Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Study: Food production could drive local economy

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/4/18

REGIONAL— What if the introduction of a major new industry to the Iron Range could create hundreds, even thousands, of new jobs, build local resource wealth, and boost the long-term sustainability …

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Study: Food production could drive local economy

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REGIONAL— What if the introduction of a major new industry to the Iron Range could create hundreds, even thousands, of new jobs, build local resource wealth, and boost the long-term sustainability of the region’s economy, all while improving the health of residents?

Would it justify local efforts to develop and grow such an industry?

That is one of the questions raised as a result of a new analysis of the potential economic development impact stemming from the rebirth of local food production in a broad swath of northeastern Minnesota.

The study, “Local Food as an Economic Driver,” co-written by David Abazs, a longtime farmer and local foods advocate based near Finland, and Ryan Pesch of the University of Minnesota Extension, examined three different scenarios to determine the economic effects of boosting local food production in the Taconite Tax Relief Area. That includes much of St. Louis, Lake, Cook, and Itasca counties. The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board provided funding to the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, which commissioned the report.

Abazs discussed the study’s conclusions during a public meeting held in late September in Mt. Iron. About 50 people, many of them members of the IRPS, were in attendance to hear from Abazs and discuss ways to help grow the local food economy, as envisioned in the new report.

“As we look forward, let’s imagine what the world could look like with local food produced in a way that lifted farmers up, and that our food is healthy, organic, and produced here, and the money stays here.”

Abazs remains optimistic that the local foods movement will begin to take root in northeastern Minnesota. “As we dive into this, eventually the temperature will get just right for us and the change will happen,” he said, and for many of the same reasons that drew him into the movement. “I got into farming because I had children and I wanted them to have good, healthy food and I was so poor I couldn’t afford it. So, I farmed and could provide them the food.”

The report, not surprisingly, determined that the economic impact of local food production would be dependent on the extent to which the region’s residents opted to purchase locally-produced food. The study determined that the 68,428 households located within the TTRA currently spend a total of $469 million annually on food. Residents spent a majority of that, or $262 million, on food bought for consumption at home, while they spent another $207 million for dining away from home.

If residents spent just 20 percent of those dollars for foods that were locally-produced, the region would retain $51 million that currently leaves the region to pay for food and create anywhere from 248-694 jobs, depending on which economic prediction model is used. The study’s authors acknowledge that a 20-percent target is ambitious, but believe it is attainable. It is the same target established in the Superior Compact, which is an effort founded by Abazs that seeks to reach the 20-percent goal by 2020 in the western Lake Superior region. The compact has support from a number of local restaurants and grocery stores, which have committed to boosting their purchasing of locally-produced foods.

An even greater focus on the use of local foods could substantially increase the economic impact of the agricultural sector. The study concludes that farmers and livestock producers in the region could theoretically produce as much as 83 percent of what they called the Standard American Diet, or up to 100 percent of a healthier diet, which the authors called the Range Health Diet, that was limited to foods that could be grown in the region.

Under such scenarios, the region’s agriculture sector could employ as many as 3,500 workers in food production and relating food processing, while retaining as much as $250 million in the local economy annually. Currently, more than 99 percent of the nearly half-billion dollars that the region’s residents spend on food each year leaves the area economy, going to farmers, food processors, and other related businesses located outside the region.

Plentiful farmland

While not currently known for its agricultural production, the area at one time produced much of its food locally, and could easily do so once again, based on available land. “To meet the regional demand for food, we estimate that the region would require between 122,410 and 164,057 acres in food production based on two alternate diet scenarios,” the report’s authors conclude. “Currently, about 2.1 million acres of agricultural land is available within the TTRA,” notes the study.

Moving forward

While the number of small farming operations in the region has been on the rise in recent years, the study concludes that more systematic investments designed to encourage growth of the sector will be needed to begin to make significant strides. The study’s recommendations include:

 A public relations campaign aimed at building public awareness and establishing the goal of producing more food locally as an important regional objective that the public can support through their buying decisions.

Focus funding assistance on farming infrastructure and efficiency. While the report finds substantial demand for locally-produced food, the authors’ interviews with area growers point to the need for basic upgrades to equipment such as post-harvest equipment like refrigeration or packing equipment which will increase capacity and efficiency of vegetable operators in the region. Assistance for farms could also include help in obtaining land for new growers such as tax-forfeited land (and other lands) set aside through lease and purchase options or student loan forgiveness program for young folks committed to farming to the region.

 Building local processing capability to add value to the foods raised in the regioin as well as developing methods to efficiently move food products throughout the region. “A reasonable next step would be to identify current production clusters and logical distribution maps and scenarios to efficiently move products from farm to market.”

 Providing technical assistance to growers to assist them in improving the quality and management of their soil as well as providing business planning and development expertise and assistance with financial management.

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