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Food network is all about buying local

Not all restaurants have been persuaded

By Janet Kubat Willette

jkubat@agrinews.com

DOVER, Minn. -- Producers in the Southeast Minnesota Food Network are searching for a way to make farming profitable without government payments.

They have planted onions and flowers in place of corn and soybeans. They are raising chickens, cattle and hogs on pasture. They are making cheese and searching for ways to process milk from small dairy herds on the farm.

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It's a long-term proposition, admits Pam Benike of Dover, the network's board chairwoman, but one she and the other 41 founding families are committed to seeing through.

The group formed in fall 2001 and spent much of its first year building relationships and making connections. It has eight primary restaurant and institutional customers, most of which are in the Twin Cities area. For next year, the network has the groundwork done to begin serving an additional eight clients, possibly including a school and several educational conference facilities.

Tanya Siebenaler, co-owner of Sapor Cafe on Minneapolis' North Washington Avenue, was an early supporter. Siebenaler has purchased all types of produce and meat from the network.

"I'm a big supporter of sustainable agriculture," she said, and when the group approached her, she was eager to establish a relationship and feature local food on her menu.

George Pappas agrees.

"We like a local supply," he said. "We like to feature local items."

Pappas, who owns Michael's Restaurant in downtown Rochester, has purchased locally grown bison, onions, squash and mushrooms from the network. It's identified as locally produced on the menu.

He's pleased by the quality of food delivered by network producers and plans to keep buying.

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Siebenaler also wants to keep doing business with the network and she hopes they can increase deliveries they make to her restaurant during the week.

Transportation has been the network's greatest challenge, said Liz Haywood, network coordinator.

Network members are working on developing scheduled transportation routes that are close to producer's homes, allowing them to spend more time doing what they do best: Producing food.

The network is also in the beginning stages of starting a buying club in Rochester. This allows producers to deliver in large volume, while consumers receive family-sized portions. The network will offer meats, cheese and homemade pie this winter.

It's been a challenge for the group to find ways to bring food to southeastern Minnesota in an economical way, Haywood said. They are now gearing up to bring hamburger patties to the market that the average consumer can afford, which they hope will make market inroads and lead to other sales.

Education is another key effort of the network.

"Restaurants right now do not realize there is a growing demand for products grown sustainably and that people will make those restaurants a destination if they know they will get a high quality, safe product there," Haywood said. "I think that the food market in the metro is ready for the kinds of foods we provide."

But other markets have been more challenging to enter.

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"Rochester's been a really tough market for us …; restaurant managers don't understand people are looking for the kinds of food we have," Benike said.

Price has been another stumbling block.

Haywood said producers tell her selling through the network is the way they are going to be a viable farm.

"We call it a marketing collaborative," Benike said. "But it's so much more than that. …; Part of what we see our job as doing is providing hope."

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