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Minnesota project could help small farmers connect with rural grocery stores

MINNEAPOLIS — A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant issued last week will fund an initiative that could help small-time farmers, rural grocery stores and wholesale food distributors simultaneously, simply by making the delivery system more efficient.

The method, called "backhauling," will be tested with garlic in Big Stone County in far western Minnesota..

Big Stone Garlic will dock its produce at Bonnie's Hometown Grocery in Clinton. When the wholesale delivery truck from Wadena delivers goods for the store, the garlic will be loaded onto the truck for the return trip to the wholesale distribution center.

"The wholesale trucks unload everything for the grocery store, then we could put a pallet load of the freshest, highest quality garlic you can find anywhere onto the truck, and it gets to go back to the wholesale camp and is hopefully redistributed to all the other grocery stores," said Kathryn Draeger, statewide director of Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. "And it doesn't add one single mile onto the wholesale truck's route."

For local, small farms that often have limited access to markets, it provides a constant buyer.

For wholesalers, it provides access to locally grown and organic food, one of the fastest growing segments in the industry.

The benefit for rural grocery stores is they would be connected with local producers, and could be paid for acting as a dock for farm-grown produce.

"We're really concerned that rural grocery stores stay viable," Draeger said. "They're really important for small towns. They're important for main street health and vitality, they're important for older people who can't travel far to buy groceries. A big part of our motivation in this is making sure rural grocery stores are an important part of the food system."

Draeger will co-lead the study with University Applied Economics professor Hikaru Peterson. The first few months will be spent making sure that the project will be able to work through logistical, financial and regulatory challenges.

Though the idea has been floated before, Draeger said backhauling hasn't been implemented in practice.

"In terms of actually connecting the farmer with the wholesaler with the grocer, this is a new effort," Draeger said.

After garlic is tested, the study will explore logistics for using the method with organic potatoes and strawberries.