Extension receives $1 million to help Greater Minnesota

main Street

University of Minnesota Extension has received nearly $1 million in two federal grants to seek solutions to current concerns in Greater Minnesota.

The grants were announced Tuesday by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. A $500,000 grant was awarded to Extension’s Center for Community Vitality to study how rural communities can recruit and retain residents to supply their workforces. The Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships received $499,760 to develop and pilot a new distribution model for small and medium-sized farms to access wholesale markets.

“The USDA grants recognize our commitment to all of Minnesota and the skillful Extension researchers and educators whose work will help us better understand how to meet important needs throughout the state and beyond,” said Extension Dean Bev Durgan.   

Center for Community Vitality: Expanding ‘brain gain’ research

The grant allows Center researchers to widen their “brain gain” research, which has found adults 30 to 49 years old are disproportionately moving into Minnesota’s rural areas. The focus on newcomers and their integration into rural communities also will consider the experience of minority and immigrant residents in those areas.

“As baby boomers retire from the workforce, replacement workers are needed. Employers and communities are very concerned about that workforce, and many Minnesota communities are genuinely interested in learning how they can attract residents,” said Kent Olson, Associate Dean of the Center for Community Vitality. “This project will allow us to better understand why people move to rural areas and what makes communities successful in keeping them. As initiatives sprout up around Minnesota, we want to know what works.” 

The research will use surveys, focus groups and demographic analysis to gather information from community initiatives, newcomers and long-time residents. Researchers, including those from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, will explore three basic questions:

  • What are the characteristics of newcomers in rural areas?  
  • How well do different categories of newcomers integrate differently into rural communities? 
  • What private strategies and public policies are communities trying to attract and retain newcomers to their areas and what is working?     

Findings will inform future Extension educational programs and economic development initiatives, resulting in new community education that informs local policy-making and initiative planning

Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP): Building farm-grocery-wholesale networks

The RSDP grant is the nation’s first study to develop and test “backhauling” as a way to help small- and mid-sized farms get their produce to wholesalers for wider distribution. Backhauling uses the return trip of a delivery truck to carry locally grown foods from rural grocers back to wholesale distribution centers. The long-term goal is to increase the viability, competitiveness and sustainability of the farms through access to the wholesale market.

The research will bring Extension and the University together with stakeholders from across the food supply chain, including producers, grocers, wholesalers and regulators.

“We need to understand the complexities of farm-to-grocer-to-wholesale, including logistical, financial and regulatory challenges,” said Kathryn Draeger, statewide director of RSDP, who will co-lead the study with University Applied Economics professor Hikaru Peterson. “This innovative research will help us learn how we can build systems for local food growers, help wholesalers and support grocers, who are such an essential part of Main Street across Minnesota.” 

For nearly two decades RSDP, along with its University colleagues and community partners, has conducted research and outreach on regional food systems. RSDP supported 55 local foods and sustainable agriculture projects in fiscal year 2016 alone.

Examples of recent RSDP projects include the 2015 statewide Rural Grocery Store Survey and development of toolkits such as a produce-handling guide for rural grocers and a commercial kitchen guide for producers to safely process locally grown food. Through a longstanding partnership with Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative, RSDP provides training and outreach to support rural grocers’ sales of local produce.


For more news from U of M Extension, visit www.extension.umn.edu/news or contact Extension Communications at extnews@umn.edu. University of Minnesota Extension is an equal opportunity educator and employer.

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