Food, Farming & Relationships—A Love Story

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When food system pioneer Ken Meter set out to do an analysis of an entire state’s food system, he figured he’d unearth some impressive statistics and gain a few insights into the complicated nature of producing, processing, transporting and marketing all those fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products.

Indeed, the report that resulted from his research, “Mapping the Minnesota Food Industry, does present some startling numbers. For example, the state’s households buy more than $12 billion of food annually and Minnesota has 80,000 farms and 17,000 food-related businesses that hire a combined 316,000 employees. Of the state’s top 20 manufacturing firms, seven are food manufacturers and distributors, and these seven earn $114 billion of revenue each year—that represents 65 percent of all sales made by the state’s leading firms.

But when Meter looked beneath the hard numbers and interviewed some of the most successful players in Minnesota’s food industry—everybody from small processors to CEOs of major companies—he was surprised to gain an insight about the key role one “soft” element plays in the success of businesses of all types and sizes.

“What really struck me was how each business told me their survival depends on building strong human relationships,” Meter told me in an Ear to the Ground podcast. “They told me, ‘If we have loyalty from our suppliers and customers, if they understand we’re going to have tough times and may have some dilemmas to face, we’ll have a stronger business than if we’re simply addressing the bottom line.’ “

Healing a Sick System
Meter is fascinated by the role relationship building could play in creating a food and farming system that produces healthier food and that builds a more economically and environmentally sustainable community. And change is needed, judging by some of the other statistics highlighted in “Mapping the Minnesota Food Industry.” For example, two of every three Minnesotans are overweight; nearly a third of all residents are obese. The annual cost of treating obesity-related diseases in the state is an estimated $1.3 billion. Food-related medical conditions have become a leading cause of death, rivaling tobacco in its impact.

The farm economy is sick as well. Despite doubling productivity, Minnesota farmers earned $1.1 billion less from production in 2007 (the latest year ag statistics were available when Meter did his study) than they did in 1969. In 2007, Minnesota farmers spent $465 million more in production expenses than they earned by selling their products.

Nationally, farm income rose in 2008, due to speculators who bid up the price of grain, but these prices collapsed a year later. Even when the farm economy was relatively good in 2008, national net cash farm income was lower in 2008 than it was (in inflation-adjusted dollars) in 1929. Net cash income for farmers fell to zero in 2009. There was a slight rebound in 2010, but overall income was still less than it was in 2008 (it will be interesting to note how the current spike in grain prices will affect farm income).

Meter’s Minneapolis-based Crossroads Resource Center has done 56 studies over the past decade that reveal how rural communities throughout the country are losing billions of dollars by relying on a farm economy that exports massive amounts of raw commodities like corn and soybeans while importing highly-processed foods to eat.

His analyses show that “community based food systems” — clusters of business and civic networks that produce and distribute a variety of foods to loyal local customers — could build wealth and connection in our communities, providing a solid foundation for sustainable economic development. In addition, such systems could encourage people to turn away from a diet that’s reliant on unhealthy, highly-processed foods.

Community leaders often embrace Meter’s conclusions, but then raise a hard question: how do we go about making changes within a system so huge and complicated? After all, despite the exploding interest in community based food systems — food co-ops in Minnesota alone now have annual sales of $129 million, according to Cooperative Development Services — the state’s community-based food trade has a long way to go before making a major dent in the overall economy.

Consider this: in 2007, Minnesota farmers sold $23 million worth of food directly to eaters. The good news is direct sales represent a bigger market than either the oat, apple or sheep markets, and are nearly as large as sunflower sales. Direct sales are also rising faster than sales of other farm commodities. But Cub Foods and Cargill aren’t exactly irrelevant just yet — $23 million represents only  0.3 percent of the total farm commodity market in the state.

Gaining Leverage
Meter says one way to make those changes is through the strategic use of “levers” that can cause larger shifts in the food industry. Such a method can accomplish a lot with fewer resources. For example, if you want to move your hand from point A to point B, you can either move the muscles in your hand or move your shoulder. As Meter explains it, the latter strategy is subtler and takes less energy, but it’s just as effective at moving the hand.

If your goal is to produce beef, you can either apply brute force to animal husbandry by hauling energy-intensive corn to cattle in a feedlot (and in turn hauling out manure as a waste product), or you can manipulate a subtle “lever” by planting grass and allowing the animals to rotationally graze.

Such a use of levers can produce a multitude of positive outcomes. For example, by raising beef on grass rather than a corn-intense diet, a farmer can provide a perennial plant system that protects the soil and water, and produces food that is leaner and less likely to contain harmful bacteria.

“In this single act of planting grass pasture for cows and cattle, you get all these outcomes that are really positive,” says Meter. “It’s a very dense way of thinking and operating a farm.”

The relationship building Meter uncovered while doing his “Mapping” research could be a key lever in building a more sustainable food and farming system, he says. Farmers who direct-market already know the value of building relationships with everyone from the local meat locker owner to the patron of a farmers’ market.

“And for community based food to become a bigger player, even more relationship building will be needed,” says Meter. “These human connections are particularly important when local food is involved, since we all need to eat and it’s a business that is so vulnerable to the vagaries of weather, economics, even politics.”

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