CLINTON, MINN. – Each day after delivering to the roughly 250 small-town groceries in Minnesota, grocery trucks return to the warehouse empty.
But not the one that left Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery in Clinton on a Tuesday earlier this month. The truck carried 4,860 bulbs of Minnesota-grown garlic, loaded briskly that morning in the alley behind the store, back to Wadena to be sold to stores around the state.
The concept is called “backhauling” and it’s been spearheaded by an alliance of the University of Minnesota, a garlic farm and grocery store in Big Stone County, and two grocery wholesalers as part of an experiment aimed at giving local farmers a way to get their produce onto grocery store shelves.
“After that last stop, that truck is empty and it’s basically hauling air coming home,” said Duke Harrison, head of transportation and warehousing for Mason Brothers, a grocery distributor in Wadena. “The idea of the project is, how do you utilize an existing freight network without having that high freight cost, because the transportation costs have been on the rise.”
The garlic, which was grown and packed by Big Stone Garlic, ended up at Russ Davis Wholesale in Wadena, in a warehouse next door to Mason Brothers. Joe Ulrich, director of procurement for Russ Davis, said last week about 40 percent of the garlic had been sold to 25 grocery stores around the state.
The project is a boon to Big Stone Garlic, which is run by two families near Clinton. They’ve now sold out of this season’s crop and will nearly double their planting next year. But more importantly, it’s a test to see if more types of Minnesota produce can hitch a free ride to grocery distributors on the tail end of rural grocery routes.
Small-town grocery stores are “the end of the global food supply” chain and it’s not always pretty, said Kathy Draeger, who lives a few miles east of Clinton and is director of Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships at the University of Minnesota. Grocery stores receive produce after many miles of travel and it’s rarely in the best condition.
“What if it was the opposite?” Draeger said. “What if these grocery stores were the point of entry for fresh, healthy local food into the supply chain, rather than the end of the road?”
Les and Jessica Olson and Russ Swenson, the owners of Big Stone Garlic, were up before the sun, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup at the Olsons’ farm on the west shore of Artichoke Lake with the white boxes of garlic stacked behind them. The families cleaned and packed garlic the day before.
Draeger, who’s been working on the backhaul project for more than two years, pulled up.
“Have you heard from the truck?” Les Olson asked.
“Yep, they’ll be here at 6:55,” Draeger said.
Timing and speed were critical, since Mason Brothers, which was running the truck, needed the garlic loaded in less than 15 minutes to avoid disrupting the driver’s route.
When everyone arrived at Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery that morning, the yellow truck with the white trailer was already out back. The driver, Jake Hauer, was busy and cheerful, pushing boxes of graham crackers, french onion dip and Miracle Whip down a little roller conveyor to Bonnie Carlson, who stacked them in the back aisle of her store.
Carlson seemed bemused by the project, of which she is a participant because her store is the cross-docking site.
“It’s intriguing to see if it’ll get a good response,” Carlson said. “I’m always willing to try new things I guess.”
Draeger said she had butterflies in her stomach, mostly because she wanted to make sure they could load the garlic onto the truck quickly enough.
“From the time that truck unloads all the groceries, we’re going to be running a stopwatch,” she said.
There was a hiccup. Hauer, the driver, said he thought he should unload groceries at the store in Graceville before he headed back through Clinton on his way to Milbank, S.D. Could they wait? he asked. This was a wrinkle, but, Draeger reasoned, the success of the backhaul project depended on happy, cooperative delivery drivers.
“If the delivery driver says he wants to drop off in Graceville and then come back and pick up the garlic, we’ll go with that,” she announced. “It’s an experiment.”
Hauer drove off with a promise he’d return in about an hour. Meanwhile, Draeger had another idea. If farmers could help store owners unload groceries more quickly, maybe they could buy themselves more time to load their own produce into the empty space on the truck.
The Olsons, Swenson and the U staff headed across the street to the Downtown Diner for breakfast as the Mason Brothers truck roared off.
Pancakes, eggs, bacon and hash browns were on the menu and the portions were hearty. Les Olson and Swenson explained that they only farm about half an acre for garlic. It’s a low-cost, high-return crop if you can sell it, which they haven’t always been able to do despite having a website and going to farmers markets and garlic festivals.
In 2015, they had to give half their crop to a Second Harvest food bank. So they jumped at the chance to see if grocery stores would buy their garlic and sell it.
Hauer pulled the truck back up a little before 9:30 a.m. Jessica Olson slid the boxes out the back of the pickup and her husband and Swenson handed them to Hauer, as Draeger hovered with the stopwatch running on her smartphone.
They easily beat the 15-minute goal. Hauer wrapped green plastic around the boxes to secure them for the trip back to Wadena, and he was off.
“I think this is something that has a good chance of being scalable,” said Harrison, of Mason Brothers.
Garlic is a good test product because it’s cured before it goes to the warehouse, so it can sit for a while. Big Stone Garlic’s cloves cost about four times as much as the commodity garlic that makes up the bulk of the market. If it continues to sell, that will be a good sign that shoppers will buy local produce, which is crucial to the success of the backhauling project.
“You get that initial pull and then you wait for reorders. This week has been light on the reorders,” Ulrich said. “Garlic has a long shelf life, so to make any determination at this point I think would be too soon.”
The grant funding the work on the backhaul project expires in April. Draeger has applied for another grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture. She said the program will expand to other grocery stores next year, and hopefully add other types of produce.
Popcorn and edible beans come to mind. “We’re open to suggestions,” she said.