LITTLE FALLS-A manufacturing warehouse that sat largely idle for six years sprouted new life as a local foods marketplace and processing facility.
Hundreds attended the grand opening of the Sprout Growers & Makers Marketplace at the Little Falls Manufacturing Development Center Friday. The massive space-which once housed a Crestliner boat manufacturing operation-includes an area for market vendors, a demonstration kitchen, a processing kitchen, commercial coolers and freezers and storage areas.
The marketplace and processing center is a project of the Sprout Food Hub, a nonprofit organization with the mission to afford local producers the opportunity to become more economically viable through the use of shared resources to distribute and market their products. Three years in the making, the facility is entirely foundation- and grant-funded from countless community partners, said Arlene Jones, Sprout co-founder.
"This has been a regionwide development, commitment, passion and love," Jones said. "It has been an absolute labor of love and countless hours of in-kind work."
Several high-level government officials were on hand for the kickoff event of the first-of-its-kind space in central Minnesota, including Lisa Mensah, undersecretary of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mensah said there's a misconception that rural America is stagnant or on a downturn, but what she's seen in central Minnesota in the last two days paints an entirely different picture.
"This is a vision that only people with great vision could have created. ... I've seen a food economy that isn't just boutique, but is really something permanent," Mensah said. "If rural America doesn't thrive, America won't thrive. It may be 15 percent of the population that lives in rural America, but we feed the whole other 85 percent."
Also in attendance were U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., who each spoke of the importance of the local foods economy. A litany of others spoke as well, including local growers, representatives from other food hubs around the state and Colleen Landkamer, the state director of the USDA Rural Development.
"It's all about your resilient region in this area and it's all about people coming together making a difference and improving the quality of life and financial stability for people in this region," Landkamer said.
Cheryal Hills, executive director of the Region Five Development Commission, was one of the major backers of the Sprout marketplace, Jones said. The food hub concept fits into a vision of economic development as part of the Resilient Region initiative, the mission of which is to sustainably plan regionwide infrastructure such as housing, transportation, land use, energy and local foods.
Carol Anderson, director of Community Development of Morrison County, said she sat down with Hills after learning more about the local foods focus of the Resilient Region initiative. Partners involved in the planning and initial funding process included the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the USDA, Region Five, the Initiative Foundation, the city of Little Falls and the National Joint Powers Alliance, among many others.
Anderson said the project not only expands the Sprout Food Hub's capacity for providing local foods to area school districts and healthcare facilities, it also boosts the local farming economy.
"If a farmer has money in his pocket, he's going to spend it," Anderson said. "And he's going to spend it in his local hometown. That's why it's so important. We want him to stay in this community, raise kids in this community, send them to our school districts and then when you get your profit, go downtown and spend it."
Jones and her husband Bob began as those local farmers in 2005, distributing local produce from The Farm on St. Mathias south of Brainerd. In 2010, the Farm to School program launched locally and Jones began working with the Brainerd School District to supply produce.
Now, the food hub works with more than 70 local growers utilizing sustainable practices and serves restaurants, schools, hospitals and community-supported agriculture customers. The hub distributes more than 100,000 pounds of food each year and educates small farmers on food safety, business planning and economic research.
The warehouse space provides solid infrastructure and convenient access to the highway system, Jones said, and sits alongside 22 other businesses housed in the manufacturing center. The kitchen space, coolers and freezers will be available to anyone who'd like to use them, whether that's the home gardener or a certified farmer.
Some local producers who intend to utilize cooler and freezer space are the husband and wife team behind Oma's Bread, a two-year-old business featuring homemade German specialties. Martin and Annette Schmidlin sell their products-which include spaetzle, quiche, kuchen, biscotti and other goods-at area farmers' markets and currently have access to a commercial kitchen. Freezer space would afford the couple the opportunity to store goods in larger quantities.
Jessie Borkenhagen, warehouse manager, and Jessica Woudsma, assistant warehouse manager, led tours of the facility as part of the kickoff event. The processing kitchen currently houses a stove, a large convection oven capable of baking at least 20 pies at once and a massive steamer. Other equipment is to be determined based on needs expressed by those wishing to use it, Borkenhagen said.
The coolers and freezers not only provide opportunities for local producers to increase the holding time of their products, it also affords the Sprout Food Hub the chance to freeze local produce and increase the length of time it is available to commercial customers, Woudsma said.
There is also a demonstration kitchen, which will house cooking classes and nutritional education classes along with a space set aside for an audience to sit and watch.
As for the vision of the facility's future, Jones said it's up to the community to shape what the space becomes and how it is used.
"The community has to lift up their voices and indicate what they would support for this facility," Jones said. "We need the growers to come in and start processing, we need the food entrepreneurs to come in and start utilizing their facility to scale up their capacity. Now that they have a licensed facility, they can increase their markets as well."
Hills told the crowd the hopes for the facility extend beyond the tangible economic value into a shared community space of valuing culture.
"The demographics are going to change in central Minnesota, so how do we create a place that allows us to have good conversations and treasure other cultures?" Hills said. "We kind of think food and art do that in a way that isn't threatening, and certainly is a way that helps us understand each other better."