Devils Lake, N.D. — Local foods, usually defined as foods purchased within 100 miles of where they’re produced, offer both potential and challenges for agricultural producers in lightly populated northeast North Dakota, according to a newly released study.

Though local foods hold considerable appeal to many consumers and other potential buyers, significant obstacles hamper producers from fully meeting that interest, the study found.

The study also reaffirms how important local foods are to the people who produce them, the study coordinator said.

“There’s great passion among local food producers. This really matters to them,” said Jo Gilje, a Rolette, N.D., farmer.

Results of the study were unveiled Tuesday, Jan. 7, at the annual Roundup farm show in Devils Lake, N.D. Agweek received a copy of the study and spoke with Gilje before results were released publicly.

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The study was sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Conservation and Development Council, which serves Benson, Cavalier, Eddy, Ramsey, Rolette and Towner counties. It describes its mission as "building partnerships which promote leadership development and the wise use of natural resources."

Devils Lake, where survey results were released, is in Ramsey County.

The study, known as the "Northeast ND Local Foods through Cooperation Feasibility Study," sought to identify both obstacles to and market potential for local foods in 10 counties: The six already listed, as well as Pierce, Nelson, Walsh and Pembina.

The 10 counties — agriculture has an important, even dominant presence in all of them — have a combined population of about 66,000. Some of the counties border North Dakota's Grand Forks County, which includes Grand Forks, population 57,000 and the state's third-largest city.

The 10 counties’ lack of a metropolitan area, often known as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA — and the concentrated core of potential customers an MSA provides — was a key reason for the study, which began in the summer of 2019, organizers said.

The study focused on ag producers, buyers such as schools and grocery stores, and the general public.

Forty-four producers from 20 towns responded; vegetables, baked/cooked goods and canned goods account for most of the local foods they raise.

The study found that most of the 44 producers don't want to expand. Respondents cited a limited workforce, complicated rules and regulations, and the small size of rural markets. One unidentified respondent was quoted as saying that finding employees to weed and pick locally grown food is very difficult.

Respondents said more information/assistance on greenhouse and high tunnels, marketing/advertising and setting up a certified kitchen would be helpful.

Buyers from 11 schools, 11 grocery stores, five restaurants and five care centers, from a total of 21 towns, responded. They identified vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy/cheese and meat/poultry as the most commonly purchased local foods

Of the buyers who responded, 82% said buying local foods promotes a positive relationship with producers, 78% said local foods are safe to eat and 75% said local foods have better quality and last longer than non-local foods.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by buyers and consumers nationwide, with 73% of Americans saying they “actively try” to buy local food, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

And sales of local foods continue to soar, rising $5 billion in 2005 to an estimated $20 billion in 2019, according to published reports.

But the northeast North Dakota study also identified obstacles. One example: Schools and care centers often use donated local food, rather than buying it.

And the public says ...

There were 225 of the public, a majority from Devils Lake, Rolette and Langdon, who responded to the survey.

Supporting local farmers, buying locally and having confidence in the safety of local foods were among the reasons cited by the 225 respondents for purchasing local foods.

But more selection, cheaper prices and more convenient times and places to buy local foods would be appreciated, respondents said.

The study was useful, Gilje said.

“We wanted more information from local food producers and buyers. This study helped with that,” she said.

The local food study committee consisted of ag producers, retailers, agricultural educators and extension and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. Gilje said the committee will decide what might be done next to promote and strengthen local foods in northeast North Dakota.