Sprouting From Roots Around Little Falls

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

photo by Savannah Howe

More than 18 million acres of Minnesota land are used for field crop planting (corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, potatoes, sweet corn, canola, sunflower, peas, oats, barley, beans, rye, and sugarbeets). Simultaneously, poverty continues to plague one in nine Minnesota children and one in 11 adults, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Meanwhile, across the country, 11 million acres of farmland have been lost from 2001 to 2016 to residential and urban developments. In Minnesota alone, the family farm is disappearing as agricultural operations shift from household endeavors to machines that have greater consolidated yield.

In a time where convenience champions our diets and efficiency dominates our agricultural space, some Minnesota growers are slowing down. They have no interest in adding zeros to the number of acres they farm. Their goal is to put fresh, locally sourced ingredients into neighboring homes.

This is where organizations such as Sprout, a nonprofit farm-to-table food hub in Little Falls, play a role. Sprout seeks to strengthen the health and vitality of the region — the counties of Crow Wing, Morrison, Cass, Todd, and Wadena — with farmers who offer their crop not by the acre, but by the plateful.

Founded in 2012 by a league of women invested in collective economic and community development, Sprout connects growers and eaters. After the operation grew too big for one farm, a facility was built with commercial-level amenities to support family-level farmers: walk-in coolers, freezers, and more. A community kitchen enables caregivers to gather together for meal preparation and support.

Empowering Growers and Families

One of Sprout’s missions is to ensure that small family farmers have equitable access to the local food economy by paying growers fairly and providing access to markets.

Many of the local farmers supported by Sprout are traditionally underrepresented, with barriers in the agricultural market: Latinx, tribal, female, and Amish growers. Language barriers or immigration status may create obstacles in a farming community that has traditionally been white, male, and supported over generations.

Yesenia Lopez faced those challenges when she began farming organic produce on 1.5 acres in Long Prairie with her sister Alicia.

The sisters emigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, during high school. They grew up on a small family farm with goats, where her father grew corn and beans.

Lopez believes it was maternal instinct that led her to start farming: wanting to take charge of the food that was fueling her two children.

Her son, Gabriel, had low iron levels. Her daughter, Emily, was struggling with anxiety, which Lopez suspected was impacted by the food she was eating. “Your body will reflect what you eat,” Lopez says. “I have seen it.”

She says her daughter is more relaxed since they started producing more of their own food.

Lopez remembers struggles faced by her father in dry Zacatecas. Without a water irrigation system, he was always left wondering if he would have a good or bad year, depending on rainfall.

Growing in Minnesota, she says, has been much easier, and not just for the environmental conditions. “We have had a lot of help here,” she says. “We have been blessed with many resources.”

Last year was the first year of growing, and Lopez says she feels fortunate to have connected with Sprout, which became their main source of income — selling bell peppers, jalepeños and zucchini.

Lopez and her sister are farming together. Their produce is used in a family restaurant and grocery store. This year, the sisters plan to approach local schools, hospitals, and clinics about contracts.

Lopez credits resources like Sprout and the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) for helping them get in the ground. LEDC helped them rent equipment and land.

“When you are starting out, it can be challenging to get yourself out there,” she says. “Especially when you [are] a woman. I think that is not what [many people] picture a farmer to be.”

She feels supported by the community. “They want us to succeed,” Lopez says. “Sometimes you may think that you cannot do it, maybe because you are not extraordinary, maybe because you just moved here a couple years ago, or because there are not enough resources for you to do it.”

Bolstering the Food Economy

Sprout hopes to strengthen the roots of the local food network in the upcoming growing season in order to help busy people make healthy, wholesome meals with neighborhood ingredients. The organization is launching an online store as a new market opportunity for growers, and a more accessible avenue to fresh produce for buyers, to complement its monthly food subscription box.

Sprout and similar organizations are also seeking to tear down barriers to land and resource access and uplift the voices of underrepresented farmers across the state.

Minnesota’s farming demographic is aging. The need for a thriving food culture is growing. Sprout is working to make sure connections between agriculture, culture, and art inspire more generations of family farming communities.

Lopez’s advice for emerging farmers is to put fear aside and find, or build with others, the resources around you.