Urban farmers bolster Minneapolis-St. Paul local-food push

By BOB SHAW | bshaw@pioneerpress.com

A local-food revolution is happening on your dinner plate.

“Demand for local food is going off the charts,” said Steve Shrump, master grower at J&J Distributing of St. Paul, a leader in the new local-food movement.

Shrump and an emerging generation of farmers are moving farms into cities, malls and abandoned buildings. They are boosting yields by making their farms more weatherproof and pioneering ways to market their food.

This means mushrooms from Minneapolis, mint from Maplewood, rosemary from Roseville, carrots from Como Avenue and greens from Grant Township.

Grocers say the “local” food label is poised to dethrone even the “organic” label as the ultimate sign of quality.

The farmers say their food is fresher and more nutritious. And it usually comes with a résumé — an account of how it was grown, the environmental impact and the farm’s treatment of plants, animals and workers.

Local food seems to have only one drawback — the relatively high cost. Cost control and profitability will be the next challenge for local farmers, said Paul Hugunin, program coordinator of Minnesota Grown, a state agency that promotes local food.

“Sustainability means financial sustainability,” said Hugunin.

What is Local Food?

Mike Stoick of J&J Distributing in St. Paul clips organic tomato plants to trellising strings that hang from the ceiling of a 35,000-square-foot greenhouse. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Hydroponics2

According to Minnesota Grown, there is no standard definition for “local food.” Some stores define it as food produced within 500 miles; others say it must only be processed by a local company.

But Minnesota Grown tracks the number of the state’s local growers and local-food outlets. Over the past 10 years, the number of local food growers has surged 52 percent to 1,300.

Meanwhile, farmers’ markets have nearly tripled to 182. At the same time, there has been a nine-fold increase in community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs). Today, about 90 of them deliver local food to subscribers.

“That is one of the areas where you have to go, ‘Wow!’ ’’ Hugunin said.

But why is the local food movement ripening now?

Demand for all produce is peaking, said J&J’s Shrump, amid the continuing drumbeat of doctors’ recommendations to eat more fruits and vegetables.

At the same time, he said, food is becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. “There are probably 20 cooking shows on TV now,” Shrump said.

According to University of Minnesota Horticultural Science professor John Erwin, local-food sales also are being boosted by:

  • Well-publicized food scares. With every new E. coli outbreak in a fast-food chain comes more demand for food safety — and local food is usually perceived as safer, he said.
  • News stories about global warming caused by greenhouse gases. Those gases are emitted from the fleets of produce trucks traveling thousands of miles. “We are weaning ourselves from California and Florida,” Erwin said.
  • Concern about other food-related issues — mistreatment of immigrants, low salaries for workers, abuse of farm animals, GMOs, hormones and antibiotics in meat.

The latter is why local farmers say they proudly answer questions about their food.

“Consumers want to know the food’s carbon miles, and if it’s GMO-free. They want to know where it comes from,” Shrump said.

Move Over, Organic

A flat of young basil plants to be separated and replanted is shown in a greenhouse at J&J Distributing in St. Paul. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

Anne O’Gara has seen the change in the three stores that Mississippi Market operates in St. Paul.

As the co-op’s development specialist, she surveys members annually. This year, she noticed most members said they wanted food that was “local.” For the first time she could recall, “organic” came in second.

The “local” label has eclipsed “organic,” she said, because organic food is sometimes produced by huge corporations in distant places.

“With big agriculture, you are not sure of the conditions for the workers and the overall quality,” O’Gara said. “Local food not only allows you to be closer to the source of your food, but it adds value to the local economy.”

Some of the new farmers are raising plants and fish indoors, all year round.

Dave Haider, co-founder of Urban Organics in St. Paul, puts thousands of fish into tanks, then siphons off the dirty water to feed his potted plants.

Haider can bathe his basil plants with 14 hours of light each day, cutting the growth time in half. “Demand is high,” he said.

Haider plans to boost production tenfold next summer, adding 87,000 square feet in the former Schmidt Brewery building in St. Paul. That will allow him to harvest spinach, lettuce and kale year-round.

The fish-to-plants facilities minimize the waste of water and fuel, said Dave Roeser, owner of Garden Fresh Farms, which produces fish and produce in its Maplewood headquarters.

“We now have 80 percent of our lettuce grown in the high desert in California,” he said. “Hello? Can we figure this out? How can anyone do that and think we won’t have problems?”

Some of the new farmers have found creative ways to market food.

Marketing Local

Ron Costa owns the third-generation Costa Farm based in White Bear Lake.

“Everyone wants local, local, local,” Costa said. “They want to know where it’s coming from. They want it to be 2,000 miles fresher.”

He said his local-food business is exploding because he has found three ways to sell it:

  • At some Cub Food stores, his produce is sold next to a photo and a description of the farm.
  • In summer months, he sells produce at 10 farmers’ markets.
  • His biggest growth area is his CSA program. Last summer, he delivered boxes weekly to 500 customers; next summer, he plans to deliver 1,000.

Other new farmers have developed entirely new businesses.

Last summer, Jeff Block of Forest Lake sold his grandfather’s locally raised meat at farmers’ markets. He was barraged by requests for more.

So he started Meat Healthy — a CSA for carnivores. It home-delivers local chicken, beef and pork to customers, all year long.

Block delivers 6 pounds monthly for $70. He sells free-range chicken eggs for $5 a dozen.

His accountability, he said, is the reason he can command higher-than-normal prices.

“Consumers see meat in the grocery store, and there is no background information,” Block said. “There is nothing on how the animal was raised, nothing about the chemicals used or what the animal ate.”

Climate-Controlled

Other farmers have turned to science.

J&J’s Shrump recently walked into a new high-tech greenhouse on Como Avenue in St. Paul and immediately squinted.

It seemed as bright as the inside of a sun-tanning booth. He greeted a scientist who had just tweaked the wavelengths of light to fit exactly what the thousands of tomato plants needed.

Hydroponic 1Workers glided on rail cars down the rows of plants. Computers, said Shrump, monitored the level of carbon dioxide in the air and automatically adjusted the temperature with self-closing windows and doors.

This greenhouse, said Shrump, will be the highest-density indoor tomato farm in North America and make J&J the first company to sell a metro Twin Cities-grown organic tomato year-round.

The new local-food industry is hitting a tipping point, said professor Erwin.

That’s because he is seeing restaurants brag about local ingredients. Some national food chains  tout their use of local ingredients.

And local food is becoming more mainstream because supermarkets are embracing it.

Kowalski’s Markets, for example, buys all of its herbs from a farm in Maplewood and also sponsors a CSA with a farmer in Stillwater.

The new apostles of local food have big dreams.

“I want to be able to buy a tomato,” said J&J’s Shrump, “and then be able to throw a rock and hit where it was grown.”