Local farms need local support
On one of the first hot days of the year, Andrew and Margo Hanson-Pierre sat on the deck overlooking their farm, listening to the birds chirp.
"The soundtrack's amazing," Andrew said.
The Hannon-Pierres rent the land for their Clover Bee organic produce farm near River Falls, and share the acreage with two other farms. They're not the only ones in the area. The two can rattle off a list of others just up and down the road, not to mention those in the wider region.
"In these 10 miles, you can come up with a whole dinner," Margo said.
She wishes people would.
"You've got to eat the view," she said.
Small local farms like the Hannon-Pierres' and Mike and Jody Lenz's Threshing Table Farm in New Richmond rely on local support.
"It definitely depends on local people saying, 'This is important to me. I want to know my farmer. I want to know where my food comes from,'" Jody said. "And putting their money where their mouth is and supporting us that way."
For the Borner Farm Project in Prescott, the farm would not exist without local support. Diane Webster started the farm nine years ago as a community project to not only grow food, but bring people together.
"You put out that call and people show up," Webster said. "It's amazing."
When Wisconsin residents think of supporting local, they typically mean in the state, according to a study by University of Wisconsin River Falls Professor David Trechter. The one exception, he said, is in western Wisconsin, where the definition extends across the border to Minnesota.
Local customers for local farmers
As Community Supported Agriculture, these local farms get most of their support through crop shares, which are shares of the farmer's crop that a member purchases. Local farms also sell their crops at area farmer's markets, co-ops and local restaurants.
Threshing Table currently has 100 local shareholders in New Richmond, Hudson, Somerset, River Falls, Osceola and Stillwater. The farm is also supported by 100 shares from a food service company in the Twin Cities.
Some specialty restaurants in the RiverTown Multimedia region have special relationships with growers and producers. Greg Jaworski, chef and owner of Nosh Restaurant & Bar in Lake City, said he finds the most enjoyment and success in using quality ingredients.
"I go to farmers market every Saturday," Jaworski said. "I try to do as much as a I can local."
His philosophy is to let the market dictate what's on his menu. He said he expects to find sugar snap peas, green beans and asparagus in early June and a tremendous mix of greens and lettuces picked that morning.
"It's so beautiful and perfect and fresh, I'm three-quarters of the way there — as long as I can cook it, season it, treat it with respect," he said.
He finds it makes the most sense to keep meats local too to ensure freshness and quality. For example, he's put pork from Hidden Stream Farm near Elgin, Minn., on the table for a dozen years. Tangled Bank Farm, which sits between Lake City and Wabasha. Minn., provides him with grass-fed beef and lamb.
Ruth Stoyke, owner of Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis., relies on several local farmers in the Pepin, Stockholm and Nelson area. She said the Harbor View kitchen uses local ingredients as much as possible.
"The best food is the freshest food," she said. "It's not being shipped across the country."
Harbor View operates seasonally — mid-March through November. Stoyke said Harbor View uses local tomatoes, lettuce greens, garlic, onions, corn, squash, eggs and lamb.
Though they've worked with a few in the area, Margo and Andrew said it is sometimes difficult to find interested restaurants.
"They have this attitude of being small locally owned businesses but they themselves aren't really educated on what it means to support a local farm," Margo said.
In addition to farm shares and sales to co-ops, the Borner Farm has its own on-site market. Webster said though all their outlets are necessary, the market is the most important. This allows them to connect directly with the people they serve, one of the reasons the farm is successful.
"That's where we have one-on-one conversations with our customers," Webster said.
Price vs. value
When looking for local support, small farms face a lot of obstacles with inventory and pricing.
Unlike grocery stores, what they have is what is available with the season.
"In contrast, pretty much any month of the year that you go into a grocery store, you're going to find strawberries," Trechter said.
For many, this is a deterrent. For Andrew, eating with the season is one of the best parts of eating local.
"It really helps you appreciate things," he said. "Once they're gone, they're gone."
Eating local foods requires valuing food, and prioritizing it within a life and a budget, Andrew said.
The cost is one of the biggest challenges small farms face. Andrew said availability and value are not the same thing for small farmers that have to compete with large farms.
"How much we need to charge vs. how much they can charge," Andrew said.
Many people want to help their neighbors and community, but struggle with affordability.
"You're living paycheck to paycheck, how do you balance those?" Trechter said.
Finding a way to do so can improve the community. Large corporate farms have economic efficiencies, but Trechter said there are economic benefits to having an array of farms of all sizes. He said some studies have shown that small farms have an impact on the vibrancy of a community.
When people support local producers, the money is more likely to stay in the local economy.
"You have to be invested with where you live," Andrew said.
Margo said the more local support farmers see, the more likely they are to continue to live there and support the community themselves.
"We would love to see more customers in River Falls, then we would stay here," she said.
Lenz said farmers stay in their communities for a reason — they want to feed those close to home.
"I felt like people need to eat well on this side of the river, too," Lenz said. "That made it much easier to have local support because we are part of this community."
Farmers are a vital part of developing a resilient community, Lenz said, because a resilient community feeds itself. The Threshing Table Farms started with 10 acres of their own land, but have had to rent another 8 acres from one of their neighbors in order to fill their quota. The family grows everything from arugula to eggplant to tomatoes.
"We need to have strong support of local foods so these farms can make it and continue to feed the community," Lenz said.
For Webster, these farms also serve the community, in the same way the community supports them. She said Borner provides not only food, but a commons where people can come together and show support.
"What I was hoping to do when we started this nine years ago was to create a community I imagined and I was not finding for myself," she said.
This support can have far-reaching effects.
"If you invest in your community and you want it to be vibrant, you're making the world in general a better place," Andrew said.
Do the homework
Education plays a key role in developing this local support. Trechter said methods like mouth-to-mouth and the media have an influence on how people shop and eat.
Many people in this age are disconnected from what agriculture looks like, both the Hannon-Pierres and Lenz said. Andrew said this means people should put the same time and effort into researching food and farming as they would for any other product.
"Learn a little bit more about what you're getting," he said.
Farms are more than just a place to get food, Lenz said, and people need to understand that buying from them means supporting their family farm and its practices.
"Those that get it support what we do,' she said. "We don't have enough that totally get it."
For those that want to do their homework, Andrew and Margo said they have an open-door policy at their farm. Customers and anyone else are welcome to stop by and get their hands dirty, or just pull up a lawn chair to enjoy the view, listen to the soundtrack of the land and watch their small farm at work.