It takes energy to serve up a good, healthy meal. You may have chemical-free beef, broccoli and potatoes on your plate, but petro likely helped them to the table.

“Americans are starting to question, if you have organic food that’s produced in California and you ship it across the country, is that a good thing? … Not only is it not as fresh, you’re using a lot of fossil fuels to do this,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson at the “Home Grown Economy” conference held April 2 at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

“You can see there is a lot of interest and activity going on,” in local foods, said Peterson, who was recently named House Agriculture Committee Chair. “This isn’t something that somebody dreamed up. This is something that the American people are looking for and are asking for … there is a market out there.”

The fact that “big guys” like Wal Mart and Safeway are getting into organic food sales, has heightened the interest in foods produced by small, local farms, said Peterson, who sponsored the conference with UMM.

“The average food item in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles from the farmer to the consumer,” said Ken Meter, a conference presenter who analyzed west central Minnesota’s food economy (see story, page 8). “The U.S. spends about $139 billion each year paying for the energy used to bring food to our tables.”

Furthermore, Meters says, the United States is becoming a net food importer, according to the Wall Street Journal. Five chains, with Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club as the top two, sell 49 percent of groceries.”

Conference draws home-grown interest

The huge turnout for the “Home Grown Economy” conference testifies to the burgeoning interest in local food and energy. “We started, thinking we’ll have 50 or 60 people; 320 showed up,” says AURI’s Michael Sparby, one of the event organizers.

“It’s been coined that local foods are the new organics,” Sparby says. “Organics have almost turned into a commodity.”

Beside farmers and sustainable-agriculture advocates, the conference drew bank directors, economic development specialists and elected officials. “The fact that it was sponsored by Collin Peterson drew in people that we couldn’t otherwise have drawn in,” says Terry VanDerPol, a farmer and Land Stewardship Project’s community based food systems program director.

“Peterson’s economic development staff person, Toni Merdan, continues to be excited about the potential of local foods and is meeting with people around the region. She can open doors that, quite frankly, the rest of us can’t.”

Prairie naturals

VanDerPol grew up farming and, for the past seven years, has grazed cattle on about 80 acres she owns and leases along the Minnesota River, near Granite Falls. She currently has 41 head.

The 16 to 18 beef cattle VanDerPol sells per year are 100-percent grass fed, with no hormones or antibiotics. She markets under “Red Tail Farm,” along with business partner Dean Nordaune of Wood Lake. They distribute most of their beef through Pastures A Plenty, her brother Jim’s family business, which markets naturally-raised pork and chickens to grocery stores, co-ops and direct to consumers.

VanDerPol is also active in Pride of the Prairie, a collaborative initiated by more than 40 farmers, the Land Stewardship Project, UMM, Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, West Central Sustainable Development Partnership, West Central Research and Outreach Center and Prairie Renaissance. The farmers market a wide variety of locally produced foods, including beef, bison, poultry, pork, grains, cheese, butter, eggs, honey, fruits and vegetables.

Pride of the Prairie is attempting “to raise awareness of, and begin developing a brand for, locally-produced foods in western Minnesota,” VanDerPol says. “We were able to get local foods in the U of M-Morris cafeteria,” and in several local restaurants and grocery stores.

“There are a number of groups throughout the state that have local and regional food initiatives,” Sparby says, such as the Northwest Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnership, the Sustainable Farming

Association and Food Alliance Midwest, which awards FAM certification seals to foods that are local, environmentally friendly and socially responsible.

The interest extends nationally. “A number of companies across the country have adopted local food policies,” such as Google, Carlson Companies and Cisco, Sparby says.

“Utimately the concept is not necessarily organic, but you’re buying and eating foods in season, so your lettuce isn’t traveling 1500 miles. It’s the “eat fresh – eat local” concept.

AURI keeps it local

AURI is working with several organizations to promote local foods including FAM, the Farmers Union and its “Minnesota Cooks” program at the state fair, and a local culinary food program at Southwest State University in Marshall.

One AURI project is looking at economic considerations, including what farmers can expect over the cost of production. “We’re looking at, what are the price points and format that food needs to be in for institutions?” Sparby says. For example, “you can’t deliver a quarter beef to a restaurant. You have to be able to match up the form that’s usable to them.”

The project will also look at local foods’ impact on the local economy. “Let’s say you want to get local foods into a school district, and you’re competing against a subsidized food program. (Local foods) would cost more, but if you show you’re going to have a multiplier effect with those local foods to the tax base, would it be enough to turn the decision?”

AURI’s primary role in promoting local food production, however, is “to further process or value-add to stretch out the season,” Sparby says.

Support from the top down

Peterson says his House ag committee will be “trying to take away the barriers for people who want to get into this business.” He has already added two new subcommittees: organics and energy. “Energy is something everyone is interested in … 80 percent of Americans want to produce more renewable fuels.”

But Peterson said he did get “a little bit of flack” over the organic subcommittee as some view it as a fringe area. “But that’s fairly well dissipated and … a lack of understanding about what is going on in the marketplace.”

With high land prices, getting access to enough land is one problem. “There are marketing opportunities every day but people can’t get enough product to fill their markets,” Peterson says.

Also, farmers transitioning to organics can face financial difficulty for the three years they must quit using chemicals before being certified organic. Peterson says the ag committee may consider giving Conservation Security Program payments to farmers during that transition.

Besides federal action, “a lot can be done at the local level,” VanDerPol says, “like zoning and giving economic tax incentives to farmers.”

“Family farms trade downtown and use the local bank, stores, feed mill, and they generate local processing. It’s a way to keep wealth at home and revitalize the rural economy from the inside out,” VanDerPol says. “Instead of chasing smokestacks, look at what we have locally and build on it.”

Farmers could capitalize on growing consumer interest in sustainable farms by promoting agri-tourism, VanDerPol says. She has been talking with Merdan of Rep. Peterson’s Detroit Lakes office and the Rural Economic Development Commission in Appleton, Minn. about doing bus tours. “Food-producing farms could all have open houses on the same weekend — and encourage people to go from farm to farm,” VanDerPol says. “We are talking about doing a pilot later this summer, then see if we can build a bigger event.

“Southern Minnesota has the gorgeous Minnesota River Valley … and food-producing farms are part of the local fabric that urban dwellers are yearning for.”

“From a human community point of view, we’re seeing a real rural renaissance.”

For more on the Home Grown Economy conference, visit the Web site: morris.mn.edu/greencampus