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.

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St. Charles Does it Right. Is Ortonville Listening?

This morning’s Star Tribune features an article on a municipality that is responsive to the needs of its citizens–and respectful of its relationships with other local governments.

In “Mining-hub town of St. Charles says no to major frac sand facility,” Tony Kennedy reports,

The City Council unanimously passed the resolution denying all annexation requests from landowners in neighboring St. Charles Township who are aligned with frac sand developer Minnesota Proppant LLC for a major project.

The company had sought city annexation of its proposed site, now farmland, because township officials were against the project.

In many ways, the situation in St. Charles resembles that in Big Stone County, where, in early 2012, Strata Corporation sought a CUP for an aggregate quarry along the upper Minnesota River, in Ortonville Township.

Despite intense citizen opposition to the project, the CUP was granted by Big Stone County Commissioners last spring–but not before the Ortonville Township Board of Supervisors passed an interim ordinance in order to study the effects of further industrial development in the township, and to protect the health, safety, and quality of life of its residents.

The interim ordinance, which placed a moratorium on new development and enabled the township to take over its own land use planning, was seen as the safest route after it became clear, during public hearings and individual meetings with county commissioners, that county officials felt pressured by Strata and Ortonville EDA Director Vicki Oakes (who resigned her other position as chair of the county’s planning & zoning commission after their approval of Strata’s CUP) to do the company’s bidding rather than that of the majority of their own citizens.

Stymied by the Township’s interim ordinance, Oakes worked (and continues to work) with Strata Corp. and proposed quarry site landowners to circumvent citizens’ rights to determine what constitutes appropriate development in their midst, and to undermine working relationships between local governments. Oakes’ blog, “Quarry Talk,” ridiculed Ortonville Township for their work protecting area residents. In a post dated August 5 of last year, “New Township Zoning-The Future!” Oakes wrote,

If individual Township Zoning is such a great idea – and surely we come from a very rich tax base so as to afford and encourage this – I was thinking that maybe then it would make sense for all 14 of our Townships to also create their own comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.  But then I was thinking, I live in Ortonville – and we have a population of about 1,900 vs that of the appx. 100 or less of the Ortonville Township… maybe, so that I am better represented in my immediate neighborhood, the City of Ortonville should break into Wards of about the same size… 19 wards in Ortonville with their own Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Ordinances… and of course Boards and Staff to maintain them.

Beyond the ridicule, a further point of the post appears to be discrediting the work of area nonprofit organizations (Clean Up the River Environment is specifically targeted) as enemies and outside agitators. We all know small non-profits have loads of free time and cash just so they can show up and “make trouble”–never mind their strong local membership base and those explicit requests for help from residents. It’s a running joke community organizers are well aware of.

But let’s get back to the parallels and divergences of the St. Charles City/St. Charles Township situation. Like in Ortonville Township, landowners with a stake in the St. Charles frac sand development project attempted to persuade the neighboring city to annex the land away from the township. In the City of Ortonville, the reaction was to hastily change zoning rules to avoid more messy public hearings, and to move full speed ahead on annexation–damn the torpedoes and the people who live there.

This morning’s Star Tribune article paints a very different (and yes, I think pleasing) picture of what can happen when local government actually listens:

The company had sought city annexation of its proposed site, now farmland, because township officials were against the project.

Mayor Bill Spitzer said the issue was tearing the community apart. His biggest reason for saying “no” to the project, he said, was to stay on good terms with the township. “Once you start destroying relationships, you can’t move forward,” Spitzer said.

Throughout public hearings on both county (back when they had jurisdiction) and city levels, we in Big Stone County have heard time and again that intergovernmental relationships and citizen sentiment don’t have a place in the process. So long as the corporation has fulfilled all its paperwork and permit obligations, we’ve been told, local government officials have to say yes.

Residents have also been told, during public hearings on Ortonville city’s annexation of the proposed quarry site (which would handily remove the township’s jurisdictional prerogative), that no comments would be allowed concerning the proposed use of the land. “That’s land use,” we were told. “This hearing is only about annexation.” Speakers at the hearing were cut off if they diverged into why the city was considering annexation of the don’t-say-quarry site. And more than one of those speakers called BS–as they should. That hearing, according to the bulk of attendees, was an embarrassment to good government.

In the City of St. Charles, a very different story has played out, and a very different outcome achieved:

The proposed resolution stated several reasons the city is denying annexation, including “significant opposition from its citizens,” a desire to “maintain positive intergovernmental relations” with the township, and its own concerns over potential environmental, financial, regulatory and transportation-related impacts of the project.

Wait…what? You mean you can actually deny annexation on these grounds–and because of the actual project that’s proposed there?

Well, of course you can. And it’s what we’ve been saying all along here in Big Stone County.

The question we’re left with now is this: who’s been pulling the wool over whose eyes? Has Strata so dazzled some local government officials with their suits and lawyers that our representatives have come to believe they no longer hold the power we citizens have invested in them?

Or are local government officials feeding us a hands-tied line we’ve known all along (and the St. Charles decision exemplifies) to be false?

Currently, the City of Ortonville, Strata Corp., Ortonville EDA, and the landowners (the proposed quarry site was split into narrow slivers with different owners–each touching the city boundary–to circumvent state law allowing annexation of only 120 acres per owner per year) are awaiting word from the state’s Municipal Boundaries Adjustment Unit on whether their eagerly-anticipated annexation will be approved.

