Local foods production gains ground with consumers since pandemic
Mandt Market owners Richard and Rachelle Wedel are among an increasing number of North Dakota growers who are local foods producers.
GRAFTON, North Dakota — On a bitter cold early December day, snow drifts surrounded Mandt Market greenhouse, where inside, Richard Wedel was in shirt sleeves tending to thousands of lettuce plants.
The 70-degree temperature inside the climate-controlled greenhouse where Wedel and his wife, Rachelle, grow seven lettuce varieties using a hydroponic system, allows the couple to sell their products year-round.
The Wedels market the lettuce, which is packaged in plastic boxes, in about 15 grocery stores in northeastern North Dakota cities including Park River, Grand Forks and Fargo, and in Crookston and Thief River Falls in northwest Minnesota. They also sell lettuce to about a half-dozen downtown Grand Forks restaurants.
Mandt Market also has a Community Supported Agriculture business in which it sells more than 30 fruits and vegetables, decorative pumpkins and squash and a variety of herbs directly to two dozen customers who pick them up at the Wedels' farm southeast of Grafton.
The Wedels are among an increasing number of North Dakota growers who are local foods producers.
The Wedels’ produce production venture began five years ago when Rachelle Wedel set up a fruits and vegetables stand along the highway. The couple also sold their produce at area farmers markets.
In the summer of 2020, after researching hydroponic vegetable production, the Wedels began growing lettuce in a greenhouse that they bought from a retired grower and then reconstructed on their farm.
The Wedels harvest enough lettuce to fill about a thousand boxes weekly. The varieties which include romaine, butter and arugula, are picked on Mondays and Wednesdays, and immediately loaded into a refrigerated van and delivered to buyers on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The lettuce is a popular seller at Jim’s SuperValu in Park River, North Dakota, said Elisabeth Horejsi, the store’s produce manager.
“Their lettuce is amazing. Everyone is asking for it,” Horejsi said. “I usually sell out.”
On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Richard Wedel stopped by the store to replenish the supply at Jim’s SuperValu, where only one box of Mandt Market lettuce remained in the produce section.
The store’s shoppers, besides wanting to support local agriculture, know that they are getting a fresh-picked, healthy product when they buy Mandt Market lettuce, Horejsi said
“It’s not shipped across the country and touched by four or five hands,” she said.
Consumers’ desire to purchase food grown in their state is one of the reasons that the local foods movement is slowly but steadily growing in North Dakota, said Felicity Merrick, program manager of Foundation for Agricultural and Rural Resources Management and Sustainability.
The FARRMS organization supports sustainable agriculture and aims to strengthen local food systems in North Dakota in a variety of ways, including classes and workshops for beginning farmers, offering business advice and loans and helping farmers to connect with one another.
The last two years have been challenging for local foods producers because of COVID-19 in 2020 and drought in the summer of 2021, Merrick said. However, interruptions in the supply chain that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic also raised consumers’ awareness of local foods.
Wedel obtained buyers for Mandt Market lettuce by calling dozens of grocery store produce managers across eastern North Dakota and pitching his product. Each week, before he harvests the produce, he contacts the managers to ask them how much lettuce they need.
The Wedels employ two part-time workers who help with harvesting and seeding the lettuce. All of the work is done by hand. Once seeded in dirt-filled trays, it takes from five to eight weeks until the lettuce is harvested.
Besides marketing products commercially, like the Wedels do, another way that growers sell their products are at farmers markets, which are popping up in rural communities across North Dakota and in cities, such as Fargo. Fargo is home to North Dakota’s largest farmers market, where more than 90 local farmers and producers of other local goods sell their products to more than 110,000 buyers who gather downtown at 19 events during the summer and fall.
“This has become an absolutely sensational marketplace,” said Megan Myrdal, a registered dietician who has been part of the local foods movement in Fargo.
Fargo also has a cooperative called Red River Harvest . Shoppers at the Red River Harvest farmers market can buy food, including produce, honey and meat from several vendors, then pick it up at a central location.
The local foods movement supports the local economy because farmers can sell directly to consumers and it also gives back to the community because members of it can meet the people who are growing the healthy food they are buying, Myrdal said.
It was the lack of a farmers market that prompted New York native Rajni Lerman to start one in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Lerman grew up going to the farmers market in Syracuse with her mother, and continued frequenting them when she later lived in Colorado. But, when she moved to rural, western South Dakota, there was no farmers market nearby.
