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How popular is 'local' food? Maybe bigger than organic

A flat of young basil plants will be separated and re-planted in a greenhouse at J&J Distributing in St. Paul, Tuesday, January 26, 2016. J&J uses computer-monitored systems to grow organic tomatoes and other produce indoors year-round. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)1 / 2
Director of Nutrition Mike Stoick prepares to clip tomato plants to trellising strings which hang from the ceiling in a 35,000 square-foot greenhouse at J&J Distributing in St. Paul, Tuesday, January 26, 2016. J&J uses computer-monitored systems to grow organic tomatoes and other produce indoors year-round. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)2 / 2

A local-food revolution is happening on your dinner plate.

"Demand for local food is going off the charts," said Steve Shrump, master grower at J&J Distributing of St. Paul, a leader in the new local-food movement.

Shrump and an emerging generation of farmers are moving farms into cities, malls and abandoned buildings. They are boosting yields by making their farms more weatherproof and pioneering ways to market their food.

This means mushrooms from Minneapolis, mint from Maplewood, rosemary from Roseville, carrots from Como Avenue and greens from Grant Township.

Grocers say the "local" food label is poised to dethrone even the "organic" label as the ultimate sign of quality.

The farmers say their food is fresher and more nutritious. And it usually comes with a résumé—an account of how it was grown, the environmental impact and the farm's treatment of plants, animals and workers.

Local food seems to have only one drawback—the relatively high cost. Cost control and profitability will be the next challenge for local farmers, said Paul Hugunin, program coordinator of Minnesota Grown, a state agency that promotes local food.

"Sustainability means financial sustainability," said Hugunin.

Director of Nutrition Mike Stoick prepares to clip tomato plants. Scott Takushi / Pioneer PressWhat is local food?

According to Minnesota Grown, there is no standard definition for "local food." Some stores define it as food produced within 500 miles; others say it must be processed only by a local company.

But Minnesota Grown tracks the number of the state's local growers and local-food outlets. Over the past 10 years, the number of local-food growers has surged 52 percent, to 1,300.

Meanwhile, farmers' markets have nearly tripled to 182. At the same time, there has been a nine-fold increase in community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs). Today, about 90 of them deliver local food to subscribers.

"That is one of the areas where you have to go, 'Wow!' " Hugunin said.

But why is the local-food movement ripening now?

Demand for all produce is peaking, said J&J's Shrump, amid the continuing drumbeat of doctors' recommendations to eat more fruits and vegetables.

At the same time, he said, food is becoming a pop-culture phenomenon. "There are probably 20 cooking shows on TV now," Shrump said.

According to University of Minnesota horticultural science professor John Erwin, local-food sales also are being boosted by:

- Well-publicized food scares. With every new E. coli outbreak in a fast-food chain, comes more demand for food safety — and local food is usually perceived as safer, he said.

- News stories about global warming caused by greenhouse gases. Those gases are emitted from the fleets of produce trucks traveling thousands of miles. "We are weaning ourselves from California and Florida," Erwin said.

- Concern about other food-related issues — mistreatment of immigrants, low salaries for workers, abuse of farm animals, GMOs, hormones and antibiotics in meat.

The latter is why local farmers say they proudly answer questions about their food.

"Consumers want to know the food's carbon miles, and if it's GMO-free. They want to know where it comes from," Shrump said.

Move over, organic

Anne O'Gara has seen the change in the three stores that Mississippi Market operates in St. Paul.

As the co-op's development specialist, she surveys members annually. This year, she noticed most members said they wanted food that was "local." For the first time she could recall, "organic" came in second.

The "local" label has eclipsed "organic," she said, because organic food is sometimes produced by huge corporations in distant places.

"With big agriculture, you are not sure of the conditions for the workers and the overall quality," O'Gara said. "Local food not only allows you to be closer to the source of your food, but it adds value to the local economy."

Some of the new farmers are raising plants and fish indoors, all year round.

Dave Haider, co-founder of Urban Organics in St. Paul, puts thousands of fish into tanks, then siphons off the dirty water to feed his potted plants.

Haider can bathe his basil plants with 14 hours of light each day, cutting the growth time in half. "Demand is high," he said.

Haider plans to boost production tenfold next summer, adding 87,000 square feet in the former Schmidt Brewery building in St. Paul. That will allow him to harvest spinach, lettuce and kale year-round.

The fish-to-plants facilities minimize the waste of water and fuel, said Dave Roeser, owner of Garden Fresh Farms, which produces fish and produce in its Maplewood headquarters.

"We now have 80 percent of our lettuce grown in the high desert in California," he said. "Hello? Can we figure this out? How can anyone do that and think we won't have problems?"