Ortonville Township has, of course, offered detailed objections to the annexation, including questions about the baffling assertion by landowners that the site, which has been home to grazing cattle for decades and granite outcrops (for which our county is named) for millennia, has always been industrial in nature.

If the MBAU approves the city’s annexation (the decision is expected by the end of this week), we expect the new Strata CUP application to arrive at the Ortonville city office within days, and the public hearing shortly to follow.

And, thanks to St. Charles’ fine example, we are now all very clear on what major development decisions can, and ought to be based on. You can be sure that, should the quarry permitting process move forward, each city council member will receive their very own annotated copy of Kennedy’s article, along with some very pointed questions about the city’s process during the upcoming public hearing.

This Old Home

Winter is always a busy time for food and farm-related events. Everything that can be scheduled into the months when farmers are not full time in the fields clogs the calendar, and a gal finds herself remembering “slow” months in summer that don’t actually exist except in the fuzzy nostalgia of her mind.

Maybe the fair weather months just seem more relaxed because getting there and back from everything that needs doing and everyone that needs visiting is less of a crap shoot. There’s less watching the weather forecasts for potential hazards, possible cancellations, late arrivals, and early departures–but then there’s a different weather-watching for periods of sun and rain–each stirring its own sense of satisfaction or frustration depending on what work needs doing.

Winter’s work pace has ramped up even more for me and John lately as we get our respective houses up to snuff for putting on the market, as well as planning our projects on the farmstead we’ll be closing on at the end of the month.

We’d been scouting the Milan-to-Montevideo stretch and endured a couple of disappointments since we started looking at places right before Thanksgiving. In a twist neither of us expected (and I expected it least of all), we’re settling right here in Big Stone County, on 14 acres owned by my friends Joanne and Simon, who’ve moved on to a better employment situation in New Ulm.

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I still love my big old house in Clinton, but in the last month I’ve found myself getting more and more excited about the prospect of turning it over to a new owner–especially as we’ve made, in just a few weeks, more improvements on the space than I was capable of muddling through in the year and four months that I’ve held the keys.

Most of the credit goes to John, who’s been working long hours during the weeks that I’ve been running around the area, region, and state, answering to all the demands of the aforementioned clogged calendar. Shortly after I took ownership back in late 2011, I decided to live mainly on the main floor, so I could work on restoring the three wallpaper-encrusted, beat-up bedrooms upstairs.

Months went by with only a little progress stolen out of a busy schedule–a little stripping here, a little priming there. A new, more efficient furnace installed last winter, and, last summer, the living room floor stripped of carpet and gummy old black backer, then sanded and finished to reveal the luminous quarter-sawn oak underneath. The deteriorating front deck removed.

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In the last couple of weeks, things have started to come together upstairs. The front bedroom’s puppy and kitten wallpaper border removed–walls primed and painted, and the floor and trim–already having been painted more than once, have new, fresh coats.

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The back bedroom–the worst of the trio with its cracked plaster and layers of painted-over wallpaper, is an entirely new space. John broke out the old newspaper-backed plaster patches and made smooth and solid repairs. I worked with him last weekend to steam and scrape off the last of the old wallpaper, and now the walls are freshly painted, and the trim is ready for painting, too.

It’s exciting to see this grand old house, in its 104th year, start to regain some of its former glory. Built on strong bones and with gorgeous materials, a lot of its needs are cosmetic ones, and we’ve made great strides in fulfilling those needs.

There’s something about a house like this that is more than a place to hang one’s individual hat. This home, built only 26 years after the birth of Clinton itself, holds a great deal of its history–some of it in the lovely old three-volume abstract of title, some hand-painted by our local sign maker on a board that’s in the shop, and some of it residing in the living memory of people who’ve lived in it as adults or played in it as kids.

As newcomers, John and I don’t have much of a claim here in Clinton–no deep roots or family ties, but it’s cool to play even a small part as caretakers and restorers of one of its great old homes.

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I hope the next owners will give as much love and have as much respect for this grand old house and this wonderful little community as I do.

 

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!

Spaces Still Available for Farm Beginnings in Sioux Falls!

Farm Beginnings is a farmer-led training and support program offered by Dakota Rural Action that provides participants an opportunity to learn first-hand about low cost, sustainable methods of farming and offers the tools to successfully launch a farm enterprise.

The course runs from fall through spring, with participants meet two Saturdays per month to learn about farm planning, financial planning, resources, marketing, and more. The next course starts in November, and applications are being accepted now!

Anyone interested in developing or transitioning their farm enterprise can and should apply. Participants can be of any age, do not need to own land, and prospective, beginning, part-time, and full-time farmers are welcome!

Participants come with a wide array of sustainable farming interests and experience, including:
Cattle, hogs, goats, poultry, and other livestock
Dairy Vegetable and fruit production
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets
Grains
Fiber production
Specialty products like value-added foods
Flowers

The size and scale of production ranges from very small (just a few acres or a small urban plot) to large (hundreds or thousands of acres in production). Experience levels range from no experience farming to currently owning and operating their own farm.

To find out more about Dakota Rural Action’s Farm Beginnings course, visit their website.

Also be on the lookout for Farm Dreams workshops being held this winter through Land Stewardship Project and Dakota Rural Action on both sides of the Minnesota-South Dakota border.