by Katie Peterson
My family has been raising free-range turkeys in southeastern Minnesota for more than 70 years. Prior to the past few years, though, I doubt any of us planned to be involved in any kind of food movement. That changed when my brother returned to our family’s land and built an on-farm store, Ferndale Market, named after my grandparents Fern and Dale who started the farm. Opening the market was a big step in that it not only gave us direct access to consumers, but also allowed us to partner with and sell food from other local farmers and producers.
In the four years that Ferndale Market has been open, my family has become deeply engaged in advocating for local and sustainable food, and supporting the independent farmers and producers who provide it. As just one small part of a much larger effort, it has been exciting to witness consumers’ growing interest in where their food comes from.
Here are just a few of the positive things we see happening with local food right now:
Farm to School
Restaurants have increasingly focused on sourcing their food locally and now many schools are doing the same. The two largest school districts in Minnesota – Minneapolis and St. Paul – have even gotten on board. Some schools have also implemented education efforts to go along with their local sourcing. For example, my brother has served Ferndale Market turkey burgers and traded “Farmer John” baseball cards with elementary students. These types of activities provide opportunities to teach students important lessons about food, nutrition, and agriculture. (To learn more about Minnesota’s Food to School program, check out the The University of Minnesota Extension’s documentary on the subject.)
Farm to Institution
From Target to Best Buy, a number of Minnesota-based corporations are incorporating local food into their employee cafeteria menus. Ferndale Market provides turkey to many of these institutions, thanks in part to its partnership with Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service company committed to sustainable food. Many hospitals and healthcare organizations – perfect sites for nutrition education – also are exploring how they can improve the food they serve. In Minnesota, a committee made up of farmers and hospitals is looking at how they can better work together to provide food that’s healthy for patients and the environment.
Rather than viewing each other as competitors, many independent farmers, food producers, and retailers have banded together. Being in the minority, they know that helping each other succeed will help build a more sustainable food system and have found ways to champion one another. For example, Valley Natural Foods hosted a screening of Food Inc. followed by a panel discussion featuring a variety of people involved in the local food industry. As a more behind the scenes example, when making deliveries to restaurants, Ferndale Market has hauled product for Thousand Hills Cattle Company and Hidden Stream Farm, and they have done the same. Combining loads saves time and reduces carbon footprints, as well as streamlines the receiving process for chefs.
From panel discussions to “Farmer John” baseball cards, education is the common theme. Independent farmers, producers, and retailers know that they can make a living only if they teach consumers why the food they raise, produce, and sell is different. As food corporations increasingly step up their marketing efforts focused on sustainability claims, it is more important than ever for independent farmers and producers to share their stories and boldly convey points of difference.
Over the past few years, a number of people have stopped into Ferndale Market to ask what my grandparents would think of the farm’s evolution. As humble Midwesterners, they likely would be embarrassed to have a store named after them. But as hardworking farmers, who built a life and raised a family on the farm, they would be proud to know it has remained environmentally and economically sustainable into its third generation. As consumers increasingly seek out food grown locally on family farms, we hope it will remain sustainable for many years to come.
Katie Peterson will graduate from the Gastronomy program in September 2012. She writes about food and diabetes on her blog, 1LittlePrick.