Licensed kitchen to cook up new markets for family farmers
Minnesota's Red River Valley, with some of the most fertile soil in the state, is home to a diverse cropping system that includes soybeans, corn, wheat, potatoes and sugar beets. Within this strong agricultural industry, new levels of diversity are emerging. Noreen Thomas is one of the family farmers focused on local food production and its role in sustaining rural communities.
Thomas lives 20 miles north of Moorhead and has seen populations of many small communities declining and families with small farms struggling to sell their produce and food products. An organic farmer herself, Thomas has worked with the University of Minnesota Extension's Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership on a number of "food systems" projects to help reverse these trends and now she's armed with a $75,000 Bush Fellowship Grant that will go far to help those efforts.
Thomas is using the grant to help a local community build a licensed commercial kitchen that can be used by small farmers to process their fruit and vegetables, and package them for sale in grocery stores, food coops and schools, and to caterers. Currently, most farmers don't have access to a licensed kitchen, which is required by state health regulations, and therefore are restricted to selling their products at farmer's markets. A licensed commercial kitchen allows farmers, for example, to can their produce, make jams, jellies, sauces and spices, package sliced vegetables, and bottle honey.
"It's not convenient for consumers if these products are only available at farmer's markets," Thomas said, adding that canning, cooking or packaging produce can extend the shelf life, especially during the winter when senior citizens and others are limited in how far they can travel to buy groceries.
Thomas' plan is to help a community raise money to buy the kitchen equipment and renovate a building. She would then turn the keys over to the city, which would manage, maintain and rent it to farmers. The kitchen would also generate jobs when time-strapped farmers need help processing or cooking their fruit and vegetables. Thomas sees an opportunity for local residents to trade their time for food products.
Once the kitchen is up and running, Thomas will still be involved with the farmers and producers as their liaison to University Extension and other agencies. She says this will improve the flow of information by creating a single point of contact for farmers who have questions or are in need of resources.
"We're finally seeing some young people coming back to live in these small rural communities, and most are farming but they're growing vegetables and herbs that they can't process and market," Thomas said. "The kitchen will help them, but it has to be sustainable."
Thomas is one of 30 2012 Bush Fellowship grant recipients, each of whom was awarded between $30,000 and $75,000. Anyone who has an idea for a project that practices leadership and improves the quality of life in a community can apply for a Bush Fellowship grant. Each year, the Bush Foundation accepts applications from throughout Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. See eligibility requirements and selection criteria.
RSDP Northwest highlights
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By providing expertise and more than 30 mini-grants to community groups, RSDP is a key partner in the University of Minnesota, Crookston's Connecting Children and Nature initiative. From children's nutrition to a high school's watershed experience, meet the people behind some of the projects.
Learn more about the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership.