Keeping the Community in Healthy Food Access

Accessing fresh, healthy, and affordable foods in rural communities can be a real struggle. Helping people in Big Stone County build those healthy, local food systems has been my work for the past couple of years, and we have seen some good results from it, along with some economic revitalization in the local food sector. There’s always more to be done.

Production of and access to fresh, affordable produce in a rural “food desert” is a problem with many facets: producers cope with weather stresses, low prices, and lack of markets for their product; retailers deal with quality, pricing, and sourcing issues, and consumers may not always be able to get what they want for a price they’re comfortable paying.

So, it seems like any strategy that can help community members increase their access to and intake of fresh fruits and veggies at an affordable price would be a real boon. Bountiful Baskets, a buying club with chapters across the western U.S. and now starting up in Ortonville, purports to do just that. For a $15 (or $25 for the organic option) “financial contribution,” local residents will be able to place an order online for a large portion of produce and pick it up every other week.

Bountiful Baskets calls itself a “Food Co-op,” and its local organizers refer to it as a “non-profit volunteer co-op.” But Bountiful Baskets does not appear to be incorporated as a co-op nor registered as a non-profit in any of the several western states’ records I searched. It was started in 2009 as a for-profit corporation in Arizona, and it was administratively dissolved by the state in 2011 for failure to file annual reports.

Still, Bountiful Baskets organizers refer to the service in the language used by its administrators, and those administrators are careful to indicate that you are not “ordering” the merchandise, you’re contributing to a pool of money to, well, order something with a whole bunch of other people:

“Making a contribution is sometimes referred to as ‘ordering’, but this is not accurate. We call it contributing or participating, because Bountiful Baskets is not a business that you buy from, but rather a co-op where we all pool our money to buy things together.”

So, why does it matter that they are not incorporated as an actual co-op or non-profit? Because being a real co-op actually means something beyond putting your money in a collective pot to purchase a basket of goods–specifically, a co-op is a member-owned, democratically controlled enterprise that operates according to a specific set of principles. The Granary Food Co-op in Ortonville is one such incorporated cooperative, serving its member-owners and community since 1979.

Being a non-profit actually means something, too. Actual non-profits must report how their money is spent–but Bountiful Baskets is silent on the subject of staff, profits, or anything fiscally related other than the above-quoted “contribution” piece. Being a non-profit does not simply mean that you’re relying on local people to do work without being paid, which is a part of the Bountiful scheme.

Bountiful Baskets and its organizers talk about this service being a great community-building enterprise, and there certainly does seem to be a sense of camaraderie among the volunteers at pick-up sites from the comments and reviews I saw online. But, no money is retained in the local community from these online “contributions.” Food from Mexico and the southwestern U.S. comes in on a truck and gets sorted out and taken home by individual “contributors,” bypassing local grocery stores, local farmers markets, and yes, the local food co-op.

In short, Bountiful Baskets is simply a buying club–and one in which you’ll for the most part be purchasing things you can already get locally. Calling it a co-op or a non-profit or comparing it to a CSA (you never know what you’ll get!) or farmers market (all that produce!) is simply disingenuous–capitalizing on the good feelings people have for those things while not actually doing the things that make people feel good about them.

This is not to disparage those unpaid local organizers attempting to set up chapters in their communities–I can certainly empathize with the strain of sourcing good food on a budget–it is simply to tell the truth about what this business is and what it isn’t.

And it is also to ask specific questions: Where do the “contributions” go? Where does the food come from? Who is making money from this enterprise, and how much are they making?

Yes, ordering through Bountiful Baskets can save you money. But the money you’re saving over buying locally is money that pays for local jobs and local infrastructure in your community. It’s money that keeps the rent paid, the lights on, the coolers running, and the farmers farming. It’s money that pays for employees and the merchandise they stock on the shelves.

Building local food systems and increasing access to healthy food isn’t just about the food itself–it’s also about the role of healthy food and local grocery stores in a strong and diversified local economy. Sourcing cheaper produce by circumventing local retailers may be a boost for your family’s budget, but it should not be confused with real strategies for building and investing in community.

Supper Salad Season!

All hail the return of the supper salad! It’s produce season again in the Big Stone County area, and while the farmers markets don’t start for close to two weeks, there’s produce to be had if you know where to find it. Soon, it will be at The Granary Coop–hopefully as soon as tomorrow or Wednesday!

All Hail the Supper Salad!

I snuck on over to Milbank to Rocky Gardens roadside stand to pick up their advertised asparagus, lettuce, and radishes on Saturday afternoon. I’d seen the signs up last week, and I was dreamin’ and droolin’ over the prospect of some green (and red) goodness. It has been too long!

Saturday night, I brought steamed, buttered, and lemon-juiced asparagus spears to my friends’ house for supper (and the next day I returned to help clean their chicken coop–don’t underestimate my desire for free manure!). There were a few spears left over (I made a lot), so I added them to lettuce, sliced radishes, and a sliced-up Pastures A Plenty mild Italian brat for a big supper salad all for me.

When I do a supper salad, I don’t mess around. I just go ahead and use a big serving bowl to create the thing because a stingy little soup or cereal bowl won’t be nearly enough. And because I live on the prairie (OK–and because I admit to liking it a good deal), I dressed it with a little Annie’s Cowgirl Ranch dressing from the Granary.

So, you may think this is effete or silly or whatever, but one of the things I replaced pretty quickly after getting back into a home place after last summer’s fire was my salad spinner. I am really not a fan of all the latest kitchen gadgets and gewgaws and especially of tools that take up a lot of space and only do one thing, but a salad spinner is a tool that does one thing really, really well. It helps wash and dry leafy greens quickly and neatly.

