Local Foods Survey Data Recap!

By Dan Zimmerli • Community Organizer and Outreach Coordinator

In February, the Minnesota Department of Ag in partnership with the Statewide Cooperative Partnership hosted a “Data Party Workshop” to go over data gathered from a survey sent out to farmers, consumers, and supply chain folks about local foods. SFA was invited to the table and I was able to attend on SFA’s behalf. I learned a lot, and being a numbers and data geek, the information was fascinating. I thought I’d share my key takeaways from this workshop with our membership and how they will inform SFA’s work in the coming months and years.

Before we get into the takeaways, I should set the stage about the survey so you can get a sense of the context of the data and what it might mean. Separate surveys were sent to farmers, consumers, and businesses to create profiles of each segment. There were 497 farmers who responded and nearly half of respondents had farms sized at 10 acres or smaller. 78% of farmer respondents indicated that they sold directly to consumers so the survey results here lean heavily into small-scale local foodshed farmers. There were 37 businesses that responded to the survey; a relatively small sample size. The respondents were mostly small businesses with over half of respondents having 25 or fewer employees and nearly half grossing less than $500,000 annually. There were 820 consumer respondents to the survey. Respondents represented a range of incomes though most respondents had household incomes of less than $149,000/year.

Key Takeaway 1: Farmers learn from other farmers, a lot! The survey asked where farmers go for advice and 79% of respondents indicated that they asked other farmers for advice. The second highest source of advice for farmers was “Internet, Including YouTube.” For me this really underscored the importance of SFA: we are the farmer-to-farmer network because we already knew that farmers learn best from farmers. Going forward we will continue to lean into the strength that we possess as an organization!

Key Takeaway 2: Farmers are not making enough money. In the profile of farmers, the survey results indicated that 72% of farmer respondents were making less than $49,999 in gross sales. This figure does not include costs. This paints a dire picture for me; farmers as much as anyone else deserve a living wage. We are the stewards of the land and providers of sustenance for our communities, not to mention the steps we take as members of SFA to farm using sustainable and regenerative practices.

Lately, I’ve been very interested in farm profitability and cost of production, and if any of you attended my Annual Conference session with Erik Heimark you can get a sense of where I’d like to go with that. We need better cost of production tools for specialty crop growers so that the prices we set reflect the labor, inputs and overhead costs of producing that item.

Key Takeaway 3: Immigrant farmers face significant challenges. Only 10% of immigrant farmers said that they haven’t faced challenges with their businesses compared to 57% of all respondents. SFA’s work on emerging farmers and BIPOC farmers target this segment. Interestingly, farmers who identify as a minority are the most likely to engage with a non-profit for farming advice. We will continue to make sure immigrant/BIPOC/emerging farmers have a seat at the table.

Key Takeaway 4: MN Grown seems to be working for most farmers. Consumers are willing to pay an average of 31.5% more for Minnesota Grown products and more than 75% of consumer respondents have either heard of MN Grown or used things like the online directory or social media to learn more about MN Grown products. Being listed in the MN Grown directory has brought customers to my own farm. We also participated in the cost share program to put the MN Grown logo on our farmers market canopy tents. I would encourage anyone selling directly to consumers to consider joining Minnesota Grown.

Key Takeaway 5: Marketing keywords such as “fresh” and “healthy” have more impact on consumers than “local” despite local being important. I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about marketing these days. As farmers I think we spend a lot of time touting the benefits of buying and supporting local (of which there are many). But, for marketing, it’s important to speak to the values that customers have so that your message is more likely to resonate with them. That’s not to say “local” doesn’t matter — over half of consumer respondents indicated that buying local was important to them.

Wrapping Up: There was a massive amount of data to go through and these takeaways in no way capture the full scope of the data analyzed. We were also told that the data presented was not the full scope of data but rather what was considered to be the most important or relevant. Still, the data presented paints a picture of local foods and specialty crops that somewhat matches the experiences I’ve had as a direct to consumer farmer. The data helps confirm some assumptions and helps to shape my direction moving forward.

Do you have reactions to these takeaways? I’d love to hear them. As always, I’m available at dan@sfa-mn.org for questions and comments.

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