Commentary: Small farms, big opportunitiesWhile just a seedling next to Minnesota’s booming corn and soybean business, small- and medium-scale produce agriculture shows tremendous growth potential as an economic contributor to Greater Minnesota communities, according to Minnesota 2020’s latest report, Made in Minnesota 2011.
By: Lee Egerstrom, The Republican Eagle
While just a seedling next to Minnesota’s booming corn and soybean business, small- and medium-scale produce agriculture shows tremendous growth potential as an economic contributor to Greater Minnesota communities, according to Minnesota 2020’s latest report, Made in Minnesota 2011.
As we celebrate the end of another harvest and move toward a new year, let’s consider this industry’s economic opportunities.
Business models such as farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, pick-your-own farms, direct marketing to cooperative grocery stores, and farm-to-school programs give non-traditional growers an outlet to sell their produce and farm-raised goods.
Estimates project farmers’ markets contribute up to $64 million in net economic impact, with CSA’s contributing $10.5 million, according to Minnesota 2020 surveys and modeling analysis.
Growing farm-to-table vegetables and produce is hard work, with long hours, and few are getting rich at it; however, it’s important to countryside economics because it supplements off-farm income or retirement savings in many cases. While the numbers are small, some growers are making a fulltime living in small- and medium-scale agriculture.
According to the USDA, a farm with less than $50,000 in annual farm sales is a small farm, one with annual farm sales between $50,000 and $500,000 is a medium farm, and farms with more than $500,000 annual farm sales are large farms.
Locally grown and sold produce, Christmas trees, wreaths and specialty goods, such as wines and cheeses, keep community dollars captive. These purchases retain more than 90 cents of every dollar in regional communities, according to previous MN2020 Made in Minnesota research.
Small-scale growing also provides many immigrant farm workers a more cost effective entryway to agricultural entrepreneurship, with traditional farming’s start-up costs now topping more than $2 million.
In some rural communities, small-ag combined with the larger food processing industry has provided many new immigrants workforce entry. As such, towns are being revived by these new residents who bring capital, cultural and creative ideas to Greater Minnesota. Along main streets, some have set up retail shops, selling food and clothing.
While most immigrant-related economic activity concentrates in the Twin Cities metro, the ethnic economy represents $12 billion in statewide purchasing power, according to research citied in MN2020’s report.
MN2020’s report recommends the following public policy steps to help cultivate opportunities in non-traditional agricultural.
• The state should invest in identifying and building more farm-to-table opportunities for small- and medium-scale farmers, including ethnic growers, to supply buy local shoppers, restaurants, and grocery stores.
• Increase outreach and research to helping small- and medium-scale growers better track sales data so that state leaders could better quantify the industry’s impact on the overall ag economy.
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Lee Egerstrom is a Minnesota 2020 Economic Development fellow.