Regional organic farmers report they are heading into spring greenhouse planting this month, and though those teasing March freeze-thaw cycles might have some of us still wishing for 70-degree weather, the end of winter is in sight.

With spring’s beginnings comes the promise of the greenhouse seedlings - lettuce, kale, Swiss chard and other crops - and a hopeful vision of a sturdy local food system.

So what is a local food system, anyway?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is no consensus on defining “local” in terms of geographic distance between food producer and consumer. However, the U.S. Congress in 2008 determined that a product can be considered locally or regionally produced if it’s transported less than 400 miles from where it originates, or stays in the state where it’s produced.

Saying food is local has a lot to do with how it’s distributed, the USDA says, whether that be farmers selling directly to consumers on the farm, or farmers selling to schools, or farmers selling food at local farmers markets.

Though admittedly some of these local food system concepts are a bit abstract, the system itself has a tangible and direct monetary impact.

The number of farmers markets in the U.S. increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009, according to the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service.

These direct-to-consumer interactions contributed to sales of $1.2 billion in 2007, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. Also, by expanding and strengthening a community’s local food system, employment and income in that community can increase, the USDA states in a 2010 report.

Closer to home, a local foods initiative, Pride of the Prairie, is working to support and develop a local, sustainable food system in the Upper Minnesota River Valley region.

According to the program, Pride of the Prairie “is a grassroots organization in West Central and Southwest Minnesota dedicated to educating and connecting consumers to the best locally grown foods available.”

Members of the initiative promote buying local products, supporting the local economy and ensuring “the environmental health and sustainability of farms throughout Minnesota’s prairie region.”

A project of Pride of the Prairie is “Buy Fresh, Buy Local,” which is an education campaign. Through the project, locally produced food is often identified through a colorful “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” label, and a guide to local foods, pictured at right, is available for download online at

Last summer when area farmers markets were in full swing, I noticed that many of our regional farms selling at the markets were participating in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program. Bundles of kale, carrots, and cabbage were displayed with the Pride of the Prairie pricing tags indicating that the produce was grown locally. It felt good to see the variety and depth of produce available in our region, and it felt good to support the region’s food system and our local farms by making purchases at the markets.

One of the challenges of having access to farmers markets is figuring out how to make the most of the produce being sold. From week to week what’s in season changes, and so recipes and household menus need to be adjusted to accommodate the variances in what’s offered. I sometimes would stare at the kohlrabi, beets and kale on my kitchen counter after attending these markets, thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s some gorgeous stuff, but I have no idea what I’m going to cook with it.”

Minnesota cookbook author and local food aficionado Beth Dooley has a cookbook for people whose market baskets brim full of tasty, but unplanned-for produce - “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook.”

In fact, she suggests fully embracing the living-in-the-moment nature of farmers markets. “Hit the Market, Forget the List,” is one of the aptly titled chapters in the book.

“I don’t have any particular recipes in mind when I shop,” she writes, “but I do imagine how these foods will work into a meal.”

The idea of the cookbook is to go to a farmers market, buy whatever looks good, come home, and cook. The cookbook is a guide to what comes in season in Minnesota, and its recipes provide a roadmap for navigating the local food system in a way that both supports our state’s farmers and our kitchen creativity.

Dooley is coming to the Willmar Public Library to give a presentation about her cookbooks and her ideas about local food from 6:30 to 8 p.m. April 8. Her visit to Willmar is co-sponsored by the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery, the Willmar Area Arts Council and the Friends of the Willmar Public Library, with funding from the Minnesota Arts and Legacy Fund.

Claudia Broman lives and writes from Litchfield. She assists the Willmar Community-Owned Grocery with its marketing.