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What can you do to boost a local food system?

March 14, 2012

A young journalist interviewed me recently about my work on a relatively new project – connecting immigrant and minority farmers to new buyers in the East-metro. Some of the conversation fell on the vagaries of selling at farmers’ markets – the uncertainty of the weather, a down economy and for some, a lack of knowledge of what to do with fresh food – all of which adversely affects customer attendance. Sometimes farmers go home with more produce than they were able to sell. If the farmers’ market is their only outlet for sales, it’s not long before they’re operating at a loss. The volatile 2011 growing season was devastating for many farmers.

But there was record attendance at the annual Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference in February – everyone hungry for new information about seed sources, improving crop production, growing their business and working together. Some of the workshops were conducted by immigrant and minority farmers themselves who stretched themselves to learn about organic agriculture, managing a business and marketing, and were willing to share their knowledge and be an inspiration to others.

I could not help but marvel at the farmers attending the conference, even if other livelihood choices were very limited. For most of us in the U.S., a generation or two has passed since families farmed. But for those attending the conference, little time has passed between them and their ties to the land. Here were people who were very accustomed to daily physical labor in the fields. Yes, there is a “back-to-the-garden” movement going on all around the country and many are trying their hands at growing and raising their own food – a necessary skill for the future. But we also need to ensure that there is arable land with policy to protect it, for on-going food production on a scale that can feed populations where they live. Energy sources for the future are uncertain. Water supply is uncertain. Now is an opportune time to do something right for food production for people. For example, Washington and Dakota counties are evaluating their land use policies with an eye toward preserving land for food production.

The journalist interviewing me grew up on a farm and was expected to help with planting, harvest and selling at the farmers’ markets. She had no illusions or nostalgia about the market. It’s hard work and success depends on quality of the produce and customers. She asked me what we all can do to help the local food system. I was reminded of a scene at the farmers’ market one Saturday morning while I waited in line to buy peppers. A customer was selecting his pick of “perfect” peppers – tossing others right and left as if to say “reject, reject, reject.” The farmer watched him and said nothing. We can start with respecting and appreciating farmers.

We can also look at our own food buying and consumption behavior. Am I eating real food? Where did it come from? Can I substitute one of my junk food fixes for something more nutritious – not only for ourselves, but also for someone to whom we may be an important model. Then take that someone to a farmers’ market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. Not sure where to go? Check out the Minnesota Grown Directory at http://www3.mda.state.mn.us/mngrown/

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