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New Study: Local Food as an Economic Driver

A new report released by the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability shows that the potential economic impact of local food in the region is great. It’s called “Local Food as an Economic Driver: A Study of the Potential Impact of Local Foods in the Taconite Assistance Area.” Authors of the study are David Abazs from Round River Farm and Ryan Pesch from University of Minnesota Extension.

Marlise Riffel, from Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, edited the study. She and David Abazs joined Maggie Montgomery and Katie Carter on Northern Community Radio’s Wednesday Morning Show. Marlise revealed some of the numbers. “Let’s say that each of us made a commitment to buying 20% local. On the Iron Range that would generate somewhere between 250 and 700 jobs, and it would keep $51 million that we now spend out-of-the-area for food; it would keep it in our area. If we went all the way to 100% local—we grew and purchased everything here—we’re talking 1,450 to 3,500 jobs and $256 million. Now that’s kind of an end point. But with just a 20% commitment we could really generate not just growers’ jobs but all those things that support keeping livestock, keeping chickens, having specialty crops and vegetables in high tunnels—all those have economic spillover effects that are positive.”

Marlise described how the idea for the report came about. “I was attending the agriculture subcommittee of the Recharge the Range effort, and the discussion came around to local food, local agriculture, farming. I asked if anyone had seen David Abazs’ 2010 study, and people weren’t familiar with it, so I brought it to the group. We started talking about it and then we were able to actually bring David Abazs to speak to the group. And that sort of spurred interest, and the IRPS [Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability] proposed hiring David and Ryan to carry out this study, and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation department funded it.”

David Abazs has been farming near Lake Superior in the Finland area for many years. He describes the farmland in the area covered by the study as “a diversity of land. Our region is blessed with different types of terrains; some really good soils in areas, and a mixed forest, so we have a really good, diverse area to farm in. Some areas lend themselves to grain-type production; other areas lend themselves to smaller gardens or more intensive vegetable production. That would be the case here in Finland.”

David says the land is capable of feeding a healthy diet to everyone who lives here. “Not only is it capable, we have more land than we need cleared and open, and above-average soil, so we’re actually—on our family farm—growing on soils that wouldn’t have even been included as viable soils for the study. So we know we can grow a lot of food on small acreage, even on marginal land if you improve it. And that’s part of it: how do we regenerate the area; regenerate the soils so we can build a viable food system both in how much we can produce and how economically viable it is for young farmers and new farmers and old farmers?

“Right now on the IRRRB [the amount of food we grow and consume locally] is less than 1 percent. So we have great potential. Historically it was quite a bit of a farming area. We’ve a huge market out there; a huge potential to grow our economy.”

According to Abazs, some of the best foods people can eat to increase their local consumption are vegetables. “That’s a really good way to start because the margin to grow vegetables is better for the farmer, and the challenge of getting vegetables that are fresh and organic to our region is great. We’ve been eating sweet corn on our farm for the last couple weeks. The pumpkins are already ripe here, which is good because it sounds like frost is coming soon. [We can grow] anything you can imagine, minus some of the things you would expect. We can’t grow peanuts here, we can’t grow (in any real economically viable way) sweet potatoes; but anything from potatoes to chard, to sweet corn, to beans, to dry beans. Our plate would be full.”

The study looked into what people in the area actually eat and what they might eat on a local diet. If folks choose to continue eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), about 83% of that diet could be supplied locally. About 17% by weight would come from elsewhere. “But if people ate the Range Healthy Diet we could grow 100%,” says Abazs. “As you can imagine, they are different diets—between the SAD diet and the Range Healthy Diet. The new diet has more vegetables—you know, you’ve heard the story—more fruit, more nuts; in our case nuts are challenging, so more seeds. What you’re talking about is a healthier diet. Frankly, if you’re eating local—which most of our food on the farm we eat locally—I gained 30 pounds over 30 years eating local food! So it doesn’t mean we’ll have a healthy diet but that’s where we’re aiming and what our study looked at: two different types of diets.”

Marlise added, “We are embarking on a fairly major PR campaign about eating local. And I think part of it is introducing people to the notion of seasonal eating. At the farmers’ market in Virginia we have people showing up in June asking for sweet corn. So we have to talk about what ripens when, and do some food demonstrations to illustrate some really cool things that you can do with stuff that’s ripe at the time. We’ve found a lot of interest in eating local and a lot of curiosity about how to prepare those foods. And we also have some really cool Iron Range traditions: porketta and potica and squeaky cheese, and those can be made from local ingredients.”

David Abazs and Marlise Riffel will take the study to a public gathering in Virginia on September 23rd at 6:30 p.m. at Messiah Lutheran Church. “We’re having a big gathering and we’re calling it ‘Local Food—Let’s Do It!’,” says Marlise. “We’ll provide sandwiches and beverages. We’re inviting everybody who has any interest at all—whether you’re a producer, or a consumer, or a processor, or a distributor, or an institution who’s looking to buy local. We’d like to gather people together to talk about the next steps. The report actually recommends a major PR campaign to promote local food production and consumption, and that’s what we’re up to right now. Rutabaga Project, which is a local food access project, which IRPS administers with the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, is going to be taking on the bulk of this initial PR effort.”

You can find a copy of the report on the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability website.