— Connie Carlson, Executive Director

Growers need markets for their products.
Chefs and Buyers are eager to buy locally.
Consumers want to eat local food.

Yet, in the Crow River Region, there are only a small number of places where you can order something locally grown off a menu or put it in your shopping cart.

The Crow River Food Council, in partnership with Wright County Extension, has been working to change that and make it easier for farmers to find markets, buyers to find farmers and consumers to enjoy it all.

Local farmers getting a tour of the Buffalo Community Middle School, the event was scheduled by CRFC board member, Sue Spike and included new Food Service Director, Penny Hoops.

Local farmers getting a tour of the Buffalo Community Middle School, the event was scheduled by CRFC board member, Sue Spike and included new Food Service Director, Penny Hoops.

In 2016, Connie Carlson, Executive Director of the Crow River Food Council, and Rod Greder, Wright County Extension Education, submitted and were awarded a grant through the MN Food Charter to bring together producers and buyers. Prior to submitting the grant, Connie and Rod had attempted to host a “Speed Dating” event for local growers and buyers. This event was advertised as an opportunity for attendees to participate in short meet-and-greet sessions to share information about their farms and businesses and spark new market relationships. Unfortunately, Rod and Connie quickly discovered that it was very challenging to get busy farmers and very busy business owners in the same place at the same time.

So, Rod and Connie went back to the drawing board to think through how to bring these two groups together in a way that worked for everyone. They determined their two biggest challenges to getting producers and buyers together were:

  1. Overcoming Mythology: Rod and Connie discovered through conversations and interviews that many small businesses don’t know or believe they can buy produce from local farmers. Licensing and regulations appear to be daunting and confusing and many small business, though interested in buying locally, don’t have the time or energy to figure it all out.
  2. Time is Money: For both growers and buyers, it is challenging to find the time in the day to attend workshops and events. For farmers, this is particularly true during the summer months. Restaurant owners and culinary professionals are equally busy and often have limited to no additional staff to allow them to take time away.

Rod and Connie devised a new plan with these two points in mind. The first part of the plan would be to host a workshop for growers and buyers interested in getting educated on buying local food. Although this didn’t tackle problem of workshops taking up time, the subject matter must’ve struck a cord because the event was very well-attended by growers and businesses.

Producers and businesses attending the Institutional Buying Event, listening to a panel of local food buyers, including the Buffalo Community Middle School.

Producers and businesses attending the Institutional Buying Event, listening to a panel of local food buyers, including the Buffalo Community Middle School.

The second part of the plan was to work with small businesses to arrange a time when they could open their doors to invite producers to visit with them, learn about their business, share information on what they are growing and start developing connections. This was the plan awarded funding by the MN Food Charter grant.

The Institutional Buying Workshop was hosted in May 2017 with approximately 40 producers and small businesses in attendance. Shortly thereafter, businesses such as Irish Blessings (Maple Lake), Rosewood (Rockford) and Harvest Moon Co-op (Long Lake) hosted events. Rod and Connie quickly discovered that summer was definitely NOT the time to host these events if they wanted producers to attend. So, they held off scheduling additional events until the winter months. Events held early in 2018 at The Abundant Kitchen (Buffalo), Buffalo Community Middle School and Baker Wilderness Reserve (Maple Plain) were well attended by farmers who were not busy in their fields.

The events were an hour and a half to stay efficient and respectful of everyone’s time. Each event included time for the business owner to give a tour of their business and talk about what they are doing. Growers were encouraged to bring samples and information on their farms, including contact information, product lists and pricing.

Iron Shoe micro greens at Harvest Moon Co-op.

Iron Shoe micro greens at Harvest Moon Co-op.

The results from these events have been slowly popping up here and there. Harvest Moon Co-op has been the most proactive, seeking garlic, potatoes and micro-greens from various producers who have connected since the event.

The Crow River Food Council is very interested in continuing to facilitate and host future events and are always interested in talking to businesses that want to meet and work with regional farmers. The grant money paid for lunches at the events, provided by the business (which was intended to be another perk–farmers got to try the food!). However, some of the events were hosted in the late afternoon and did not include a lunch, making the events very affordable.

Future work in this area will include hosting additional events, sponsoring produce handling workshops and finalizing a local directory of producers that will be housed on the Crow River Food Council website.

Have a suggestion for a business we should connect with? Know of a business doing great local food work? Send us a note. We’d love to hear from you!

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