I was at a meeting with 70 of the best and the brightest the other day- working through how we build robust, economically successful local food systems. For example, how do we get apples from the local apple orchard into our grocery stores and schools- in place of apples imported from New Zealand?
One of the brilliant, well intention people at the Symposium led us through a thought exercise about how we could put a mental string around the grain elevators and pull them down. This was to be, I think, emblematic of replacing commodity agriculture with a local and regional food system.
So I went to visit the people who run the local grain elevator. Meet Sandy, Greg and Ron. Located in our small town (of 450 souls) the grain elevator is an independent, farmer owned cooperative. It is free to market and sell the locally grown grain to whomever they please. Every week of the year farmers bring in grain that to sell through the elevator. Grain is sold in 5,000 bushel increments - for corn that would be about 30 acres of yield.
When I walked into Sandy's office she had two computers going at the same time- one was the real time commodity prices flashing on a screen the other was a live webinar on the USDA "Acreage and Planting Intentions Estimate." Farmers confer with Sandy about what they should plant.
In the 21 years that Sandy has been marketing the grain grown by our local farmers she has seen a few shifts:
1) a 50% decrease in farmers. In particular, she talks about the loss of young farmers with sadness- "it would be wonderful to see land [up for sale] going to young farmers" and,
2) that in 21 years her grain marketing has gone from global to local. In the early days, Sandy was selling grain that was shipped to the "coasts" and Canada. Now Big Stone County grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) are bought, used, and processed locally- for ethanol in Big Stone City, SD and for bean meal in Dawson, MN. This shift to local outlets has made Big Stone County more profitable for producers- less transportation costs.
I talked to Sandy about whether the elevator could handle local food grains- like barley, edible dry beans, flax, quinoa. That's not so likely or easy with the commodity system they have set up. But I bet that Sandy could do anything she put her mind to.
When kids raise goats for 4-H - where do they go to find out how and where to sell them and how the goat "market" works? They go to Sandy at the grain elevator. What's more, if you need goat feed- you just ask Ron and he'll help load it into your truck, or in my case a minivan.
So maybe instead of trying to mentally pull down that grain elevator, we should be finding the lessons learned in this elegant, locally owned and operated system. Maybe, even we should be working with them.