MASON CITY | A new North Iowa business is hoping to better connect North Iowans with locally produced food.

North Iowa Fresh LLC was created earlier this year and began selling locally grown produce this spring.

"This connects with Healthy Harvest of North Iowa's goals," said Jan Libbey, coordinator of Healthy Harvest and member of North Iowa Fresh.

Healthy Harvest of North Iowa is a network of partners helping to increase the visibility of and access to local food. One of its goals involves moving into other markets besides farmers markets. A grant allowed the organization to explore marketing and it was decided that producers should join together to form a business.

"For me alone to go into a bigger market, I don't have enough to offer a place like Hy-Vee West or a school system," said Jim Cherry, vice chairman of North Iowa Fresh and owner of Winnebago Beeline & Gardens, Ventura.

That is why local producers, who are also part of Buy Fresh, Buy Local, decided to join together to form an actual business. It includes six founding members and nine associate members. Each has invested money in North Iowa Fresh, Libbey said.

Its formation has allowed local food growers to wholesale items to Hy-Vee West, Mason City, and direct to consumers through the website www.northiowafood.org.

"The kale is picked just an hour prior (to delivery)," Cherry said about the kale he's been supplying to Hy-Vee West.

He hopes to be able to deliver cucumbers soon, and Libbey also has been delivering spinach to Hy-Vee West through her own business, One Step at a Times Garden, Kanawha.

“I really like it,” said Mark Hoppel, produce manager at Hy-Vee West, about selling North Iowa Fresh products. “I’m really impressed with how their products look. Their quality has been really superb.”

He said the spinach has been selling well and he expects more popular produce like cucumbers to do well, too.

Libbey said the products are marked with the North Iowa Fresh logo, and Hoppel said additional signage has been added.

"The challenge is getting good signage so people know that it didn't come from just anywhere but from here," Libbey said.

Another challenge, she said, is getting producers to predict when products will be available and how much they will have. This applies to both wholesale and the direct-to-consumer website.

Through the website, North Iowa Fresh has offered two rounds of picnic baskets filled with locally produced items such as bread, honey, tomatoes, eggs and yogurt. Shoppers can order the basket for a set price and then also buy a la carte. The goods are then delivered on a set date in Algona, Clear Lake, Hampton and Osage.

North Iowa Fresh members also have the option of selling their own items in between basket orders.

"It was OK," Libbey said about the first order. "It was a little slow."

She said North Iowa Fresh needs to market the website more.

Overall, North Iowa Fresh hopes to develop both the wholesale and website markets more. Libbey said on the wholesale side there is the potential to work with restaurants, more grocery stores and schools.

However, she noted, North Iowa Fresh is still in the beginning stages and learning.

"You really have to take baby steps," Libbey said.

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