With over 75,000 farms in the state, Minnesota is the 5th largest food creator in the nation. Yet, in 1978 there were over 100,000 farms in Minnesota and the number is continuing to shrink.
The decline can be attributed to larger farms (over 100,000 acres) taking over for the family run-farms or many current farmers are simply retiring out with fewer people choosing to go along the same profession. But, for those that have picked up the mantle of farmer, they have changed the way local produce is bought.
Let’s take a look at Arlene Jones. Purchasing a farm in Brainerd in 2005, Jones didn’t want to simply be a production farm. She also didn’t want to utilize conventional farming procedures. She discovered that reaching to her community, she was able to create a vibrant food production location.
Jone at her St. Mathias farm location. Photo courtesy of Brian Peterson – Star Tribune
She became aware that despite her success, there were many other producers that were struggling to reach new customers. These were smaller farms, farms that were much less than the 100,000 acre production farms that are currently seen as “the norm.”
Jones looked to smaller family founded farms from across central Minnesota and through countless hours of knocking on doors, hoofing from one location to the next, and dialing again and again, helped coordinate over 40 local and regional food producers into a large “hub” of like-minded small-market farmers. This eventually came to be known as the SPROUT Food Hub.
From their website, SPROUT “manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products from over 40 local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”
Jones in front of the SPROUT food hub truck.
What this essentially means is that SPROUT will take a truck and drive to the markets and even the farms, themselves, and pick up the produce that is ready to be sold. This gives a larger scale market for the producer and a more secure supplier for the buyer. It’s win-win.
But, it always didn’t work so smoothly.
“It didn’t start overnight,” recalled Jones. “It took a lot of time calling up local producers, asking ‘What do you have that’s ready tomorrow? What can be ready this afternoon?'”
Jones also said there were times it was difficult. “Starting out, we also sent a lot of calls to the buyers saying ‘If you can wait a couple of days we’ll have your full order of cucumbers ready.'”
In other words, Jones put the time and effort into the hub so other smaller-scale food producers would have a better chance of success.
With Jones in the lead, the SPROUT Food Hub has been able to fill many retail locations, local restaurants, wholesale buyers, and even six central Minnesota school districts.
It was only a matter of time before another spoke in the sustainable wheel of local food production was deemed necessary. On April 1, 2015, the SPROUT Marketplace celebrated its grand opening to rave reviews. Political dignitaries, both federal and state, made the event.
Jones at St. Mathias Farm. Photo Courtesy of Brian Peterson – Star Tribune
The SPROUT Marketplace is currently serving four areas: As an indoor farmers’ market that will include local artists and crafters, a shared-use licensed kitchen facility, a cooking demonstration kitchen, and a storage place for the aggregation of the food collected through the SPROUT Hub.
Jones hopes to see the Marketplace scale up aggregation and distribution to continue to meet growing demand. She also sees it providing technical assistance to growers so they can continue to scale up production and possibly expand and diversify their products to include meat, cheeses, and more whole grains.
“We’ve created a location with kitchen facilities that can be utilized to create value-added options for growers, value-added by consumers and other food entrepreneurs. We want to see the kitchens used for grower education, as well as consumer education,” Jones forecasted.
Jones sees the Marketplace as a community hub that will help bring producers and buyers together all year long.
The Marketplace is also planning on maintaining the momentum of the summer production months by offering monthly events in the off-season. Dates scheduled for the fall of 2016 are September 10, October 22, November 19 & 26, and December 10 & 17. If you are interested in participating in the any of these market events as a grower or maker, you can download the vendor forms at the SPROUT website.
Jones said, “Our long-term goals [of the Marketplace] are many, but I see us hopefully increasing awareness of the natural bridge between art and agriculture and its importance on social cohesion and economic development.”
So, it’s not all doom and gloom here in central Minnesota. There seems to be hope for the small farmer.
Also, there are a ton of other articles on the SPROUT Marketplace across the web.
Chelsey Perkins wrote recently on the kitchen instruction classes in the Echo-Journal. Early last year, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Tom Meersman highlighted the uniqueness of the food hub in Little Falls. The Initiative Foundation, a fantastic non-profit located in Little Falls, which helps small businesses and communities in central MN, has the story of the necessity of food hubs in an international world in their IQ Magazine.
And, of course, Joe H. and I put together this little video in our series on the SPROUT Food hub.
So, if you’re a vendor, this seems like a really awesome opportunity to show your produce and crafts during the slow winter season. If you’re a consumer, this seems like a really awesome opportunity to get your local produce during the slow winter months, not to mention, get a head start on your holiday shopping lists.