Farmers in southeastern Minnesota hope to capitalize on a growing interest in local foods, and have launched a trucking business to haul their produce direct to office buildings in the Twin Cities.
Jack Hedin owns Featherstone Farm, an organic farm in Rushford. In the cold sorting room, workers sort potatoes, leeks and other produce in boxes and weigh them.
Hedin said they have produce from Rock Spring Farm and more on the way from other farms, as well as several pallets of his own produce.
Hedin started the trucking business to solve a problem. He had a lot of people asking for his produce, but they wanted CSA boxes, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture.
In CSA, customers commit to buy a farm's produce for the season. Every week they get a box of produce directly from the farm. The problem is how to get all that food to all of those customers.
"By their very nature, CSA members are scattered all over a metropolitan area and they pick up at many small sites," Hedin said. "They don't want to be backed up at a warehouse somewhere in line with a forklift to get their produce."
Until this year, the lack of transportation hurt his business. Hedin had to turn away customers because he couldn't get produce to them fresh enough, and his farm alone didn't do enough business to cover the cost of a system of trucks and refrigeration.
But Hedin realized other farms were in the same bind. Together they could justify trucking vegetables to the Twin Cities.
"You see between three, four pallets from Rock Spring, three or four pallets from Keewatin and three or four of our own, we consolidate those all [and] put them in stacks according to destination," Hedin said.
Five days a week, a truck drives produce to a warehouse in the Twin Cities. Then vans distribute the produce to spots around the metro area according to a schedule.
On Wednesdays, for instance, Hedin sends a van of produce to Fourth Ave. in downtown Minneapolis, right at the Hennepin County Government Center.
"Three-thousand government employees in one building," he said. "There are two hooded parking meters right down there and she pulls up the van, opens the door and sets up a little table."
It's uncommon to buy melons that actually ripened on the vine, or tomatoes that travelled just 150 miles to reach customers instead of 1,500. Mark Muller, with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, said more people want that.
Muller's group advocates for locally grown and organic food production. Muller said consumers worry about their food's safety and its carbon footprint.
"The question has come up again and again, are we in a little bit of a fad here? Like the pet rock phenomenon," Muller said. "People are going back to eating McDonald's and having these long distribution systems, and get sick of the local foods movement. I think this is a real shift that's happening here. We are going to continue having this interest and these are real market opportunities for farmers."
Jean Kinsey, however, thinks it's a fad. Kinsey co-directs the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota. She said the interest in local food may last, but she's skeptical that it will ever be a significant part of the market.
"It's probably useful to know that organic food has been growing at double-digit rates for several years, and in total still occupies less than 3 percent of the total food sales," Kinsey said.
Still, more farms and more consumers are participating in CSA than ever before. In 1989, two farms distributed CSA boxes in the Twin Cities. Today, 43 farms distribute boxes to about 5,000 people.
Jack Hedin said that market could be even larger if there were more trucking systems like his.
"This is so necessary, not only for our own farms, but also for the future of this type of small-scale family farming in the future," Hedin said. "Because my belief is there would be a lot more farms like ours if this trucking thing were really solved."
Hedin said as more people taste the quality of produce like his, he believes more people will demand and pay for local food.