Grown on the Range Column 9, originally published in Hometown Focus

The other half of “grown on the range” is about eating local.  I’ve been highlighting various Iron Range farmers who supply part of our available food, either through direct-to-consumer selling or through area farmers markets.  But if we don’t buy from them, they can’t grow to be able to feed the Range.  Upscaling this local food system takes commitment from food consumers—and we all fit that bill. So what does it mean to believe in local food?  To commit to buying your food locally?

First, you have to know where you can get locally grown food.  The Iron Range Grown Facebook page is a huge resource.  (https://www.facebook.com/groups/IronRangeGrown/  ask to join, it’s free)  Looking for local honey or eggs from free range chickens?  Post a request on the Iron Range Grown page and you’ll likely get an answer.  Or grassfed beef?  Pastured pork?  It’s available, right from the farmer, right in our area.  And it’s not necessarily more expensive than buying meat at a typical grocery store.  I’ve been buying local beef, pork and chicken for years now and have been amazed at how economical it is.  But then I have a freezer to store stuff like that.  What if you don’t?  You can get locally-grown meat in smaller quantities at Natural Harvest Food Coop in Virginia, and at many local farmers markets including the Grand Rapids, Virginia, Cook and Ely Farmers Markets. 

What if you don’t have lots to spend on food?  Households experiencing food insecurity don’t always have the means to choose local, whether that’s due to transportation challenges or finances or dietary restrictions.  To help meet that challenge, the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency partners with most of the farmers markets in our region to accept SNAP/EBT and participate in the “Market Bucks” program through Minnesota Hunger Solutions.  SNAP customers get a $10 match at farmers markets through this statewide program.  So you can double your buying power!  In Virginia, thanks to Essentia Health, Virginia Market Square farmers market matches up to $15 SNAP dollars.  Find details at   http://www.hungersolutions.org/programs/market-bucks/.

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Okay, maybe you don’t do Facebook?  The Arrowhead Grown website at www.arrowheadgrown.org lists all of the farmers markets in the Arrowhead region.  Don’t do Internet?  You can get a print copy of the Arrowhead Grown directory from the Rutabaga Project (Kelsey.gantzer@aeoa.org, 218-404-8466), the Farm Bureau via Ed Nelson (mredsfarmllc@gmail.com), or the Iron Range Tourism Bureau (800-777-8497).  There’s also Minnesota Grown, the state department of agriculture’s listing of markets and growers, available online and in print (minnesotagrown.com).  But it takes extra effort, you say.  Yep, it does.  But it’s not just about you.  Farmers markets are good for you and good for the local economy.  According to the Farmers Market Coalition, the average time since harvest for produce at a farmers market is ½ day vs. 13 days at a traditional retailer.  And that produce has traveled about 50 miles maximum to get to you vs. 1500 miles average at a grocery store.  Growers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned while those not selling locally create only 3.  At a farmers market, 100% of your food dollar goes to the farmer.  At traditional retailers, the farmer gets 15 cents while 85% goes to marketing and distribution.  (USDA Economic Research Service, 2016)  Farmers markets are everywhere if you look.  Did you know that there are more farmers markets in the U.S. than Walmart stores?

When you buy directly from the farmer, you can ask questions about how the animal was raised, what it was fed, or whether the broccoli was sprayed with pesticide or the chickens fed non-GMO feed.  And that can be important if you care about the quality of your food.  But you have to be a careful consumer.  In 2016 an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times traced the origin of produce at area farmers markets and discovered a fair amount of “reselling.”  That means the person at the market did not grow the produce, but bought it from a wholesaler or another vendor.  I had that experience a few years ago at a local market.  I asked if the tomatoes I was buying were treated with pesticides and the seller said “I don’t know, my dad bought these off a truck in Missouri.”  The Canadian Broadcasting System did a similar study in Ontario and found quite a bit of reselling.  So ask, and buy (or not) accordingly.

The State of Minnesota requires resellers to have a license.  However, “persons selling the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by them” are not required to have a license.  Most of our area farmers markets restrict sellers to those who grow, gather, or produce their own product within 50 miles of the market.  And most farmers market managers know their vendors and have visited their farms.  In fact, that’s one of the benefits of buying at a farmers market—as the Farmers Market Coalition says, you can “shake the hand that feeds you.”

CSAs are another way to get fresh food from the farmer.  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Customers purchase a “share” from the CSA farmer at the beginning of the season and then receive a box or cooler or basket of food at regular intervals.  Sometimes CSAs deliver, sometimes you pick up your share at a set location or at the farm.  Most put together a newsletter introducing new vegetables or telling how to preserve winter squash or sharing recipes or stories of the farm.  CSAs allow farmers to plant a predictable amount based on share sales, and then deliver their products over the course of a growing season. There are several CSAs on the Iron Range.  You can find them in the Minnesota Grown Directory.

I was a CSA customer before my gardens yielded enough for my household and my friends.  And now I manage the Virginia Market Square Farmers Market as a volunteer for the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability.  One of the most challenging aspects of running a farmers market is helping folks to understand that to eat local, you have to eat seasonally.  We open in June and we always have customers looking for tomatoes and sweet corn in June.  Since we restrict our market to products grown within 50 miles of Virginia, we won’t have those crops until August.  We try to help folks adjust to the seasonal nature of food here by highlighting rhubarb and lettuce and spinach in June, berries and fried green tomatoes in July and then, finally sweet corn and pumpkins and acorn squash in late August and September.  Minnesota Grown has a great chart listing many fruits and vegetables along with their growing season, but southern Minnesota has a much different growing season than we have here in zone 3a!  So ask your local farmers market manager what’s in season and what they’re likely to have the next week or two.

It takes commitment to support local farmers with the way you eat.  You really do have to believe in local food in order to make the effort to buy from a farmers market or enroll in a CSA or find a local food product through Iron Range Grown.  But it’s worth it.  It’s not just about health, it’s about regional economic sustainability too.  A study of the economic impact of local food published by the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability in 2018 found that eating just 20% local would generate 248-694 jobs and keep $51 million food dollars circulating locally.  Let’s DO IT!