Local Food’s Toughest Customers

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On an overcast fall day, I got a tour of the Meat Center of Appleton (population: 2,871) in the heart of western Minnesota’s wild goose and domestic corn country. If an extensive local food system is to take root throughout the Midwest and beyond, its reach can’t be limited to hip urban neighborhoods and earnest college campuses. It also has to catch on in places like Appleton — and it starts with people like Alyce Fust.

Fust, who owns and operates the small processing plant with her husband Dave, showed me around as a handful of workers cut up sides of beef and stuffed sausages. Propped against the wall was a sign that showed how an enlightened small town business can help people shop their conscience: “Beef Sale: 1/4 Beef. Support our local beef producers! Small farms, not corporate chains!”

Alyce, who has a thriving catering business on the side (some 200 events a year), is committed to the local community, and passionate about local foods. In preparation for my visit, she had set up on a butcher block table a display of all the locally produced foods she had handled recently: flour produced and milled on a local farm, fat carrots from a farm just outside of town, kale from a CSA farm (one of the few I know of that has a mostly rural membership), brown eggs, meat, apples, cole slaw, even honey. She has a story for each item: the honey is from local hives and “contains nothing but honey”; the flour was ground in a stone mill set up in a farm’s remodeled garage; those carrots are from a farm that lies on the border of the local wildlife refuge; etc.

As others have found, in a small farm town local residents can be the toughest to win over on the concept of local food—mostly because of the perception, some of it justified, some not—that it costs a lot more. Some of Alyce’s best customers are Twin Cities waterfowl hunters who come out, get a taste of local beef, and call later from their homes in Minneapolis or Minnetonka wanting to buy a quarter from a Swift County farmer. But Alyce is convinced it can be done. She is involved in the Buy Fresh Buy Local initiative for the Upper Minnesota River Valley and believes farmers, processors, retailers and institutions can work together to educate consumers—and each other.

Farmers need to learn that although direct marketing food, instead of sending it straight to the elevator or packing plant, is a pain in the butt, it is doable. Grocery stores, restaurants and institutional food services must realize that it is not illegal to buy food from local farmers and processors. And consumers need to be taught such basics as how to cut up a whole chicken, while being provided recipes and kitchen tricks that allow them to save time in their busy schedules.

Alyce is a realist who knows this isn’t the 1940s when people had hours to prepare an evening meal, and she’s full of time-saving tips. The retail counter at the Meat Center also carries more ready-to-eat food products than ever before. But she’s also convinced there are times when cutting corners is too much of a compromise.

If people could just taste the difference, they would realize that sometimes it’s worth the extra trouble. A consumer who hates factory farming will go to the trouble of buying a free-range local chicken once. A consumer who likes the taste of that chicken will be a repeat customer. Alyce explained how the other evening it had taken her and another employee two hours to peel five gallons of apples for a batch of “Alyce’s Awesome Apple Crisp.” That was four hours of labor in total—or more than 45 minutes a gallon.

“Well, I could have walked over to the shelf and opened cans of apples off the Sysco truck and it would have taken about 20 minutes,” Alyce said. “But the flavor doesn’t compare.”

Great flavor allows the food to do a lot of its own communication. When she caters an event, Alyce gives people time to enjoy what they’re eating. Then, when there’s a break in the action, she often gets in front of the crowd and relays a succinct story about the food. She gives the folks a kind of “This is no accident that this food is so good” talk. If you like it, you have to find ways to support it in your everyday living: buy from local farmers, support businesses that handle local foods, stand up for policies that encourage local consumption.

She doesn’t just do this because she likes to talk about food (she does). Alyce’s practical side is being acted upon as well. She sees it as a way to give local farmers credit, but also as a way to create constituencies of people who will support local food. Maybe a few of those hunters she’s feeding will go back to the Twin Cities and tell their representatives at the state house to support laws that help local food systems. Maybe the local church group that’s enjoying her apple crisp will begin demanding more local food, and taking steps to ensure it’s available on a regular basis. The more demand for local food, the more demand for businesses like the Meat Center in Appleton.

Creating demand for local food would do little good if there wasn’t the supply to meet those needs. Alyce says these days there are more farmers in her area producing top quality food for local consumption. Some are certified organic, but most are not—they adhere to a tougher Main Street kind of standard, one that is much more stringent than a pile of paperwork or a keen-eyed inspector.

“The local people aren’t going to pass off trash,” said Alyce between answering the phone, helping walk-in customers and showing me the difference in yolk quality between a factory egg and a local farm egg. “They know I’ll see them in church.”

That kind of accountability is the essence of a local food system, no matter where it’s located.

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