- Education and Training: extension, networking
- Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships
Postharvest refrigeration is known to provide benefits to produce farmers and consumers via improved food safety, longer sales windows, and reduced food waste. However, the actual use of cold storage varies greatly among Minnesota’s diverse 1,800+ produce farms. Through a survey of 70 Minnesota produce farmers, four in-depth beginning produce farmer interviews, and a survey of 138 rural grocery stores (located in communities with less than 2500 people), this research explored the potential for a “farm to fridge” model by assessing the refrigeration needs of produce farmers, as well as the opportunity for farmers to connect with existing refrigeration space in rural grocery stores.
This project, “Farm2Fridge,” worked in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension “Farm to Rural Grocery to Wholesale: The Backhaul Project” (F2G2W) that piloted a new distribution model to create market access for farmers. The F2G2W team (composed of stakeholders from across the food supply chain- including farmers) identified a strong need for an assessment of available refrigeration in rural grocery stores; refrigeration would allow farmers to better participate in the F2G2W model.
The project addressed three main research questions:
1: What are the barriers small and mid-size Minnesota fruit and vegetable farmers face due to a lack of refrigeration? And, specifically, how do small/mid-size beginning farmer experiences with cold storage access impact perceived business success?
2: What is the current availability of excess, underutilized refrigeration in Minnesota rural grocery stores?
3: What resources, activities, and outreach are needed to connect interested farmers and grocers into a cold storage leasing relationship?
Results showed that 41% of farmers and 21% of grocers surveyed were interested in a potential cold storage leasing relationship. While a farm to fridge model might not be the best option for all farmers, responses indicated that it is worth exploring for beginning and small farms. Further, the relationship between grocers and farmers holds high potential: almost half of the rural grocery store respondents wanted more access to local produce. There are also deep barriers to farmer-grocer relationships. Nearly one-third of grocers had turned away farmers in the past because they were uncertain about the regulations for purchasing food directly from farmers. Results from this research were shared directly with farmers at two conferences, via social media, during five online webinars, and through in person conversations.
Ultimately, this research works to increase profitability of small and mid-size farmers while strengthening the social contract between local grocers and farmers in rural Minnesota communities. The findings are currently being incorporated into co-PI Olive’s master’s thesis and the project team applied for funding from two major sources (Bush Foundation and AFRI NIFA, both pending as of Summer 2020) to continue research and outreach work.
The project research questions address NCR-SARE broad based outcomes through three modified project-specific outcomes:
1) Identify economic and logistical barriers fruit and vegetable farmers face due to a lack of on farm refrigeration infrastructure;
2) Inform farmers about potential, existing rural grocery refrigeration locations, and educate about refrigeration and postharvest handling as a pathway to larger market access through extension outreach;
3) Understand the benefits of connecting farmers and rural grocers in a cold storage leasing relationship.
To address the three research questions and meet the proposed outcomes, co-PI Olive administered surveys to the target audiences, led in-depth farmer interviews, and, based upon data collected, will continue to conduct outreach through Extension activities.