Community Opinion

Upside Down Under

Think tanks dig into details….. During the month of October there were two meetings that have laid the groundwork for the future of small farms in North Dakota.

By Marvin Baker

The first meeting took place on the campus of Dakota College in Bottineau, and the other was held in the Jamestown Arts Center. The first meeting was sponsored by the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College, and the second was sponsored by the North Dakota Local Food Development Alliance.

Both think tanks examined the outlook of small, vegetable farms in North Dakota, how they relate to t he E ntrepreneurial C enter f or Horticulture at Dakota College and where does this industry go in the next 10 years.

This quiet revolution has been going on since Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson in 2005 started an initiative to build farmers markets across North Dakota. The industry has seen impressive growth. In 2005, there were 14 farmers markets. Now there are 56 across North Dakota.

What these two meetings attempted to accomplish was to generate ideas then get into the details about how to make it all work in the coming decade.

Some of the people represented at either or both meetings were college professors, USDA personnel, North Dakota Farmers Union, vegetable growers, state legislators, retired merchants, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, economic development people, NDSU Extension and people representing the Native American tribes in North Dakota.

It used to be that when land owners sold property, it was all or nothing. Lately they’ve begun to split some of that to benefit the growth of small vegetable farms.

As a result, 2-15 acre farms have been popping up across the state to support a serious demand for locally grown and organic food.

More and more, consumers want to know where their food comes from so they are embracing the fact that a lot more produce can be grown in the state than most people realize. It doesn’t all have to be shipped from Oxnard, Calif., or Yuma, Ariz., all the time.

Organic consumption has been increasing 20 percent annually since 2002, and both these meetings also attempted to channel some of that energy as well.

Some of the ideas that came out of both meetings include:

• Communication: It was agreed that communication through newsletters, radio or whatever, be ramped up so more of the state’s residents are aware of what is going on with regard to fresh garden produce. It was also agreed that the ECH should better market itself because there is a gem here on the prairie, and there aren’t a lot of people who are knowledgeable or even aware of it.

• Collaboration of several agencies and organizations: This means talking outside of our own realm to better understand the complexities of 21st century agriculture in North Dakota. It means having a partnership with production agriculture to ensure the small farms are sustainable since consumer demand is steering itself in that direction.

• Technology: The approximately 90 people who attended both meetings believe modern technology can better link farmers and consumers together so it’s a win-win for both. It also takes into account using existing infrastructure to increase supply for the growing demand, such as using warm waste water from the state’s power plants to heat greenhouses for winter growing.

• Increased visibility: This idea is mostly for farmers market vendors so that more people are aware of the products right under their noses. It’s true that a lot of the farmers markets are in small towns and those in the surrounding communities aren’t aware of what’s being sold week to week or even that a farmers market exists 10 or 15 miles down the road.

• Food deserts: For a long time large swaths of North Dakota have been considered food deserts, in other words, lack of food in a given radius. The two groups separately tackled this issue and what it comes down to is fresh, locally grown food needs to be grown or get transported to places where it currently is unavailable.

Those are just some of the main topics that reflect a need across the state. That’s why subject matter experts were called upon so collectively these issues can be solved hopefully sooner than later.

There are also tremendous market opportunities for growers of everything from sweet corn to okra. As a result, both groups are hopeful that the younger generation will take a serious look at this because this industry will continue to grow.