Today, people associate Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo. with food innovation. A century ago, Minneapolis would have been on that list. The city earned the nickname "Mill City" for its flour milling techniques that harnessed the power of St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River. Now, a new group called Grow North MN wants to restore Minnesota's place as a known food hub. Director Lauren Mehler Pradhan believes Minnesota has it all, from growers to small food makers to multinational agribusiness. With the support of the University of Minnesota, a major land grant institution and a leader in food and agriculture research, along with a plethora of food associations, she hopes to build up Minnesota's image and secure its future as a leader in food.
Q: What is the purpose of Grow North MN?
A: We want to put Minnesota on the map as a leading hub for food and ag innovation. We have, truly, from farm to fork to disposal, the whole chain here, but yet we are not getting the recognition for that. And we have a variety of organizations that work on all aspects of the food system, but they are not working together as hard as they could.
Q: How did this group come about?
A: Grow North MN came together as an idea through the Minnesota Cup, which is a part of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the U of M. Minnesota Cup had formed the food and ag division three years ago and it was the fastest-growing division and it had all these people starting to rally around it. Everyone kept saying we have all these amazing resources and people here and yet we are not at a tipping point yet. We realized we needed to pull it all together to make it work faster, smarter, better.
Q: What are the barriers to Minnesota achieving greater visibility?
A: There's a humility to Minnesota that is wonderful at times, but is also something we have to overcome in order to really take our place and say it's all here. Being loud about it is something I strongly encourage my partners to do.
Q: What does it mean to be a food hub?
A: It is important that Minnesota is perceived as a hub, a leading place of innovation in food and agriculture, because Minnesota has been innovating in food for over 150 years. It is the home of agriculture in many ways, if you think of crops being grown and sent down the river. I don't think we should forget our history of being food entrepreneurs — because it is still happening. We have people creating really wonderful products, interesting stuff happening in agriculture technology and food waste. It is the heritage we have and it is a pillar for Minnesota for where we want to go. It should be something we celebrate, partner together to support and invest in. When that happens, you then have job creation, you then have a thriving economy that people want to move to and want to stay in.
Q: What does Grow North MN do?
A: Grow North is about driving connections in the community. We narrowed down on three areas of focus. One was about making information easier to find. We also have a resource library where we've put a lot of the laws and regulations because you don't want to hurt anyone with the products you make, so you want to make sure you are following all the rules. We also wanted to create really substantive programs and events.
Q: What role do big companies play in supporting entrepreneurs and how does it benefit them?
A: People more and more look to corporations to be leaders. These companies see an opportunity to invest in Grow North to help support that community, on the ground, in the trenches. We all own this community. We have a lot of passionate folks in big food companies and a lot of passionate folks in start-ups and we want to build that bridge. We have mentoring programs that pair employees from companies like General Mills and Land O'Lakes with entrepreneurs to help answer their questions. Entrepreneurs, who have passion, tenacity and amazing products, may not know some of the fundamentals that literally someone at General Mills could spend their entire career thinking about. For the big businesses, it's a way for their employees to engage with the entrepreneur community, which inspires them.
Q: Your first big event, I understand, is coming up — in California?
A: We are hosting an event in partnership with Greater MSP, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Economic Development at Expo West, the largest natural foods show in the country — if not the world — to get Minnesota together. We are calling it Minnesota Mingle. I think it is important it happens at Expo West because, in packaged foods, it is our Super Bowl with over 70,000 people who attend. There are over 50 Minnesota food companies showing their products there, as well as a dozen that just go to walk for trends. We are all there for food. It's on all our minds. It's important because it shows, whether you are big or small, we are in it together, we are all Minnesota.