Guest Column: Partners key to growing local foods economy

Published 9:47 pm Friday, September 6, 2019

Guest Column by Tim Penny

Tim Penny


This time of year, the farmers markets are rich with local vegetables, berries, meats, breads and jams. It’s a visual testament to the abundance of our region and the ever-growing local foods economy that is sustained by consumers who want to buy directly from area farmers. At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, we have been supporting the local foods economy in our 20-county region through a variety of initiatives over the years.

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In 2013 the FEAST! Local Foods Network was launched with the purpose of supporting local food producers and food-makers by boosting access to financing, resources and peer-to-peer learning opportunities. The network, which started with a partnership between SMIF and Renewing the Countryside, is comprised of more than 60 organizations, businesses and individuals committed to growing a sustainable, local and regional food system.

One of the outcomes of this network is the Grow a Farmer Fund. The fund, which was supported by more than 250 generous donors and is managed by SMIF, offers low interest loans of up to $15,000 to help small-scale farmers in SMIF’s region purchase the equipment and supplies they need to be successful. EJ Mushrooms in Kasota used the loan to convert a detached garage into a year-round mushroom farm. Hare and Tortoise Farm in Zumbro Falls used the loan to scale up their operations by installing a waterway and purchasing a root washer for their vegetable farm. Other Grow a Farmer loan clients include Antonia Navarro (a chicken farmer in Faribault) and two additional vegetable farms: My Sweet Greens MN in Zumbrota and Pearson Organics in Oronoco. SMIF also participates in support of another fund, the Minnesota Good Food Access Fund, which provides grants, technical assistance and loans to enterprises working to increase access to healthy and affordable food.

The FEAST! Local Foods Network also supports farm and food entrepreneurs through technical assistance. Each month, a local foods peer group meets to discuss business challenges and successes, learning from each other in order to grow their businesses. A program called FEAST! Smart Start Initiative provides customized coaching for business owners. In 2018, SMIF provided grants to Region Nine Development Commission and the Sustainable Farming Association of MN, Cannon River Chapter to expand this program. Region Nine worked with entrepreneurs over a seven-month period to support them in building a network of relationships that will help grow their businesses and expand operations. The SFA chapter used the grant to launch a regional brand, Cannon Valley Grown, which identifies food produced in the Cannon River watershed.

An event that I look forward to every year is the FEAST! Local Foods Marketplace. Fifteen hundred people attend the event, which is a tradeshow experience for food-makers and farmers from southern Minnesota and the surrounding areas to make sales to retail and food service buyers, and the general public. The event will be held Dec. 6-7 at the Rochester Mayo Civic Center, just in time for holiday shopping.

It’s amazing to see the partnerships that have been made, the relationships that have been strengthened and the businesses that have grown since the FEAST! Local Foods Network launched six years ago. As we like to say at SMIF, collaboration is the key to vitality in our region. This is especially evident in the local foods economy.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

Tim Penny is the President & CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.