By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
The owner of The Farm on St. Mathias, Arlene Jones, is concerned with the resiliency of her community. As the world changes, communities need to change with it to survive. Jones has taken on the task of helping her local area become sustainable through farming. She has gathered the talents of many local growers to create a hub at her farm, to supply food to families and institutions and to help the smaller farmers increase their incomes.
Jones, who started Sustainably Produced Regionally On UR Turf (SPROUT MN), recently received a $75,000, two-year grant from the Bush Foundation to move ahead with the local foods initiative in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties. The leadership money is for those who exhibit projects with high-potential for a huge community impact.
Jones is also a recipient of a portion of grants totalling $227,000 from the Northwest Area Foundation, the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, the Otto Bremer Foundation and the Initiative Foundation.
“I am working with minority populations in the area, giving them the opportunity to market their products fairly, equitably and locally,” she said.
Jones is also working with all the farming community to help them with marketing, transportation, keeping their land agricultural, extending the growing season and more.
Jones started SPROUT MN four years ago when she began supplying locally-grown produce to restaurants in the Brainerd Lakes Area and Brainerd School District’s Farm to School program. She said it got to the point where The Farm on St. Mathias could not supply all that was needed.
“In the second year, I had four farmers working with me,” she said. “In the third year, I had 15 farms supplying locally-grown produce. This year I have almost 30 farmers in eight counties supplying food. The number of restaurants has grown and SPROUT MN also supplies to the Pierz and Staples schools, besides Brainerd.”
Jones said the largest concentration of growers she works with is in Todd and Wadena counties.
“I learned the first year I needed a network of suppliers to aggregate their foods,” she said. “We needed to bring together the produce to be distributed to institutional markets.”
Jones found that the more farmers she worked with, giving them more success in where they can market their food, the more other farmers wanted to get involved.
“I started this alone, but kept track of the number of pounds of food I sold,” she said. “I went to farmers’ market meetings, telling them, ‘Look what we can do together.’ I had the data that showed them what they could grow and how much they could make.”
Part of Jones’ grant will be to plan a resilient community, one that will be self-sustainable. That includes land usage with Jones concentrating on local foods.
“Our community has the capacity to grow and consume,” she said. “We have the capacity to grow a food hub in the region.”
Jones wants SPROUT MN to be that food hub. She will work with small farms to assist in growing their income by distributing their food locally.
Jones said it’s important to “… distribute food locally, support family farms and keep the food dollars local. All that will keep a community resilient.”
The grant money is being used for operational expenses, designating SPROUT MN as a nonprofit entity and to study high tunnels with solar capacity.
Jones said that since Minnesota has a limited growing season, “Some of the money from all the grants has been sit aside for solar high tunnel research.”
There will be a three-year research project with two high tunnels on two different sites. One of the tunnels on each property will be solar, the other will have no heat source. Each will be planted with the same produce, at the same time and be farmed exactly the same. The end of the three years will show the results of solar-heated high tunnel practicality.
With gas prices increasing, food prices will also increase, Jones said. The farther away food comes from, the more it costs to transport it to Central Minnesota.
“The end result of this project will be healthier eating for students in the Farm to School programs, increasing the incomes of smaller farmers by helping them market their product, keeping food dollars in the local community and assisting the local area to become resilient,” she said.