New and beginning farmers hope to build local food system

Market access, red tape challenges persist

New and beginning farmers hope to build local food system
After recently returning to the family farm, Joanna Larson of Sheyenne aims to supply fresh-cut flowers and produce to regional florists and the local farmers market and help regenerate the local food system. While most of the flowers and produce remains indoors out of frost fears, some hardier plants are getting a head start outside.

For 27-year-old Joanna Larson, the desire to return home to take part in the operation of her family farm in Sheyenne has as much to do with building community as it does with farming. A strong independent streak also doesn’t hurt.

She’d like to see things done differently and wants to put her stamp on the farm and further afield.

That includes eventually transitioning to more sustainable agricultural practices at the family farm.

“I’m about food, not fuel,” Larson said about the widespread practice of growing energy and commodity crops of corn, soybeans and wheat across the state. “I know it’s profitable and know that if you’re careful you can build soil fertility, but I don’t think that long term that’s right for our world or our country.”

Generational shifts

Larson is one of a small but growing number of new and beginning farmers coming of age as their baby boomer parents retire or desire to, and many would like to see a renewed focus on the local and the sustainable.

They see the hollowing out of rural communities, the spread of food deserts and grocery stores closing in a sea of bountiful agricultural production and wonder if that must be the reality.

Wife and husband team Julia and Kelly Seiller, who have recently completed a Farm Beginnings course offered at the Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability in Minot, are new farmers hoping to supply diversified produce to their local community in this sustainable way.

Located just west of Williston, the Seillers plan to tap into the local farmer’s market and establish a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription service this summer. They also hope to eventually have in-ground greenhouses for year-round production.

“We’ll be providing something that’s missing up here, which is access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” Kelly said. “Early in the year and later in the year, everything you get from a place like Walmart goes bad within a week.”

Larson also recently went through the Farm Beginnings course, but her farm experience started young on her family’s property, along with 4-H and helping establish Sheyenne’s farmer’s market over a decade ago.

After obtaining a degree in agricultural and biosystems at NDSU, she and her partner worked in the Seattle area for several years, and most recently made their home near Stockholm, Sweden where she studied agroecology.

The field of study “focuses not just on the farm, but beyond the farm gate, and how our agriculture systems are interconnected into rural development and sustainable communities,” she said.

Larson is starting with a crop of wholesale cut flowers to sell to florists, as well as beef cattle, after purchasing her first bull this spring. Soon she will ramp up vegetable production to sell at the local farmer’s market.

A big priority is establishing a farm store in town where locals and anyone heading through town would have better access to fresh produce. Sheyenne currently has no grocery.

“That’s a key piece for me,” she said. “I saw, living in Sweden, what small grocery stores can accomplish.”

Increase in beginning, women farmers

While a five-year agriculture census released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in February shows 11% growth in the number of beginning farmers, only 300,000 across the country are under the age of 35.

A much larger cohort of 1.3 million farmers are 65 years of age or older, meaning that younger people will eventually need to take over those farms or they’ll be bought up and rolled into larger industrial-scale farms.

In North Dakota, the latest census data shows the number of farms has decreased by 5%, while the average farm size grew 3%– up to 1,537 acres – since 2017. A total of 11% of farmers in the state are under 35 and a large and growing segment of farmers are women, making up 30% of producers.

Desiree Carlson is one of them. A transplant from Minnesota who has established Ester’s Acres outside of Minot, she originally studied to be a teacher then relocated to North Dakota with her husband in 2019 to his family’s farmstead.

She focuses primarily on chickens, eggs and lamb, and sells her products at farmers markets, with CSA subscription programs and through direct-to-consumer sales.

Carlson also helps other farmers as an educator with the Strong Farms Incubator, a program started five years ago by local nonprofit Strengthen ND to nurture a new generation of farmers and build a sustainable localized food system.

System barriers, marketing challenges, red tape

Outside of Carlson’s busy farmer’s market season, having a market for her products is complicated the rest of the year and shows some of the barriers to building that localized food system. She often ends up having to feed excess eggs to the pigs on the farm because there is no easy route to get them to consumers.

Having a larger network and potentially an umbrella for marketing products from local farms would “be really great” Carlson said, and there is an increasing amount of federal money available for establishing local food systems.

Barriers such as local cottage food laws which require commercial licenses for certain products like eggs and produce, limit farmers’ ability to sell through such a network, leaving direct-to-consumer sales the only viable option.

And while there are some online sites showcasing what local farmers produce – a local foods directory and map operated by the state Department of Agriculture, a site called ShopND and the Pride of Dakota website – these are often clunky, out of date and steer consumers directly to the producer without reducing the sales and marketing workload.

Plus, most of farmers only get a trickle of customers through those sites, they said.

Julia Seiller is looking into potentially starting a local food co-op. She said it would be “fantastic” if something was set up to help local producers get their products to consumers, reducing some of the need to manage their websites and market products by themselves.

Marketing as individual farmers takes a lot of time, said newer farmers Adam and Apryl Mawby of Souris. They operate Gardendwellers Farm & Ranch, which produces culinary herbs, garlic, lamb and chicken.

Tapping into the local markets isn’t so difficult, Adam said, but getting more widely known in a way that generates orders from further afield is a challenge.

The Mawbys have toyed with going the influencer route by upping their social media presence, but with farm work and kids to take care of, that idea often ends up on the backburner.

Cottage food laws impact them as well, at least on the herbs and herbal teas side of their business. Consumers can check out what they have on their website, but the Mawbys are not allowed to sell those products online.

“We have to actually hand you the product,” Apryl said.

Ann Olson, who works as the small farm navigator for Strengthen ND said the local food producer movement can be appealing for those interested in a homesteading or rural lifestyle, but people need to be active entrepreneurs in the current climate if they want to move beyond being a hobby farm.

“If you don’t have a social media presence or your farmer’s market doesn’t have one, it can be really hard for people to know you exist outside word of mouth,” Olson said.

Next generation uncertainties

Besides those system barriers, other community-wide challenges can impact success or failure of beginning farmers. These can include a lack of available and affordable housing and childcare, as well as the reduction in other services nearby as people retire and new blood doesn’t fill the vacuum.

Within these challenges are many opportunities, Larson said, if they are realized.

“I look around this town, and I can see that the implement dealership owner is about retirement age, and who is going to step into that role?” Larson pondered. “Do young kids in high school know that is an amazing career opportunity?”

Larson repeated that litany of potential “awesome” opportunities, mentioning machinists, bars, restaurants and other businesses she knows the owner is looking to retire but few are stepping up to take over.

“Who’s going to take those roles and what’s it going to look like for my generation to farm out here if we don’t have those people?” Larson asked. “That’s maybe like a 10-year problem, but it’s a problem now because you need to get those people in place.”

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