A core tenet of economic development recognizes that the geographic clustering of similar businesses can help regional economies become more competitive and resilient. Though intuitively it might appear that similar businesses would cannibalize each other’s sales, proximity helps businesses develop more efficient practices, grow their supply chain, and build a larger customer base that can sustain more output from their industry over time. Moreover, businesses can cooperate with each other to share best practices and create a broader ecosystem of sellers and buyers that increases the overall strength of their industry.

Region Nine Development Commission (RNDC) undertook a planning process in 2016 with the goal of increasing the resiliency of the agricultural sector in the south-central Minnesota region it serves. Through this effort, staff discovered that the region had a significant opportunity to grow its cluster of small sustainable farmers. Sustainable farming—an umbrella term for a collection of agricultural practices that seek to meet society’s present food needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same—is generally practiced by smaller farmers with limited resources and less access to markets and supply chains than large conglomerates enjoy. In RNDC’s nine-county region, sustainable farmers were an important part of the local agricultural ecosystem, generating value for the communities they served with fresh food and intentional ecological practices.

Planners at RNDC recognized these benefits and sought to help grow the cluster of these small sustainable farmers in the region. They launched a series of listening sessions with existing farmers that led to the creation of the Region Nine Growers Network. The Network serves as a space to bring together an array of sustainable farmers across the region with monthly meetings held outside the growing season and support services from RNDC. At the meetings, farmers share updates, present to each other on pertinent topics, and conduct brainstorming sessions to solve common problems. RNDC staff make themselves available to facilitate discussions and connect farmers to outside resources like funding opportunities and business-to-business introductions.

The growing network, which currently has over 20 members, is funded in part by USDA and National Resources Conservation Service grants that aim to grow the local foods economy and increase opportunities for emerging farmers. RNDC staff work to accomplish this by facilitating connections with restaurants and grocery stores and providing space at a local community farm for emerging farmers to hone their craft. This year, five new historically underrepresented farmers were recruited to join the network through the community farm initiative. The Network’s continuous growth demonstrates its value to farmers, who in turn deliver fresh food with sustainable practices that benefit local communities and help fulfill the potential that the cluster of farms brings for the whole regional economy.

“One of the biggest things that people always talk about is that they’re with people doing the same things as them, which makes it easy to learn a lot from each other,” says Sabri Fair, Associate Planner at RNDC. “It’s one of the more unique things that we’re doing right now; it’s new for us and new for our community, pushing the boundary of local food work.”

This case study was written by Dion Thompson-Davoli, NADO RF Research Fellow