by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Sprout MN is a ‘food hub’ established in Brainerd by Bob and Arlene Jones of The Farm on St. Mathias, building a network that now includes 40 growers in eight counties. Carol Anderson of Morrison County Development Center is coordinating the effort to bring a Sprout processing facility to Little Falls.
A regional food hub is an organization that manages the collection, marketing and distribution of food products primarily from local and regional producers. The hub strengthens the farmers’ ability to meet wholesale, retail and institutional demand.
Sprout MN was set up in the fall of 2012, building on nine years of work with community-based food systems. Sprout coordinates Farm-to-School programs with three area districts (with two more in negotiations) and provides restaurants with quality local foods.
“We’re busting at the seams,” said Arlene Jones. “We can barely hold and distribute what our network produces now.”
The hub delivered nearly 100,000 pounds of locally-grown fresh produce in 2013.
A core group comprised of Anderson, Jones, Region 5 Executive Director Cheryal Hills and Julie Anderholm of Central Lakes College’s Small Business Development Center are all working together to bring the dream to fruition.
“We’ve been working on it for five years,” Anderson said. “There is a big push for farm-to-school foods and more farmers are growing and selling to farmers markets. Having a location close makes it a lot easier for institutions to buy local food.”
The group has formed a business plan with the goal of remodeling an area of the Little Falls Development Center (the old Crestliner building.)
“We’re planning to put in two commercial kitchens,” said Anderson. “Growers can extend the life of the product and add value while doing it year ‘round.”
Anderson and the group have secured funding for a feasibility study with a grant from the Initiative Foundation. Building owner Tom Elbert added some funding to the effort which was used to leverage a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA).
“The study will give us an early vision of what this processing facility will do,” said Hills. “It will help us make sure we don’t duplicate efforts between different facilities. We want to use our dollars in a most efficient way.”
Little Falls architect Kevin Anderson is designing the space.
“Once we have a design in place, we’ll know what equipment we need,” Anderson said. “With that, we can determine costs and I can put the rest of the funding together to build the kitchen. There will be large-capacity refrigeration and storage.”
Also working with the group are Jim Boerboom of MDA, Don Hickman of the Initiative Foundation and Paul Dorenfeld of the United States Department of Agriculture.
“They can help with the layout and tell us what materials are needed, what the inspection requirements will be,” said Anderson. “Working with us at the front end makes a big difference.”
Anderson pointed out that the recently-passed Farm Bill provides $30 million over five years to establish farmers markets.
Three processing facilities are in the works for Sprout, one each in St. Mathias, Pine River and Little Falls.
“Little Falls will be focused on large-scale processing,” said Hills. “This will allow growers a place to process their food. It will improve income for growers and will provide access to additional commodities for school districts, hospitals and individual residents. We’d like to incorporate art and music and make it a destination site.”
“We chose Little Falls because of the existing infrastructure such as loading docks at the site,” Jones said. “We mainly chose it because of the highway infrastructure.”
The facility will house a proposed demonstration kitchen where “we can teach people who are interested how to cook the foods they find there,” said Anderson. “The facility will create jobs and will tie into efforts in Morrison County to encourage healthier eating.”
The plans also include an all-year indoor farmers market.
“Having a year-’round marketplace will provide an influx of funds to the local economy,” said Jones. “People will also be getting gas and groceries and visiting tourist attractions.”