Both farmers and consumers have the ability to prop up Minnesota's rural grocery stores.

Kathy Draeger, director of the University of Minnesota Extension's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, recently spoke during a session that was part of the Sustainable Farming Association 2021 annual conference called "Farm to Rural Grocery." Draeger was the lead researcher on the Minnesota Rural Grocery Survey Report published late last year.

The report, which Draeger said surveyed hundreds of grocery store owners in towns with populations of 2,500 or less, revealed important characteristics of rural grocery stores in the state.

Draeger said what makes the rural grocery sector so important to the state's ag industry is that over 90% of stores are privately owned, meaning the decision makers for those businesses are more than likely willing to work with local farmers.

"That means when you walk in the door, and you talk to the owner of that store, he or she will be able to make a decision immediately about your farm product," Draeger said.

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She told a story about being in a rural grocery store in Clinton, Minn., once when a truck pulled up driven by a potato farmer from far-north of the state.

"This guy walked in and said I've got potatoes, would you like some, and the grocer said you bet, bring them in — so I've actually seen that happen," Draeger said. "That was a cold call, and I wouldn't recommend that, but that's the kind of opportunity when we work with independent businesses who are in the food business."

While 62% of those surveyed said that their business was thriving, 88% of survey respondents said they were concerned about their store's economic sustainability.

"We have seen a number of these stores close," Draeger said. "And we get really frantic calls from communities, even from municipalities, about their store closing and what can they do."

She said it's not just farmers who have the ability to influence rural grocery stores on what to fill their shelves with, but consumers too. Draeger said that she's convinced her local grocery store to carry Organic Valley milk because that's what her sons like to drink.

"If you don't see exactly what you want on the shelf, like my example, my boys drinking Organic Valley milk, just ask," she said. "My grocer was more than happy to supply Organic Valley milk for basically just our family in a town of 450 people. So these groceries are also integral to the community."

The U of M's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships offer the Farm to Grocery Toolkit as a resource for farmers and grocers to help facilitate the sale of farm-grown products to rural grocery stores.

The toolkit includes legality and methods of selling and buying local foods, a legal product checklist and various templates (labeling local foods, farm feature, invoicing, margin calculator). It also provides tips on building a successful business relationship and guidance on processing local foods for sale.

James Harren is an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the Local Producer Sustainability Project for South Central & Southwest Minnesota. He said the initiative is a three-year endeavor focused on removing barriers for food producers who live in a 20-county region.

He said the first year of the project centers on talking with food businesses in the region to "understand the wide range of struggles that people face in creating and growing their business."

To get involved or inform the project, individuals or groups can contact Harren at jamesh@smifoundation.org or by phone at 507-214-2014.