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Can we really Grow local food in North Dakota?

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I have been working with Local Foods for over three years now. I take every chance I can to engage consumers, support producers, and collaborate with leaders to build a local foods economy in North Dakota. It is something I believe in. By growing local food, we build community. We develop relationships. We teach our children. We appreciate the moment. We look toward the future.

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I cherish the opportunity to grow my own vegetables.

I love being able to sell jams and jellies.

I am proud to raise chickens and ducks in my backyard.

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My food choices don’t stop there.

I know I cannot do it all on my own.  I purchase produce at the farmers market. I get milk through a cow share and then I buy extra cream at the store.

I regularly shop at the grocery store. And at least once a month I go to a large supermarket… I might even go to Wal-Mart.

I dine-out on occasion.

As independent as I try to be, I know I am connected to many kinds of agriculture.

I nurture that connection each time I eat.

My food choices create a demand for locally produced food. It would be great to see more Farmers Markets. I want to see more of it on the grocery store shelf. I would love to know more of it reaches the plates of children in schools or patients in hospitals.

I know I am not alone. The demand for REAL food is growing.

And so is the supply. Local food producers are busy right now, working on their small business plans for 2014.

They consider installing another greenhouse for season extension. They research seed varieties. They explore market opportunities. They might consider selling shares through community support agriculture (CSA). They might be thinking about ways to connect with nearby schools or institutions. Local food producers are trying to meet demand.

But, there is a gap. Why is it so difficult for consumers to access local food?

This isn’t necessarily a problem of supply and demand. It is an issue of logistics.

These logistics include how products are prepared, packaged, and distributed to the consumers.

This short video does a great job of explaining how we can overcome barriers in logistics.

But how could a food hub like Red Tomato work in North Dakota? How could producers benefit from aggregating their products and to be distributed on a larger scale? Could we really get our locally produced foods into schools, restaurants, and grocery stores?

Well, there are some who are giving thought to this dilemma.

FARRMS and Common Enterprise Development Corporation (CEDC) are working together on a producer/farmer survey exploring the feasibility of light processing, food hubs, farmer alliances or similar tools to increase the amount of fresh produce grown and eaten locally.

The executive director of FARRMS released this press release last week requesting input from small farmers and producers in North Dakota.

North Dakota farmers and growers sought for FARRMS Survey

Feasibility study being conducted to determine next steps in scaling up local in North Dakota

By Sue B. Balcom, FARRMS

If you are a farmer or are considering diversifying your farm or may be launching a new farm business, we can help you grow. FARRMS and Common Enterprise Development Corporation (CEDC) are working together on a producer/farmer survey exploring the feasibility of light processing, food hubs, farmer alliances or similar tools to increase the amount of fresh produce grown and eaten locally. Planning includes an economic development summit in early 2015 to discuss potential projects with economic developers.

We are seeking people who would like to become a vegetable farmer, increase farm enterprises or diversify their farm to include new and innovative businesses to complete the short survey. This data will reveal the potential economic impact of enhanced light processing, aggregation and distribution of local food in North Dakota. It will help define current opportunities, challenges and barriers in local food production and distribution, as well as determine producer interest in scaling up business strategies to meet the demand for local foods. Business planning will be made available to any farmer interested in the project after the survey closes.

An invitation has been sent to existing farmers in the state, however all farmers are encouraged to complete the survey at www.farrms.org even if they did not receive a personal invitation. This information is vital to scaling up local economies in our rural communities, in particular the western and northern areas of the state. The Summit on Local Economies (SOLE) is being planned for early 2015 and will reveal plans for next steps in scaling up local in North Dakota. Many other opportunities become available to farm enterprises through FARRMS and its partners ongoing work building local food systems.

Please help your farmers grow with FARRMS and its partners. If you have any questions, or would like more information please contact Sue B. Balcom at 701-527-5169 or 486-3569 or email sbalcom@farrms.org.

Together we can grow farmers. FARRMS is a nonprofit working with farmers located in Medina, ND.

So what do you think? Can we grow local food in North Dakota?

If you are a farmer or producer, please take just a few minutes to take the survey. Let FARRMS know your needs. Share your challenges and successes and help determine how we can best scale up local foods.

Take the Survey Now

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RBOGproducersurvey

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Learning to Let Go: Excitment and Motivation

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I’ve been taking sometime to look back at how far I’ve come in a year as an entrepreneur.

I left my full-time academic job in July of 2012, but it wasn’t until November of that year that I began marketing myself and my talents. I didn’t have a network or a whole lot of support. I knew very few people in my town. Most of the folks I knew within the state of North Dakota, I knew because of my career, in some way. It was scary and I was lonely.

