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Local foods stretch the dollar, economy

In decades past, rural Minnesotans could always count on ethnic singer Yogi Yorgesson (Stan Bore-son) to enter-tain us this time of year with such classics as "A Little Bit of Lefse Goes a Long Ways" and "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas."

The latter refers to a seasonal malady that affects a lot of us. It will pass. But there is an economic lesson in the lefse tune that should be remembered all season long and appreciated in farm country.

What we buy and serve during the holidays can stimulate the Minnesota economy, add value to Minnesota grown and raised crops and livestock, and provide jobs for fellow Minnesotans a long way from the fields and pastures.

Darlene Sabo Ellefson, the author and lefse expert from Lefse Ya Betcha in Moorhead, made that point recently at a press conference in the Red River Valley. She makes her potato bread specialty from locally grown potatoes, and finishes it off with Minnesota sugar and Minnesota-made butter.

"That really is a local, value-added food product," said Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association at East Grand Forks.

This is the point Minnesota 2020 is driving home across the state in our annual "buy local" campaign promoting Minnesota gift and entertaining products from local merchants. At press conferences in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Moorhead, Winona, Rochester and Mankato, we've stressed that Minnesota consumers can influence the state economy by targeting some of their holiday entertaining dollars on Minnesota-made beers, wine, apples and artisan cheeses.

A report, "Made in MN 2009: Homegrown Holidays", found that four specialty food and beverage sectors provide more than $160 million in annual economic value to the state and local communities. Together, the old but growing handcrafted beer industry and the young and growing wine industry create more than 550 jobs for fellow Minnesotans.

These are value-added business sectors building upwards from the state's barley growers and grape growers. Meanwhile, the handcrafted, artisan cheese industry is too small to measure given Minnesota's huge dairy industry, but the dozen or so specialty cheese makers are producing gourmet cheeses the match of any out-of-state or imported products.

A close look at these industries shows that barley growers produced about $19 million in barley crops last year, by USDA accounting, and that represented one-tenth of 1 percent of 2008 Minnesota farm income. No matter, it was the start of what became a $2.5 billion beer industry in Minnesota.

Handcrafted beers -- the kind made in Minnesota -- are the only segment of the beer industry that is growing and Minnesota brewers now account for about 4.5 percent of state beer revenue. There is great upside potential for Minnesota small grain farmers, brewers and their employees.

Likewise, University of Minnesota research shows grape growing and wine making is now a $36.2 million industry in Minnesota and rapidly growing each year. All corners of the state are enjoying this growth, and Minnesota developed, cold hardy grapes are proving to be popular throughout the nation.

Our apple orchards now produce about a $15 million annual crop, and the value of extraordinary apple varieties developed in the state explodes in value and jobs as nurseries and other horticulture firms market products, trees and breeding stock.

Let's add potatoes to the specialty foods mix this lefse-consuming season. Potatoes in northwest, central and east-central Minnesota produced a $175 million crop last year, equal to 1.1 percent of Minnesota farm income.

The number of jobs created off the farm by this small agricultural sector would be staggering, if counted, said the potato growers' Gunnerson. That builds up from the ground to support french fry plants, potato chip factories, refrigerated potato product factories and more than 60 certified seed growers.

Two potato chip and snack makers, Old Dutch Foods in Roseville and Barrel O' Fun at Perham, provide more than 700 jobs by turning spuds into chips. National potato processing companies have large plants in or near the Red River Valley, and Michael Foods in Minnetonka is another large generator of jobs from processing, distributing and marketing its Simply Potatoes branded products.

More than 1,000 Minnesota jobs -- easily -- hang on the potato vines. That's how value-added benefits extend upwards from the ground, and why Minnesota's economy can improve by careful selection of food and beverage products this holiday season.

So, in the words of the maestro Jorgenson, go nuts this holiday season. Buy local.

Lee Egerstrom is economic development fellow for Minnesota 2020, the non-profit progressive think-tank in St. Paul.