Local food has big appeal, but labor a challenge

September 19, 2018 03:58 PM
 
Local food is maintaining its strong appeal in the Twin Cities, but tight and expensive labor make it a challenging business environment for growers.

Local food is maintaining its strong appeal in the Twin Cities, but tight and expensive labor make it a challenging business environment for growers.

“I don’t think anybody has backed away from local food,” said Jerry Untiedt, owner of Waverly, Minn.-based Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm Inc. “People have becomes somewhat more educated as far as the importance of maintaining what I call a fresh and local pipeline and into the metropolitan area.”

Even so, growers struggle with the high cost of labor, Untiedt said.

Minnesota’s policies — including a regulation requiring overtime pay for H-2A workers — make it tough on growers, Untiedt said.

 

Local produce

Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm, about an hour from the Twin Cities, has a large presence in Minnesota and uses high-tunnel production. The company produces big volume of tomatoes, he said.

“Especially as the climate continues to change, because our production is covered, we’re sheltered from these episodic rain falls and these hail storm events,” he said.

The company raises substantial volume of sweet corn and supplies sweet corn to the 12-day Minnesota State Fair in late August.

The company also sells apples, raspberries and strawberries. Different varieties of strawberries are marketed from June to the first heavy frost of the fall.

Other crops include asparagus, zucchini, squash, hard squashes and numerous other vegetables.

The farm, founded 48 year ago with his wife, now has a staff that includes two daughters, two son-in-laws and a grandson.

While the farm is not organic, Untiedt said the farm grows with sustainability at top of mind.

“Our goal being to enter next season with our cropland and farmland in better condition than we entered during the spring of 2018,” he said.

“We use an awful lot of organic technology, things like beneficial insects and compost, natural predators for insects to cut down on our spray load,” he said.

The company offers a Community Supported Agriculture program, is present at several farmers markets during the local season and also sells produce at about 20 of its own roadside stands.

Untiedt sells limited volume to wholesalers. Higher H-2A costs related to neighboring states — a minimum wage of over $13 and overtime rules, combined with housing and transportation costs for H-2A workers — make it harder for the company to sell wholesale, he said.

Because of cheaper labor, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana can bring product into Minnesota at 25% lower costs, he said.

Untiedt said the company decides what to grow year over year by tracking demand by product and by customer.

“We spend a lot of time visiting with our customers at the end of the season to get an idea of where they’re thinking for the next season,” he said.

“Is there any void that they’re experiencing that we can help them fill?”

 

Educating consumers

Education is a key part of what the farm provides to the community. Through its CSA program, the farm offers its customers a tour period lasting a couple of weeks each year.

Customers and their children are allowed to spend a couple of hours on the farm, taking part in harvest and enjoying lunch on the farm.

Anything the farm can do to help bridge this disconnect between farmers and urban consumers is valuable, he said.

“Many of these people do not understand the risks that a farmer takes, or what’s involved in production, and basically how hard the work is,” Untiedt said.

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