Instead, growers were individually selling their produce at roadside stands, Lerman said. She gathered the growers together, and in 2017, founded the Hot Springs Farmers Market. Lerman manages the market, which runs from July through the first week of October.
“I’ve always been an advocate for local food because I think it’s the healthiest way to feed a community because of the biodiversity,” Lerman said, noting that small farmers typically grow a variety of crops in rotation.
The Hot Spring Farmers Market has encouraged the start-up of produce and baking businesses and has fostered community spirit, Lerman said. Besides selling fresh produce, canned goods and artwork, the farmers market also has activities for children and hosts educational programs.
“It’s just a really beautiful event,” she said
The farmers market attracts both local shoppers and Black Hills tourists and the number of vendors, which includes a couple of young people, is growing, she said.
Research has shown that Millennials are interested in not only growing, but also eating healthy food and feel a sense of responsibility to buy locally because it stimulates their communities’ economies, Myrdal said.
Generation Z, the next youngest generation, meanwhile, has taken that to another level and often posts on social media about their preference for knowing where the food they’re eating originates.
“It’s just this whole shift in people wanting to have a closer relationship with growers. I think it’s human nature,” Myrdal said.
Like Myrdal, Lerman also believes that consumers and farmers benefit from the connections they make through local foods sales.
“When you meet with the farmers who are growing the food and you can ask them questions, it just creates a healthier system for humans and for the system that we’re part of,” Lerman said.
One of the challenges that local foods producers in South Dakota face is that growers who want to preserve their products by canning it have difficulties because of the state’s cottage food industry laws, she said.
Lerman, who also is a member of Dakota Rural Action, said the organization is working to make it a simpler, yet still safe, process for growers to make and sell their products.
Across the northern border of South Dakota, growers in North Dakota face the challenge of a short, sometimes harsh growing season, which makes it difficult to sustain a business for more than a few months, Merrick said.
Growers, such as the Wedels, are working to overcome that challenge by growing hydroponically in greenhouses. Others grow their produce in high tunnels.
Growing hydroponic lettuce, like any kind of farming, still is challenging. The Wedels don’t spray their lettuce with pesticides, so they set pots of marigolds on the sidewalk between the “rafts” of lettuce that float in 12 inches of water along either side of it to ward off aphids that want to attack the lettuce. The Wedels also have to monitor the lettuce for signs of diseases that develop when the humidity in the greenhouse is high.
Meanwhile, the couple also periodically test the water in the greenhouse and adjust the fertilizer, depending on the nutrients needed.
For local foods producers who don’t have greenhouses, besides the challenge of short-season growing, it’s also difficult for growers in North Dakota, a geographically large state with a small population, to connect with one another, Merrick said.
It’s kind of all a learning curve,” Wedel said. Hydroponic lettuce growers who are members of a chat group to which he belongs are a helpful resource in answering production questions, he said.
Sometimes, customers’ “sticker shock” also can be a challenge, said Jill Patterson, owner of Twisted Carrot Farm, near Northwood, North Dakota.
Some farmers market shoppers, who live in a rural area where many people have gardens, can’t understand why they have to pay 50 cents for a cucumber instead of 25 cents, Patterson said. She explains to those buyers that they are paying for a fresh item that hasn’t been shipped from across the United States and tastes better, she said.
Patterson, who moved from Northwood with her husband and daughter a few years ago, markets herbs, flowers, baked goods and dog treats, besides selling vegetables, at the Northwood Farmers Market, which is held on Thursday nights and Saturdays during the summer and fall.
On Dec. 1, 2021, Patterson announced on social media that she was starting a CSA and would sell to 10 customers this summer. The CSA slots sold out in about 24 hours.
Patterson sees the CSA as a natural progression from the farmers market. Her next venture will be to form a cooperative with people who sell other food items, such as eggs, that were produced on their farms.
In the future, marketing to institutions, such as hospitals and schools, could also be potential markets for local foods growers, Merrick said.
“Local foods will be there. What exactly it will look like is the question,” Myrdal said.
Wedel plans to be where he is.
After a challenging first year of business, Mandt Market is making a profit, and Wedel was able to quit his job to work in the greenhouse full-time.
“I love growing things. This is a family-run little farm so I can make a living for my children. I want to be with my girl and boys when they’re growing,” he said.