But things have changed.

Today, my young philosopher overheard me calling a friend. “Mom, you know I can’t even keep up with all the people you know!”

I thought to myself, Wow. I really do know a lot of people! Things have changed in a year’s passing.

I was quiet pleased with myself. I took time to give myself the praise, “You have done well finding good people to connect with. It certainly does make life quite a bit richer.”

But that’s only the beginning.

After today’s Farm Beginnings Session, I was extremely motivated.

We talked about mission statements and marketing. I didn’t realize I love this kind of stuff so much, but I do!

I left energized, wanting to share EVERYTHING I learned with my husband, who had to work today.

I left wanting to revisit my visual business plan.

I wanted to get home and beg my chickens to PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE start laying eggs again.

I was ready to dive into next my proposal.

I wanted to go set up for the art class I teach on Monday.

I couldn’t wait to start thinking,

and reading,

and researching.

I wanted to start compiling information for my presentation at Farm Beginnings in December, in which I will be talking about how to tell YOUR story.

So much excitement!

But this was familiar…

My mind was reeling with ideas, but I was tired.

I had a quick thought to leave myself a voice message, telling myself about ALL this excitement.

Wait, I’ve done that before. And it wasn’t good.

(Remember, I struggle with issues such as overworking and undervaluing myself.)

It is easy for me to believe that I need to prove my worth through what I do.

In my final 3 months as Vice President of Land Grant programs, I would call my office phone on my drive home. I would leave myself messages about all the things I needed to do the next day.

This my friends, is not a good habit.

I thought it was brilliant at first, but it certainly led to some earlier morning cursing when I checked my voicemail each day.

*Light-bulb moment* Maybe that has something to do with my own disdain for to-do lists. To-do lists are made with our own self-talk imbedded in them. They can be painful if that self-talk used in writing them is overly critical, judgmental, or down right mean.

Hmmm….

The point is I had been down this road before. So I backed up.

I did a U-turn before I got to the point of giving myself a to-do list on a Saturday night.

I retraced my steps.

I slowed down and took a look around when I got back to the excitement.

Was it impractical to think I could manage to do all the things that I wanted to do tonight? Or even this weekend?

Absolutely!

I suddenly remembered that I had been here too, and that there was a bit more worth exploring.

I remembered the first time I shared my business plan with the folks at the New Rockford Area Betterment Corporation.

I remember the amazing amount of things I wanted to do when I came home.

And I remember not doing anything!

Instead, I was still.

I enjoyed the moment. I felt the excitement.

I didn’t force it into a product or accomplishment.

I let it be part of me.

And I wrote about it! It was my second blog post ever!

I was on the road I wanted to be on. And, I even took it on a little further.

I mentally broke these tasks up by priority and complexity and I scheduled them into my calendar when I got home!

This is truly a first.

I came home, motivated and yet tired, and said to my husband, “Michael, next weekend, I would like to schedule a time to sit down to go over my business plan with you.”

And then, I let everything else “to-do” settle in my calendar and in my brain.

I let the excitement reside in my body as joy.

And then, I played the piano that magically found its way into our house this afternoon.

Thank you so much, Michael. Thank you!

Young Philosopher’s Thoughts on Fun and Work

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This morning over breakfast, my oldest son shared some words of wisdom with me.

“You know, Mom, when we get old… like you are… we don’t have to stop having fun.”

I sat there thinking, Old? I’m not old!

“But I know one thing for sure that keeps old people from having fun.”

“What is that?” I fearfully asked.

Straight and forward, he declares, “Having a job.”

I’ve spent much of my time pondering the value of my skills, the marketability of my strengths, the need to align myself with projects that energize me, and the need to increase my profitability as an entrepreneur.

The great wisdom of a six-year-old says, “The only jobs worth doing are the ones that would be fun. Like testing race cars! So you can have fun and make money.”

I won’t be testing race cars, but we did go on to discuss the kinds of work that lend to an ability to have fun.

In the end, he declared that I write too many emails.

He stated, “It’s like a problem you have, Mom. Writing emails. It’s not fun, and it keeps you from doing fun stuff with us.”

Interesting points, my young philosopher. Interesting points.1069984_10200712373306539_90200659_n

Planting the Seeds of a Local Foods Movement

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Planting the Seeds of a Local Foods Movement

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.

Photograph from the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society

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.

Photograph from the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society

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.

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

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

Purple Beans

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 CropsThe 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!