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Small-town Minnesota grocers look to state for help

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota's small-town grocery stores are closing at a rate that is expected to speed up as their owners age. In most cases, owners have no plans to transfer ownership, leaving communities without local stores.State Rep. Rod Hamilton,...

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ST. PAUL - Minnesota’s small-town grocery stores are closing at a rate that is expected to speed up as their owners age. In most cases, owners have no plans to transfer ownership, leaving communities without local stores.State Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, is seeking $10 million to help stop the exodus, although on Tuesday he admitted it is a big job in a year that new money is scarce.
 “We found there was quite a need,” the University of Minnesota’s Kathryn Draeger said after a survey of grocery stores in towns of less than 2,500. “We found there are a number of grocery stores closing down around the state.”They must better compete against big stores in regional centers, she said, and need training in doing things like extending the shelf life of produce.The university’s Extension Service is looking into “how we can maintain these important main street businesses,” Draeger said.“The vast majority of them are mom and pop owned,” she said, and 62 percent plan to get out of the business in the next decade, with most having no plan for transfer the business to a new owner. The conversation came during the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance Committee hearing about Hamilton’s plan to help grocers, as well as separate legislation to help provide food to food shelves.Both bills would help the poor get food, Draeger said. Many food shelves buy from small stores, she said, which helps keep food prices lower than if they bought in bigger stores elsewhere. And it helps feed hungry people.“It is good on top of good,” Draeger said.Hamilton said “it is a monumental task” to get the $10 million he seeks, but an upcoming meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton is planned to address food issues.“There are additional monies out there ... to address inequities around the state,” Hamilton said. “We are going to do a pitch to the governor.”Dayton and other Democrats have been especially strong in calling for additional money to help Minnesota’s minority and other poor communities. The governor frequently has said money should be used statewide, including rural communities.Cheryal Lee Hills of the Region 5 Development Commission, which serves five central Minnesota counties, said money is needed so groups around the state can provide assistance to grocers in improving their financial operations.Draeger said that both grocers and buildings are aging.Many stores owners need to improve efficiencies, she said. Fresh produce displays, which she said often are 1950s’ vintage, are among the areas that need work, she added.With some changes, she said, produce can be kept fresh three days longer and can substantially reduce energy costs.While Hamilton’s bill has more debate in his and other committees, a bill similar to the one he wrote awaits a final Senate committee hearing.Another Hamilton measure, which is not moving in the Senate, would spend $600,000 to extend a $2 million appropriation granted last year to compensate farmers for providing fresh produce to food shelves.“No matter how well they plan, they end up with abundant yields,” Tony Mans of Second Harvest Heartland said.Farmers may overestimate needs or an expected buyer may drop out, he said. Also, some produce may not look good enough to sell, but would be fine for a food shelf.The state program, on average, pays 12 cents a pound for farmers to provide produce that otherwise would be “just plowed under,” Mans said. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t go to the grocery store and pay 12 cents per pound for any produce.”ST. PAUL - Minnesota’s small-town grocery stores are closing at a rate that is expected to speed up as their owners age.In most cases, owners have no plans to transfer ownership, leaving communities without local stores.State Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, is seeking $10 million to help stop the exodus, although on Tuesday he admitted it is a big job in a year that new money is scarce.
 “We found there was quite a need,” the University of Minnesota’s Kathryn Draeger said after a survey of grocery stores in towns of less than 2,500. “We found there are a number of grocery stores closing down around the state.”They must better compete against big stores in regional centers, she said, and need training in doing things like extending the shelf life of produce.The university’s Extension Service is looking into “how we can maintain these important main street businesses,” Draeger said.“The vast majority of them are mom and pop owned,” she said, and 62 percent plan to get out of the business in the next decade, with most having no plan for transfer the business to a new owner.The conversation came during the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance Committee hearing about Hamilton’s plan to help grocers, as well as separate legislation to help provide food to food shelves.Both bills would help the poor get food, Draeger said. Many food shelves buy from small stores, she said, which helps keep food prices lower than if they bought in bigger stores elsewhere. And it helps feed hungry people.“It is good on top of good,” Draeger said.Hamilton said “it is a monumental task” to get the $10 million he seeks, but an upcoming meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton is planned to address food issues.“There are additional monies out there ... to address inequities around the state,” Hamilton said. “We are going to do a pitch to the governor.”Dayton and other Democrats have been especially strong in calling for additional money to help Minnesota’s minority and other poor communities. The governor frequently has said money should be used statewide, including rural communities.Cheryal Lee Hills of the Region 5 Development Commission, which serves five central Minnesota counties, said money is needed so groups around the state can provide assistance to grocers in improving their financial operations.Draeger said that both grocers and buildings are aging.Many stores owners need to improve efficiencies, she said. Fresh produce displays, which she said often are 1950s’ vintage, are among the areas that need work, she added.With some changes, she said, produce can be kept fresh three days longer and can substantially reduce energy costs.While Hamilton’s bill has more debate in his and other committees, a bill similar to the one he wrote awaits a final Senate committee hearing.Another Hamilton measure, which is not moving in the Senate, would spend $600,000 to extend a $2 million appropriation granted last year to compensate farmers for providing fresh produce to food shelves.“No matter how well they plan, they end up with abundant yields,” Tony Mans of Second Harvest Heartland said.Farmers may overestimate needs or an expected buyer may drop out, he said. Also, some produce may not look good enough to sell, but would be fine for a food shelf.The state program, on average, pays 12 cents a pound for farmers to provide produce that otherwise would be “just plowed under,” Mans said. “I don’t know about you, but I can’t go to the grocery store and pay 12 cents per pound for any produce.”

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