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Dallas Flynn, rural Frazee, uses high tunnels to extend the growing season for his tomatoes and other produce, which he sells at the Lakes Area Farmer's Market and to Spanky's Stone Hearth. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

Local foods benefit consumer, grower

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Anybody who has eaten corn on the cob cooked up fresh from the field, or a sun-warmed apple off the tree, or a juicy home-grown tomato -- not to mention fresh walleye -- knows it's not always about eating organic, sometimes it's just about eating locally grown food.

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"What I really appreciate is knowing who is growing my food. You hear all these e-coli scares and salmonella from packaged spinach. I guess I'd rather buy my spinach from the guy 10 miles from my house -- I can ask the person who grows the food," Linda Ulland said.

Ulland serves as the executive director of the University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. She is involved in helping local growers get their goods -- and education about them -- out to markets and schools.

The central region focuses on supporting farmers' markets the last few years and doing research on high tunnel greenhouses.

"In the last two years, we've broadened the look at local foods to start working more specifically with restaurants to promote their use of local foods," Ulland said.

In the Detroit Lakes area, Spanky's Stone Hearth has been good with that, she said. Owner Josh Hanson said he works with about six local growers to get fresh produce and meat -- at least 80 percent of his produce is grown locally.

"It's nice to know your produce is one or two days old compared to being one to two weeks old on a truck from California or Florida -- any state, for that matter," Hanson said.

Spanky's hosted lunch during a Food Crawl held at the end of September. During the course of the meal, nearly everything that was served was fresh and local.

"We had a four-course meal and every course featured local grown products, which we're kind of proud of, to be able to offer that," he said.

"The response was just phenomenal," he added.

As part of the Food Crawl, Community of a Plate was also presented.

Created from the Renewing the Countryside program, and in partnership with the University of Minnesota Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership and The McKnight Foundation, the program shows how each item on a plate can be traced to its origins.

Food is linked through every person -- from the grower to the person sitting behind the plate of food at the dinner table. Community of a Plate finds and encourages that relationship between the individual and the community.

"The restaurant owner who prepares the salad connects the farmer who grows the lettuce with the consumer who eats it," the www.communityofaplate.org Web site explains.

Ulland said part of her job is to encourage everyone to start eating seasonally and incorporate locally grown foods into their diet.

"If we can encourage people to think locally and seasonally, the food they get is more nutritious, it tastes better because it's fresh, and you really have an opportunity to know who produces your food," she said.

Her group, she said, has been mainly working on "increasing the awareness of the value of local foods and helping to enhance access to local foods."

The University of Minnesota group is now working on trying to incorporate local foods into school menus with the Farm to School program. That could be apples, squash, onions, carrots, potatoes, or any common root vegetables, she said.

They are also encouraging locally grown food being used in healthcare facilities because of the obviously health benefits.

Eating seasonally is encouraged throughout the winter, even in Minnesota -- whether it be saving root vegetables or freezing and canning others.

Onions, carrots and potatoes can be saved in a cool place like a garage or basement over the winter in order to have them available throughout the winter. Tomatoes, peppers and onions are good for freezing.

Ulland herself goes along with freezing her foods.

"During the winter months, when I'm making soup, I have fresh frozen vegetables I can make a soup or stew with. So, I'm getting locally grown vegetables all year round then even though they're fresh-frozen."

Growing and then keeping foods all winter long can save money, she said.

"I think it's also important that we give the local farmer a livable income. Money that is spent locally stays in the local economy, so you are supporting your local economy by supporting the farmer."

Hanson agrees that even though there is a benefit for his restaurant to have fresh food, it's also about helping his neighbors as well.

"Anytime you can help the local vendors out, I kind of lean that way," he said. "Support your local growers."

Hanson said he goes to the farmers' markets weekly and has weekly specials featuring items from the farmers market.

"People can get a taste of what's out at the restaurant as well."

Even though this area experienced a late growing season because of the weather, it has extended the growing season this fall and has actually increased the sales at the farmers' market, Ulland said.

"I think some of that is just because they are becoming more popular."

People are staying home more because of the economy and want to cook with better food, so they buy locally.

"We're just a small part of the local food system, if you will," said Lakes Area Farmers Markets President Ryan Pesch.

He said that the farmers' market has continued to grow year after year, with a large increase in the last three years.

"This year, our high water mark was we had 30 vendors in August-September. Say three years ago, we would have had a high water mark of 22 or 20 vendors. That's a real change."

Going hand in hand, with the increase in vendors, there's also been an increase in customers.

The farmers' market includes more than just foods -- there are other items, like flowers, available, too.

"We are a producer-only market," Pesch explained. "If you're not growing it or have a hand in making it, you can't sell it. That keeps us a farmers market as opposed to an anything-goes flea market."

Pesch said a couple years ago when the farmers' market took a customer survey, they found it's not out-of-towners that support the market. Instead, it's local shoppers supporting the growers. He said 80 percent of those surveyed lived within the 56501 zip code.

"The market is really for the people who live here year round," Pesch said. "Some see it as an event, but it isn't really an event. I think it's an amenity for people who live in DL, and it really does seem to work that way."

For a list of area growers, visit www.localfood.umn.eud or www.localdirt.com.

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