The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) has awarded the Northland College Center for Rural Communities (CRC) nearly $310,000 for a four-year research project focused on how to strengthen the community food system in Ashland and Bayfield counties.

“The goal of this study is to find ways to make it easier for people to access food produced in the region, and in doing so, we hope to create greater sustainability for our small farms and our local economy,” said Robin Kemkes, faculty research associate at the Center for Rural Communities.

Northland College received one of 47 grants totaling nearly $17.5 million to improve sustainable agriculture and help rural communities through NIFA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) program, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“A number of factors are involved in achieving economic success in rural communities,” said NIFA Director Sonny Ramaswamy. “These NIFA investments will help us understand the social and behavioral factors that inform decision-making in agriculture, which can help rural communities thrive.”

NIFA’s integrated research, education, and extension programs support the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel. The AFRI program area of Agriculture Economics and Rural Communities supports projects that improve agriculture sustainability, protect the environment, enhance quality of life for rural communities and alleviate poverty.

“This investment by the USDA allows for us and other colleges and universities to conduct important research to foster change in rural areas and create more sustainable food models,” Kemkes said.

The CRC was created in 2015 as a way to provide research-based solutions to social and economic challenges, partners with community members to build on local knowledge, and promotes the long-term health and vitality of rural communities in the north woods region.

Kemkes and her research team, which will include undergraduate research assistants, CRC staff and faculty and assistance from community partners, will be reaching out to households and farmers across the two counties and talking with multiple stakeholders.

“The more voices that are included, the better we can make recommendations that benefit everyone,” said Kemkes.

The CRC hopes to develop innovative solutions that build on the strengths and overcome the challenges particular to this region’s food system.

“This research project provides an opportunity to both look at our food system as a whole and to dig into the details to determine what types of changes could have long-term positive impacts,” said Kemkes. “We look forward to building on the great work already in progress across our communities.”

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