Elegant, Local, Commodity Agriculture- Lessons to be Learned

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Clinton Grain Elevator.JPG
Farmers' Cooperative Grain Elevator- Clinton, Minnesota


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.

Clinton grain elevator Sandy.JPG
Business office of the Cooperative Elevator

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.

6 Comments

This is a great blog with a lot of good information. Keep up the good work, Kathy!!

Good for you. These thoughts are right on themark.

We just finished the corn last night so I want to share some insights on coops before I head out to clean up to mess. Coops to me are such a valuable thing,- I learned this the hard way after closing one down that my Grandfather started when he was a young man. Most of the time they are used to do things that Corporations can't find enough profit in. Its a true example of people working together. (actually I closed down three coops- in 1-2-3 order, being a board member) Not a very fun thing, all supply coops and all suffered from unpaid Accounts Recievable. Last month we had our Annual meeting for our Ethanol plant here (Al-corn) and some members are unhappy, they want to pull the cash reserves and have the money paid out to the members. This has been one of the most sucessful plants any where around- Board, Management, Workers have contributed to this. What gets me is I saw a couple of guys there, (that want the money back), approched me when we were closing down this first one (the one my Grandpa started) They had the guts to ask me " Is it true that people are not paying there bills? I mean it won't hurt any body anyway will it? This place is closing anyway!" they had a rather large bill unpaid =HUMMM What's wrong with this picture.
Your right to try to work with the coop, if you can. Some have taken on the roll of "follow the big operator" tho. ES

ES- it seems to me that there is some value in being way out here on the prairie. Maybe all the big operators are too busy to bother us- small as we are.

Small can be good and protective- I hope. And being too old fashion and loyal to the community to bother to change.

I really like the coop elevator.

Sorry you've had to have a hand in closing some of them down.

Yes, local foods are certainly more than produce and specialty crops. Too often there is a rift between the "commodity folks" and the "sustainable ag folks"...if we even hope to have those grains, beans, feeds available for consumption in a more localized economy, we sustainable aggie types have to stop overlooking those with the know-how to make this happen. Amen.

As always local is best, but now consumers want to have produce all year round which is why you would import apples from New Zealand-so you have to utilize the local services better

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This page contains a single entry by Kathryn Draeger published on April 17, 2010 5:53 AM.

Local Grocery Stores Make March Meals Festive, Healthy, Affordable was the previous entry in this blog.

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