Northeast North Dakota is among the world's best food-producing areas. A newly launched study seeks to examine how much demand the rural area has for locally-grown food, or food purchased within 100 miles of where it's produced.

The study is sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Conservation and Development, 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."

The study, known as the "Northeast ND Local Foods through Cooperation Feasibility Study," seeks to assess 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 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 lack of a metropolitan area, often known as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA, in the area is "actually one of the drivers for the study," said Paul Overby, a Wolford, N.D., farmer and president of the Northern Plains Resource Conservation and Development.

"Is it possible for scattered, small communities to support local foods? If the study determines interest/potential, then the next work will involve the question of what types of infrastructure is needed to support that - cooperatives, food hub(s), etc.," Overby said.

The study committee consists of ag producers, retailers, agricultural educators and extension and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. Jo Gilje, a Rolette, N.D., farmer, is coordinating the study.

One survey will gather information on the kinds of local foods that area consumers buy now and would like to be able to buy. Other surveys will invite comment from schools, hospitals, restaurants, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Gilje said.

"We also are very interested in hearing from our local food producers, including people who are considering getting into the business," she said. Gilje said she's relatively new to the concept of local foods, but thinks it holds promise for northeast North Dakota farms, including her own.

"I'm really interested in learning more about the potential it has," she said.

The study will evaluate local foods that include meat, poultry, dairy, cheese, eggs, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, honey, wine and beer. It also will look at interest in adding value to local foods through packaging, processing, preserving, storing and other methods.

The study is expected to be completed by September, with results made available to the public.

To ask Gilje questions about the survey: