- Associated Press - Monday, June 2, 2014

CANNING, S.D. (AP) - A few miles away from the Missouri River where the Mandan and the Arikara peoples in turn once planted corn and beans and squash, Jesse and Meridith Wilkens now plant corn and beans and squash - including some of the same varieties that the Mandan and the Arikara favored centuries ago.

Their garden repertoire includes red and yellow Arikara beans, a multicolored Mandan bride corn suited for making flour, and also a Hidatsa “shield bean,” grown by the Hidatsa people in what is now North Dakota.

“We figured their varieties were pretty well adapted to the climate,” says Jesse, who also works for the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources as an environmental biologist. “It’s fascinating. It’s just fun - there’s a history to these varieties. There’s a story behind them.”

It’s just one of the ways Jesse and Meridith Wilkens - whose Medicine Gardens is one the vendors selling garden produce at the Capital City Farmers Market in Pierre in the summer - find themselves selling more than garden produce. They’re also selling a way of life. And it happened almost by accident as their own passion for gardening - a hobby to start with - outgrew them.

“We’re all about eating our own food,” Meridith said. “You know where it comes from, that’s the main thing. You don’t know what’s on the stuff you buy in the grocery store. That’s why I like growing our own.”

The Wilkens are part of a trend widely spoken of as the “local food movement.” And that doesn’t just mean there are more people selling food to their neighbors at venues such as the Capital City Farmers Market, although that’s a big part of what’s going on. Californians even coined the term “locavore” in 2005 to refer to someone who prefers to eat locally.

But the term doesn’t only mean eating what’s grown in your own, or your neighbor’s, back yard. It can also mean there’s less “distance,” in a figurative sense, between the producer and the consumer.

Jesse noted, for instance, that what is very ordinary at farmers markets is for consumers to ask about how the food is raised - they want to know about the process.

For producers growing for their own tables first of all and who tend to avoid chemical herbicides, that’s an easy question to answer. Their farming methods are a selling point, Wilkens said.

A Vermont-based organization called Strolling of the Heifers began ranking states in 2012 according to their commitment to local foods, releasing its comparisons in what it calls its “Locavore Index.” The group lists 10 reasons to buy local food, saying it supports local farms, boosts the local economy, involves less travel and less waste, assures freshness, offers new and better flavors, benefits the soil, attracts tourists, preserves open space and builds more connected communities.

If indeed local food does all those things, there’s bad news in store for South Dakota: According to the 2014 Locavore Index, released in April, South Dakota has dropped to 27th place on the index. That is down from 14th in 2013 and suggests South Dakota is trailing every other state in the region except Nebraska, which ranked 30th, in access to local food. In comparison, North Dakota ranks highest among area states at No. 7.

But on the plus side, the South Dakota Department of Agriculture announced in January that the state’s farmers market vendors sold more than $1.3 million worth of products in 2013.

The Department partnered with 12 of those farmers markets in 2013 to determine gross sales, pricing of products and conduct a customer survey.

South Dakota had at least 61 farmers markets in the state in 2013, the department said, and those in the study were open for 18 weeks on average during the growing season.

The surveys showed that while market vendors gear up in May and June, customers aren’t as plentiful early in the season. Sales and customers usually pick up in July and August and taper off in September.

The South Dakota Department of Agriculture also found that customers who shop at farmers’ markets are loyal. More than half of them - 63 percent - shop at the market two to four times a month.

Nearly half of all customers reported spending $10 to $20 each trip, although 29 percent spent less than $10 on each visit to the farmers market.

Fifty percent of customers purchased fruits and vegetables at the market, 21 percent bought baked goods and 16 percent took home processed or prepared foods such as jelly, salsa or pot pies.

“This information gives us some valuable insight into statewide customer habits and the great potential of this market,” South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch said in the January news release announcing the 2013 data. “We look forward to a continued partnership with these farmers’ markets and helping grow the local foods movement in South Dakota.”

However, the local food movement is not without its critics. Among the criticisms are that there’s been no serious look at how much energy is used in producing local food as compared to transporting it in; that raising animals in open range settings favored in the local food movement may produce more greenhouse gas than when animals are raised in confinement operations; and that the emphasis on “local” production of food may actually be a setback for efficiency, perhaps requiring more land in the long run and driving factors such as deforestation.

In tiny Canning, S.D., a shell of a once-thriving railroad town, Jesse and Meridith Wilkens aren’t worried about that. Their sprawling garden, including the beginnings of a vineyard and fruit orchard, takes up land that is virtually unused, with only bits of old glass, iron and leather harness cropping up between the rows of vegetables to show that townspeople once used this land differently.

And the reason to be a locavore, Jesse Wilkens said, is as simple as the first ripe tomato of the season.

“For me, it’s the same as catching a walleye and bringing it home for dinner,” Wilkens said. “It’s as good as it gets.”


Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, https://www.capjournal.com

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