Nora G. Hertel, St. Cloud Times
Published 2:02 p.m. CT Dec. 16, 2019 | Updated 4:48 p.m. CT Dec. 16, 2019
LITTLE FALLS — Agriculture stories this year focused on the affects of a trade war and the impact of climate change on farmers.
Arlene Jones has a different story to tell.
She's a farmer with 80 acres and the executive director of Sprout, a food hub in Little Falls that connects local farmers with markets in schools and restaurants and with consumers directly.
"The trade wars don't impact small, biodiverse farms," Jones said. "The trade wars are impacting the growers that have thousands and thousands of acres of mostly corn and soybeans that are sitting in grain elevators, because there's no market for them."
The small farmers who work with Sprout don't rely on the international market, Jones said. She co-founded Sprout after she found local buyers for her own and others' produce.
"Growers that practice variety over volume are less likely to have access to markets," Jones said — and they're less vulnerable to trade actions.
The nonprofit took root in 2012 and has grown in the last three years. Sprout is home to a rental kitchen for cooking classes and small food processors, and it's a monthly marketplace in the winter and hosts other food and artistic programs.
Their marketplace expanded from 20 vendors three years ago to 45 with a waiting list.
On Saturday morning the Sprout warehouse echoed with songs from the Cold Spring Area Maennerchor. Craft and food vendors displayed their wares. And the kitchen smelled like garlic as Central Minnesota farmers prepped for a cooking demonstration.
Sprout has used an arts grant over the last three years to beautify its space and highlight minority groups in the community. Staff applied for another grant and hope to get funding to tell farmers' stories and feature cooking demonstrations with their food.
"Consumers are continuing to demand the story behind their food," Jones said.
"I think it is the consumer conscience, (the) consciousness of really starting to care about the economic vitality of the communities that they live in," she said. "And you pair that with personal responsibility for our own well-being through food, and those are value propositions that no one's going to turn their back on."
And it's good for the environment
Kate Droske mixed sour cream into a skillet of ground beef for the filling of pierogis, Polish dumplings, at the start of Saturday's marketplace. She prepped to demonstrate her great-grandmother's recipe with her husband Tyler Carlson. The two run Early Boots Farm in Sauk Centre and raised the beef used in the recipe.
Jim and Audra Chamberlin of Island Lake Farm in Deerwood brought garlic, onions and potatoes for the demonstration.
All four farmers in Sprout's kitchen have used Sprout for freezer space or sold their produce through the nonprofit. They attended Saturday to represent the Sustainable Farming Association's Central Chapter.
"Agriculture done well heals," said Jim Chamberlin. "Agriculture done poorly degrades. Degrades our water. Degrades our soil. Degrades our health. Degrades our rural communities."
Sustainable agriculture is tied to the local food movement and supports soil health through practices like cover crops and rotational grazing.
Small farmers may be shielded from trade wars, but they're not protected from volatile weather and other challenges in farming, like finding a next generation of farmers.
Jones hopes with a new grant Sprout can better equip farmers, including Amish and Hispanic growers, to compete with behemoth producers.
The farms that Sprout works with aren't mechanized farms, Jones said. They're hand-planted, weeded and harvested.
"A farmer's hand touched that food," she said. "And we want you to know the story behind it."
Note: This story is part of an intermittent series at the St. Cloud Times about the future of agriculture in Minnesota.