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By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


The strength of local foods

Posted 2/03/15 (Tue)

This coming weekend is the North Dakota Farmers’ Market and Growers Association convention in Mandan.

It’s an opportunity for those of us involved with farmers’ markets, CSAs, roadside stands and produce wholesalers to celebrate our industry, mingle with our peers from across the state and look to the future.

And our future looks brighter than ever. In the 10 years I’ve been involved with this association, the number of farmers’ markets in the state has increased by 400 percent.

Three things are driving this incredible statistic: vendors are coming to understand that marketing produce can be a profitable venture, the state Ag Department has created incentives to make growing vegetables and fruits more attractive and the biggest reason of all, the demand for local foods.

Consumer demand for local and organic has far outpaced production and many of us, even in the industry, thought that 20 percent sales increases annually were pretty generous.

But this has been a trend that started in 2002 and hasn’t let up. It’s not a fluke, it’s not a generous statistic. Consumer demand for local foods is growing that rapidly.

North Dakota has a lot to be proud of in this arm of agriculture. You can drop in to just about any principal community, and some villages, and find farmers’ markets with vegetables, fruits, baked goods, honey and crafts, and that includes Kenmare.

The Scherbenskes have held market in the Downtown Square for 10 years now that I’m aware of and we should all support their effort and here’s why.

No. 1) The Sherbenskes fit that mold of the farmers’ market vendor and  personify what local foods are all about. No. 2) When consumers are seen shopping at a farmers’ market, it brings more vendors, which in turn, brings more consumers.  And No. 3) You, the consumer, are getting a superior product that is fresher, more stable and when making a purchase, you can put a face with the product.

And that may be one of the good reasons local foods is growing so rapidly. People are becoming desperate to know where their food is coming from. Ever since the mad cow disease epidemic in England in the 1990s, consumers have become savvy about their food purchases.

It’s true, local foods is sweeping across North Dakota just as it did many years ago in California. A gargantuan increase in the number of farmers’ markets, a gradual increase in the number of CSAs, more roadside stands and on-the-farm sales, school FFA groups are getting involved and many have greenhouses, large public schools and some hospitals have begun serving local foods and most recently, restaurants are getting involved with the latest trend, “Farm to Fork,” in which chefs get their produce, meat, poultry, dairy and even fish, all from local farmers.

But this agricultural utopia is not without its challenges. No. 1 on the list is the lack of producers.

There is so much demand right now for locally grown and organic, you can all but name your price and get it.

I’ve often said that my only regret is I wish I had more property because if I did, it would easily be utilized. As it stands, North Star Farms, which Ilene and I operate, can support up to 65 CSA families with about 15 to 20 percent sales at farmers’ market. If we had more property and employees, we could easily double that number.

No. 2) As producers, we’re getting older and fall into that demographic of all farmers. I’m aging, the Scherbenskes are aging and there’s really nobody up-and-coming to replace us, yet.

We desperately need young producers to get energized for this industry. I bought into this business when I was 43 years old and still love it as I come up on 56 years. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started when I was 18.

 And that’s my message as outgoing president of the North Dakota Farmers’ Market and Growers Association, if you’re a student, get involved. If you have some means of growing produce, take advantage of it. Even if it means growing a tomato plant on a window sill, you’ll thoroughly enjoy it and “catch the bug.”

Local foods is here to stay and no matter how cheap the big corporations make our food en masse, the demand for local foods will continue because consumers will seek out what they know is better quality.

During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover said the two industries that will survive in the worst of times are food and liquor. That means local foods will be stable for a long time to come.