Local Food and the Minnesota State Constitution

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – the Fall Version

The first installment in a series about Minnesota’s role, now and in the past, in the local food movement.

“In California, in British Columbia, in Minnesota and Oklahoma and numerous other places, consumers are daring to eat dangerously and confine themselves (gasp!) to ONLY eating locally grown food. In California, a group of “concerned culinary adventurers” called Locavores committed to eat only foods grown or harvested within a 100 [mile] radius of San Francisco for one month, August, 2005.”*

—Christopher B. Bedford, “Meeting the challenge of local food,” In Business, January 2006

According to Paul McFries’s Word Spy blog, the first reference ever to the word “Locavores” in the traditional press was the above quote by Christopher Bedford, speaking of a recent challenge laid down by four San Francisco women to only eat food grown within 100 miles of where they lived. As you can see from the beginning of this new buzzword, Minnesota has been recognized as leading the way in the Locavore movement. As someone who grew up and still lives on the rural landscape in the shadow of the Metroplex, I find this term “Locavores” to be somewhat amusing. On the other hand, I also find it very exciting as the movement that has given meaning to the word takes wings.

Eating local food has always been something my family and neighbors here in the hinterlands did because, well, that’s the way it has always been. Dotted across our landscape are small meat processing plants where we go to pack our own meat raised by an uncle or friend. It is the same place you bring the deer you harvest during hunting season. These private meatpacking houses are usually a small family business passed down from generations tucked behind the family’s house on a winding gravel road. Also, come the late part of July and early August, we always gorge ourselves with sweet corn out of ours or Grandpa’s garden until the thought of another one of those succulent buttered treats almost becomes repulsive. At that point, you harvest what was left in the garden to freeze for use on some cold winter evening, to sweeten creamy chowder. For us, the rhythm of the land and the seasons has always dictated what would be on the table for supper.

Therefore, it’s actually exciting to see those in the Twin Cities start to vigorously embrace this new urban Locavore movement. You are starting to see it change the landscape and the mindset of those in the agricultural communities on the fringes of the Twin Cities. It is energizing new entrepreneurs and in many ways changing the landscape for the better. For that reason I felt compelled to explore this concept of Locavorism within the context of our history and one little curiosity in our State’s Constitution.

More on the Constitution below, but first a little more on this very new little word “Locavore.” As Mr. McFries contends, you can only find its first reference in traditional media back in January 2006. The best we can tell, it was coined by Jen Maiser, Jessica Prentice, Sage Van Wing, and DeDe Sampson in San Francisco back in 2005 when they laid down a challenge to each other and their friends to only eat food produced within 100 miles of where they live. The concept of buying only the best local produce has been a strong tradition here in Minnesota that has given rise to some of the best local food cooperatives and farmer to consumer enterprises in the nation. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the movement and the new word caught on in Minnesota earlier than most other places.

Locavore, as a word, is still in its infancy. Nonetheless, this new word is being discussed greatly in our communities and media. It’s commonly spelled in two different ways: “locavore” or “localvore.” Even though it has a short life, it has already received some renown as a word. In 2007, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary awarded it their distinguished honor of new word of the year. For the record it is listed as, “Locavore. n. A person who eats only locally grown food. Also: localvore. [Blend of local and -vore.]”

As a movement, it has not yet clearly defined itself. It is without a doubt a consumer-driven concept, but there are many flavors making up the aroma of this movement. One could argue there are flavorful hints of agrarian populism, health consciousness, environmentalism, energy independence, regional pride, family restoration and community activism within the recipe that has created this emerging movement. One of the most delicious aspects of this movement is that it is a very diverse movement, crossing over social, economic, partisan and regional barriers that in recent history seem to be impenetrable obstacles in our American story.

To highlight this diversity, one only needs to take a look at two of the most respected pundits of this emerging movement: Michael Pollan, author of the popular “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Joel Salatin, author of many books on local agriculture. Pollan is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley. One doesn’t have to go beyond his professorship or the college he teaches at to confirm his progressive credentials. Salatin, on the other hand, is a conservative Virginian farmer and entrepreneur who first embraced the idea of homeschooling his children while listening to a broadcast by James Dobson. You don’t get much more conservative and libertarian on the American political spectrum than Salatin.

Nonetheless, these two individuals agree squarely on the concept that Americans need to get intimately involved in a relationship with those who produce their food. One of the major focuses of their agreement is that our present regulatory structure for food production and distribution is weighed heavily in favor of the large agricultural conglomerates and harms the small local entrepreneur selling directly to the consumer. This new movement toward local foods has run into and will continue to run into major barriers arising from regulations established during the most recent era of strong agricultural conglomerates. These regulations were designed to benefit large centralized institutions at the expense of the small entrepreneur.

Interestingly, Minnesota law is unique in this conflict between large conglomerates and the small entrepreneurs. Unlike other states, Minnesota actually has a provision in its State Constitution preserving the right of farmers to sell their produce without the need to obtain a license. Licensure often intentionally or unintentionally benefits the large conglomerates over the small farmer. Section 18 of Article 1 states, “Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.”

This particular 1906 constitutional provision caught my attention while advocating at the Legislature for a more recent constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of the sales tax to conservation, water protection, parks and trails. The dedicated funding opponents would often argue that the dedicated funding amendment would only clutter our State’s Constitution with a specific provision that should be left to our statutes. Our counterargument was to point out that our Constitution already contains several similar specific provisions that the people felt were necessary to bypass a do-nothing Legislature and get it done regardless of the size or perceived importance of a particular provision. One that was commonly noted was the prohibition on farmers needing to obtain a peddler’s license in Section 18 of Article 1. Pointing out this curious section of our State Constitution made me wonder about the history behind it. Now that I’ve had time to do a little research, I have discovered an interesting story that ties us to this new movement we call Locavore.

One item I discovered is that our present mode of marketing in the local food movement is nothing new. There has been a rich history in Minnesota, which unfortunately laid dormant or barely alive for many years, around the farmers market in urban areas. I still have many unanswered questions after doing some research; maybe this series of articles is simply a good outline for further research and a book someday on our history of the local food movement to date. Nonetheless, what I have discovered is the interesting series of events that began on one nondescript return trip from a farmers market in Minneapolis in 1903 by a farmer name Peter Jensen. Certainly when Farmer Jensen hooked up his team of horses to make the return trip to his Hennepin County farm, he had no idea he was about to make history that is still having an influence on something called the Locavore movement a century later. More on that next week.

*”Meeting the challenge of local food,” Christopher B. Bedford, In Business, January-February, 2006, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 17.

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