Good food from close to home
(This article is a condensed version of a story that ran in the March 2012 edition of North Dakota LIVING, to read the full story and more about other North Dakotans subscribe today!)
by Nancy Jorgensen
|North Dakota Farmer's Market.
With more appetites for locally grown foods, producers across North Dakota are focusing on getting food from the field to the table.
Marv and Ilene Baker, growers from Carpio, are among those working hard to meet North Dakota’s growing passion for local foods.
“Our customers want local because it’s fresh,” says Marv Baker, president of the 456-member North Dakota Farmers Market and Growers Association (NDFMGA). “They know who we are, and we encourage them to visit the farm and see what we’re growing.”
Marv Baker is pleased to have seen the state’s farmers’ markets grow from 14 in 2005 to 55 today. Nationally, from 2010 to 2011, the number jumped by 17 percent to 7,175, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Growers discover new income
The Bakers started growing on two acres in 2004. The couple rented three additional acres a few years ago, and installed greenhouses to extend the growing season. Today, their business – North Star Farm – is booming.
In addition, the Bakers work full-time in Minot – Marv at a recycling center, and Ilene at an agency that assists low-income and disabled people. Their jobs leave little time for gardening and marketing. Yet, each week of the 2011 growing season, the Bakers sold their produce at farmers’ markets in Minot and Bismarck, and delivered produce boxes to both cities for community-supported agriculture (CSA) customers.
Holly Mawby, director of Dakota College’s Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture in Bottineau, reports that most North Dakota produce growers work full-time off the farm and supplement their income with produce sales.
Consumers drive the movement
Factors pushing consumer interest in local foods upward include concern about the origin of food, spending food dollars on local vendors, and reducing the traditional fuel inputs related to common supermarket foods.
Plus, according to the center’s 2010 survey of 30 farmers’ markets across the state, it’s fun. “Shoppers like the atmosphere and being able to talk to the vendors,” says Mawby, who administers NDFMGA. “Consumers also told us they want more variety and choice, and they want to see more growers in the marketplace. This represents a great opportunity for producers.”
Farmers who like meeting customers find it worthwhile to drive to urban centers and spend the day at farmers’ markets. Those who don’t have the time or the inclination can sell to Wholesale Supply Co. of Minot through the center’s new pilot project. The wholesaler picks up produce at four locations across the state.
Consumers want grocery stores to serve local options, too. The center’s 2011 survey of grocery produce managers revealed that 50 percent had seen increased customer demand for local produce, and 67 percent said they’d buy more if it were available at competitive prices.
Planting seeds of knowledge
North Star Farm is one of a handful of certified organic farms in North Dakota. The Bakers don’t use chemicals to boost production. While larger producers rely on heavy equipment to farm hundreds of acres, the Bakers generally work their five acres by hand. “The best yield a wheat producer can get is about 4,800 pounds per acre,” Marv says. “We had a terrible year in 2011 because of so much rain and flooding, and we produced 10,000 pounds per acre. It was closer to 16,000 in 2010.”
According to Mawby, the most popular veggies at farmers’ markets include tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, beans and peas – but our cold climate limits their growing seasons. “North Dakota is behind neighboring states in vegetable production,” Mawby says. “Much of that lag is due to a lack of knowledge about season extension methods.” Mawby is seeing growing number of mainstream farmers are adding local distribution produce to their cropping mix.
Attending ‘Dakota Grown’ conference
Last month, Marv Baker and Holly Mawby greeted and networked with local foods enthusiasts at the eighth annual Dakota Grown Local Foods Conference in Fargo. The conference, presented as part of the N.D. Department of Agriculture’s Local Foods Initiative, featured presentations on crop production, marketing and organizational techniques meant to advance local foods consumption. A highlight presentation was made by Angie and Brian McGinness, operators of Riverbound Farm, an organic vegetable, community-supported agriculture operation. In addition, the N.D. Ag Department’s Hunger Free North Dakota Garden Project – urging growers to contribute excess production to food banks – was showcased.
Mawby said the conference reflected a sharply growing attraction among consumers in our culture and economy for locally grown foods. She also said the business enterprise side of local foods distribution looks good, too. “It’s now a viable business opportunity and farming option,” Mawby says. At the conference, the NDFMGA held its annual meeting, re-electing Marv Baker as the group’s president and Ilene Baker as secretary-treasurer.
To learn more about local foods in the state, visit www.ndfarmersmarkets.com (NDFMGA site) or www.dakotacollege.edu/ech.php (Enterpreneurial Center site). For information on the Bakers, visit www.northstarorganic.com. For N.D. Department of Agriculture information, visit www.goinglocalnd.ning.com, or contact Dana Pritchet, (701) 328-4793.
Nancy Jorgensen is a freelance writer residing near Tucson, Ariz.