True story: back when I was married and we moved out of our very first co-residence, we had to leave a lot of stuff behind as we traveled across the US. One of those things was the salad spinner I bought at Orange Tree Imports in the Monroe Street district of Madison, WI. I bought that spinner after I joined Vermont Valley Community Farm CSA as a worker-member, and I realized that it would make my life about a bazillion times easier.

So, I brought that spinner with me back to South Dakota, and then I left it in a storage shed to be plundered by friends the second time I left the state. Who knows what ever happened to it. The next spinner lasted a bit longer–bought at a drugstore in the same town where I abandoned my first spinner, and I kept that second one through thick and thin (and living on the rez, and the divorce, and later moving to Minnesota) until arson claimed it.

Along the way, I also acquired a 5 gallon salad spinner–used for dealing with big batches of greens coming out of my market gardens. I tell you–once you are spinning salads and greens for twenty CSA members of your own plus your farmers market customers with a single-family spinner, the big investment in a professional model doesn’t seem so bad.

Gone, but not forgotten

That spinner also melted down in the fire, and I’m not sure when or if it’ll be replaced.

Anyhow, my point about all this is that there are some kitchen tools that only do one thing that are still worth having if you can swing it. Even with a limited amount of storage space. Even though they might seem effete or silly or whatever. The best thing about a salad spinner is simply this: it will encourage you to eat more leafy greens.

And though I’m not as happy with the new spinner as I was with my old one, I’m sure happy to be eating greens again!

PS–The Big Stone Lake Area Farmers Market starts soon! Ortonville: Saturday mornings starting May 12th. Clinton: Tuesday evenings starting May 15th.

Twitter, E-Mail, and Blogs, Oh My! Online Marketing Workshop for Farmers March 19 in Milan

Are you interested in marketing your farm and its products online but don’t know where to start? Join Land Stewardship Project and University of Minnesota Extension for a workshop highlighting some of the many available social media and internet marketing tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites, and how they can be used to connect your farm to potential customers throughout the region.

Ryan Pesch, U of M Extension educator, will delve into the specifics of online marketing tools (from free to $$) and provide individual assistance to farmers wanting to get started using these tools. Regional producers will discuss their online marketing strategies, the costs, the benefits, and how to build customer relationships by telling their farm story to an online audience.

Join us at the Milan Community School in Milan, MN on Monday, March 19 from 9-noon. Light refreshments will be provided. Fee for the workshop is $10 for LSP members and $15 for non-members. RSVP to Rebecca Terk, LSP Community Based Food Systems Organizer: (320) 305-9685 or rebeccat@landstewardshipproject.org.

This workshop will also occur in southeast Minnesota on March 27th. For details about the location or to RSVP, please contact LSP’s Caroline van Schaik: (507) 523-3366 or caroline@landstewardshipproject.org.

 

Local Foods Distribution in Western MN–Making it Happen

According to a recent USDA Economic Research Service report [pdf], “For local foods production to continue to grow, marketing channels and supply chain infrastructure must deepen.”

While farmers markets, roadside stands, and other direct-to-consumer marketing arrangements are a good way for a vendor to develop close relationships with valued customers (and for those customers to better know their food, their farmer, and his or her practices), direct-to-consumer sales can also be time-consuming, and according to the report, “account for only a relatively small portion of total local food sales.”

Local foods producers and advocates have long discussed the problem of aggregation, storage, and distribution in rural areas, but not enough has been done to solve the problems faced by producers wanting to expand their operation, or who already have plenty of product, but not enough market.

On Saturday, January 21st in Milan, Minnesota, Land Stewardship Project is holding a Profitable Collaborative Marketing workshop for farmers. This is an opportunity for western MN and northeastern SD producers to come together and do more than simply “admire the problem.” We will be learning about a variety of regional aggregation, distribution, and marketing ventures, and then working in groups to start developing our own.

This free workshop runs from 10am-3pm, and lunch will be provided. Preregistration is required by contacting LSP’s Tom Taylor at (320) 269-2105 or e-mailing ttaylor@landstewardshipproject.org.

For more details about the workshop and our presenters, read the press release at LSP’s website here.

Hope to see you there.

Thinking about getting into farming? Farm Dreams is a good place to start

I meet all kinds of people who want to get into farming–whether it’s someone who wants to expand a backyard garden or cultivate a field for vegetable production, raise chickens to market eggs and meat, or get into larger pastured livestock production, organic grains, fiber, dairy, you name it! It seems like everyone has a “farm dream.”

But moving those dreams toward reality is a big step. How to get started, time, access to land, money, markets,–all those questions can cause a person with a farm dream to put it back on the shelf with a sigh–and without action.

Truth is, we need more farmers on the land to provide for an ever-growing demand for locally and regionally produced farm products and to strengthen our rural communities and economies. We need you and your farm dream!

Every year, Land Stewardship Project holds a couple of workshops that are helpful for exploring the aspirations of would-be farmers with a vision but without a clear idea of how to start down the path. The Farm Dreams workshop “…is the first step in planning an educational path toward farming and is designed to help people who are seeking practical, common sense information on whether farming is for them,” says Nick Olson, a Farm Beginnings instructor.

This year, the class is being held in Clinton, Minnesota (my fair city!) on Sunday, January 8th from 1-5pm. Class size is limited and the deadline is fast approaching, so pre-registration is required. The class costs $20 for LSP members and $40 for non-members, and it’s probably the best investment of time and money a farm dreamer can make.

Click HERE for the Farm Dreams workshop press release on the Land Stewardship Project website. For more information on the workshop (and to register), contact Nick at (320) 269-2105 or nicko@landstewardshipproject.org.

Hope to see you there!