seminar at the national conference, and Willmar entered and was picked,'' Dougherty said. "It was the narrative of how Becker Market began six years ago -- this will be our sixth year -- and from our vendors saying we'd like to sell year-round.''

The presenters had seating for 100 and nearly 130 showed up. One reason for the presentation's popularity is that many Main Street programs run local farmers markets, said Emily Northey, program coordinator for Minnesota Main Street.

"Many of those same downtowns have lost their decades-old grocery stores and are looking for a way to be selling food on a more consistent basis than just at a farmers market,'' said Northey, who also attended the conference.

"So seeing another community that is on the road to seeing that goal fulfilled -- to starting their own grocery store that the community knows will continue to be there because it's owned by the community -- I think was fulfilling an unmet demand by many of the other local downtowns,'' Northey said.

The community-owned grocery campaign is in its second year of garnering at least 300 members willing to pay the one-time $200 membership fee that organizers say is needed for site selection and start-up. The store will employ 15 to 20 people.

"We'll be picking a downtown building. We're inviting vendors to get ready to ramp up so they can produce food for the grocery because it will basically be local food, organics and meats and full service,'' said Dougherty.

"We're actually signing up customers who are going to come to this store and that's what makes it work economically,'' said Dougherty. "This local board is committed to making sure that this is organized and brought forward in the best possible way so that we are assured of success once we open the doors.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150