Convening with others at the 2013 Dakota Grown Farmers Market and Local Foods Conference made me realize that the most vibrant local foods systems grow from the ground up through collaborative relationships. The local foods movement in North Dakota and throughout the country is driven by a variety of people with varied motivations for a common cause. Often, motivations are health related. Individuals and families want access to fresh and healthy food. They want a diversity of food choices available. This group includes both urbanites who have access to specialty co-ops and CSAs as well as rural families who have to drive more than 10, 20, or 50 miles to even get to a large grocery store.
Others are motivated for environmental reasons, they are uncomfortable with the reliance current conventional agricultural systems have on fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides, and irrigated water. They see their choices in the food they eat as a powerful stance against environmental degradation.
A third reason people make the choice for local foods is the economic benefits for communities. Produce available in commercial grocery stores can be expensive. Some choose to grow their own food to help off set food costs. Others would rather pay 5.99 a pound for kale or Swiss chard if it was grown by someone in the community. The economics of local foods benefit small family farms and food business, but it also adds the value of relationships. Buying local foods builds resiliency in communities.
The one thing that people from each of these categories (or others I failed to include) have in common is that they are creating a demand for fresh, whole foods grown and produced in their region, state, and community. They are the consumers. They are driving the system. They are the main ingredient for building a local foods movement in an community. They are the seeds in the soil, they are the feet on the ground.
If you are one of these people, please know that you have influence in so many ways. The first thing you can do is find others in your community and share your concerns, interests, and hopes. Find folks who have similar ideas. No matter how small or large the town is, no matter where your community is on the path to increasing access to local foods, there is the potential for local foods to be a greater part of your community.
One example is the story of Sheyenne, North Dakota. This is a tiny town of just 200 people. A few years ago a young girl wanted to start selling the produce from her garden. Her mother helped her make a plan, they connected with an older couple who also had a bumper crop and a high school girl with a talent for baking. A farmers market was created and continues to grow, as does a community garden and orchard. Each Saturday, community members visit the farmers market, visit, snack on home baked goods, buy produce for the week, and catch up with their neighbors. On Monday nights, many of the same community members spend time in the community garden, tending to plants, pulling weeds, and finding fellowship and a sense of community. These simple acts of including local foods as a community priority grow over time.
But sometimes even the grandest efforts can hit a standstill. From my experience, standstills happen because a shortage of resources. Sometimes the resources are economic. Some communities get stuck and find themselves saying, if we just had the money to do this… Sometimes the resources are social and communities find themselves looking at each other saying, we just need someone to do that…
Both issues become an issue of capacity. A new avenue must be taken, to either secure resources or pursue education. This is where tapping into the larger networks is invaluable. North Dakota is a vast state and support can sometimes be hundreds of miles away. We live in a digital age, and so much can be shared through email and social media. With a little work, needs can be documented, assistance can be found, and progress can be underway. In addition, sharing the burdens of roadblocks opens the lines of communication and help develop truly viable plans.
This being an area I am experienced in, I know how difficult it can seem to figure out the next step. My mantra for capacity building is, “Focus on what you do well, and make small steps to make it better.” Keep in mind that “better” is a relative term and to fully get a sense of what is “better” for a community, it is imperative to get community member input. With true collaboration, expansion will come in time, like a blossoming flower. Again, please feel free to share some of your challenges or concerns for your community in the comments area below. Be sure to reach out and explore the resources below and consider what could benefit your community in dynamic ways.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
Again, this is not a definitive list of resources for community projects in local foods. It is simply a starting point. Additional resources and support can be found at the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, the North Dakota Farmers Market & Growers Association, the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture, the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society, or your local NSDU extension office or research center.
Review the 2012 Local Foods Directory- The 2013 directory is being prepared for the upcoming growing season. In the mean time, this is a great starting point to identify markets and producers in your area.
Start a Hunger Free North Dakota Garden Project- Grow a Hunger Free Garden and donate extra produce to area food banks to increase access to fresh healthy foods. Steps to start a community garden can be found here.
Find the Best Seeds for Your Region- North Dakota does not have the most forgiving climate when it comes to growing plants. We have a short growing season. The chances for frost continue last into the year (around May 20) and begin early in the fall (about September 10). The season can be critically dry or overly wet. Some varieties of crops will do better than others for our region. In fact, there is a seed farm right here in North Dakota that produces a variety of vigorous vegetable seeds. I highly recommend them at Prairie Road Organic Seed.
Start a Community Orchard-The North Dakota Dept of Ag put together a fantastic resource on creating a community orchard of fruit and nut trees.
Start a Farm-to-School Program- Build relationships between youth, schools, and area farmers and provide children access to local, healthy and nourishing foods. Learn more about this nationwide grass-roots movement to develop community support and awareness about local food systems.
Understand the Regulations for the Production and Sale of Poultry and Livestock- If you are interested in integrating the production of poultry and livestock into your local foods community, it is essential that you understand the North Dakota meat laws and regulations. ND Century Code §36-24 andND Administrative Code §7-13 require that meat or meat food products offered for sale must be safe and wholesome. To prevent contamination, meat must be prepared under sanitary conditions, and the equipment used must be suitable for the product being sold. Requirements differ depending on the type and degree of meat slaughtering/processing and sales of products involved. The different types of meat businesses include custom exempt, retail exempt, official slaughtering, official processing establishments, or combinations of these. This document provides information on the guidelines for opening a meat-processing business.
Get Familiar with Farm to Market Strategies- This brochure provides an in depth look at the opportunities to sell farm grown produce or livestock, as well as any regulations or requirements to do so. Get familiar with topics such as business licensing, sales tax collection and permitting, and food safety and health districts.
Find Grants for Sustainable Agriculture-The program for Sustainable Agriculture Education & Research is a great resource for organizations looking to build their capacity for sustainable action through professional development and program enhancement.
Explore Opportunities for Growing Specialty Crops– The North Dakota Department of Agriculture is now accepting applications for the 2013 Request for Proposals for the Specialty Crop Block Program. Applications are due May 24, 2013. Specialty crops are defined in law as “fruits and vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.” This includes a vast array of products, ranging from apples and asparagus to sweet potatoes and spinach. Projects should benefit the specialty crop industry and/or the public rather than a single organization, institution, individual or commercial product. Single organizations, institutions, and individuals are eligible to participate as project partners.
Conduct a Variety Trail – There are many varieties to choose from to grow each year. When we choose what we want to grow each year, we might look at variety traits such as the height of the plant, how many days to maturity, and its yield. If you live in an area with a short growing season, like North Dakota you’ll also want to be sure that the varieties you select to grow have early season vigor, grow quickly, mature early, and yield well. There are opportunities to conduct variety trails. This past year, Marv Baker of North Star Farms in Caprio, ND did just that. At North Star Farms, they planted and monitored 14 varieties of carrots and then did a taste testing to determine the right variety for their farm and their customers.
Explore Opportunities in Agri-Tourism- Agri-tourism is one of the buzzwords of our day. Agritourism is the practice of inviting guests to visit and/or participate in normal farm or ranch activities. Farms and ranches participating in agritourism activities are most often working farms and ranches, and tourism activity is a secondary income for the family. Explore the opportunities to see if there is room for you to integrate agritourism into your local foods community!