“Together in Silence”

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. –Frederick Douglass

A special advertisement appears in this week’s edition of Big Stone County’s newspapers. Signed, “Two Concerned Big Stone County Residents,” the anonymous ad calls upon community members to join one or more sessions of “silent prayer/meditation for healing in our community and ourselves.” (See ad below)

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I do not doubt that these concerned residents have good intentions. I think prayer and meditation can be useful tools for healing and reassessing one’s direction and role in community.

But, in my last few years in the area (handily coinciding, I guess, with the time frame of the community “becoming fragmented”), the biggest problem I’ve seen in Big Stone County is silence. Many long and short-term residents here have related stories to me about being silenced, shut down, shut out and told either directly or indirectly what they should not say and with whom they should not associate.

One can assume that the main “event” referenced in this advertisement is the proposed Strata Quarry project. Township, county, and regional residents raised their voices, held public meetings and listening sessions, and took to their keyboards to try to raise awareness of their struggle to save the outcrops, the quality of life along the Upper Minnesota River, their health and safety, and their community sovereignty.

But now that the city has annexed a portion of the township and unanimously passed a conditional use permit for Strata to begin quarrying there, we who have fought long and hard for justice, and even to be heard, should be silent? Get over it? Accept our fate and make Minnesota nice with the people and corporations who have been deaf to our testimony?

The message of the ad, that “we need each other,” is true. But the message coming from the county and city governments was ever that we “needed” Strata more than we needed those community members whose quality of life and, in some cases, livelihoods would be diminished or destroyed by allowing the quarry project to go forward.

We do all play a vital part in our community. But too often in Big Stone County, it seems that while all residents are equal, some residents are more equal than others. And those more-equal residents have too long held the power to determine the public face, reputation, and future of this county while silencing, vilifying, or ridiculing the voices of the less-equal.

How’s that going for us? At the city’s Strata quarry CUP hearing, I was the recipient of a lecture from one of the commissioners about “people who are not from here” failing to understand that “all we have is our rock.”

I was being schooled that, with our declining, aging, and impoverished population out here on Minnesota’s west coast, we are darned lucky that we have a corporation willing to come in and pay us a pittance to take…well, all we have. I mean, thank goodness they decided to come here when everyone knows how easy it is to push through industrial development in South Dakota! And here are these agitators making so much noise and trouble that could scare them away!

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce director gets on the local radio station, pleading with business owners and local folks to be nicer to those who’ve come to live among us during the retrofit of the coal plant across the lake.  It seems a few were actually leaving due to the treatment they received here. No wonder the old joke about Ortonville “eating its young” keeps resurfacing.

Of course, they don’t eat their young, and there are lots of friendly and helpful people in Ortonville and throughout our fair county. And the question about where all the young people go is easily answered by, “we send them off to college.”

So, how come we haven’t lost ALL our population by now? Well, a few natives do return to the area, but the studies about who moves to western Minnesota clearly indicate that it’s people looking for great quality of life, opportunities to be involved in their community, and people who appreciate the rural and small town atmosphere.

The reason that people move to western Minnesota isn’t because they were hoping to get to that glorious land to our west–the place of unfettered industrial development and low taxes–but their wagon broke down on the way. The vast majority of people who move here (and people who continue to live here) are here because they WANT to live in rural western Minnesota.

And they’re not blind. In fact, with an outsider’s perspective, they can often see much more clearly what makes Big Stone County an incredibly special place–our waters and wildlife and prairies and, yes, our rocks and our people. In many cases, these outsiders (as well as many local folks) have a vision of community and economic development that sustains rather than undermines those priceless resources. But that vision lacks vocal champions in local government and economic development.

So, back to the advertisement’s call for silent prayer and meditation. If you are so moved, what would you pray for?

While I tend to subscribe to Mary Harris’ directive to, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” I’d meditate on the same things I work for: A voice for the voiceless. Justice for the people of Ortonville Township. Individuals with vision, compassion, and courage to run for public office. Real public dialogue. Preservation and appreciation of our beautiful lands and waters. Community spirit that is about cooperation rather than control.

But, I will also demand them out loud, and I will do so because, as the ad indicates, we need to move forward in a way that is productive and healthy for everyone.

And we have been silent about what way that is for too long.

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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.

Friends Indeed

A couple of months ago, a couple of our local celebrities, E & M–musicians and gatherers of lost children and all-around wonderful people–experienced a tragedy. E had a stroke and was in the hospital for over a month.  He is home now–but in a wheelchair and without the use of his left arm.

Many, many people have made the trek out to their place to help with day-to-day tasks, and a big collective effort ensued to build a ramp allowing wheelchair access to the dome house E & M built themselves.  This isn’t any run-of-the-mill ramp–the main level of the dome is high off the ground–it’s a feat of engineering and love.

The night E returned from the hospital, a windstorm came through that knocked an old tree right through the roof–ripping a big hole and spewing blown-in insulation everywhere.  H and I went out yesterday to find the fix-it team at work–replacing the insulation in the repaired ceiling.

We brought out a wheelchair that H had from when his dad was alive–one that promised to be more comfortable than the one E was currently using.  The morning before we went out, I ran into a good friend of theirs and asked what I might bring.

She said that M has been working hard to take care of E and to feed all the helpers they’ve had coming through, and maybe some food would be a good idea.  So, I loaded up a cooler with a couple of chickens and roasts, and a box of canned goods and produce.

Though M was thankful for the food, I could see it wasn’t nearly enough.  When pressed, she admitted that they had run out of food stamps and wouldn’t get another round for ten days.  They are running low on a lot of staples.  She confided that she’d spent the utility money on supplies to level the kitchen floor so E could get around more easily.

Making it harder is the timing of this tragedy–they usually have a huge, productive garden, but they weren’t able to get it in this year.  E has been the marathon canner in the family–preserving all that produce for the winter months.  M hasn’t even been able to get out to pick their strawberries or raspberries.

They are keeping their chins up–E says his “cup runneth over” and that it’s hard to feel sorry for himself and his inability to form chords on his guitar when he sees how everyone has pulled together to help.  He’s hoping to learn the keyboard–something he’s always wanted to do.

M is holding together–hosting and feeding all the folks who’ve come out to help, taking care of E, trying to make ends meet and scrimp where she can.  It’s hard to believe a heart as big as hers can fit inside that tiny but wiry and determined frame.  But it has been difficult, and the stress is peeking through the cracks of her brave demeanor.

So, as she was fixing breakfast for E, I found a pen and paper started quizzing her on what they needed–coffee? Flour? Sugar? Fruit? Everything.

This is the real good of social networking–putting the call out on Facebook, we are getting together a good delivery of basics and some treats besides.  I went to the store and picked up everything on the list and then there were donations of home-canned goodness and frozen soup and a dozen ears of corn.

And a keyboard and stand for E–and some books to go along with it.  Right now we are looking for a 12v power supply for it, but I have faith there’s one out there somewhere that will come to us.

I’m heading out this afternoon with the load (and maybe a little cash to help with the bills and other necessities) and to see if I can’t get M to let me harvest and freeze the strawberries and help fix dinner.

It should be made clear that what H and I are giving is little compared to what others have been doing over the last couple of months–it’s a small contribution beside all of the love and care and support and sheer sweat equity that has been given by friends and family since E had his stroke.

Community Garden Seed Swap and Plot Sign-Up Thursday

The Vermillion Community Garden will be hosting its second annual seed swap along with garden plot sign-up and information on Thursday, April 15th at 6:30pm in the Vermillion Public Library Community Room.

Come down and chat with fellow farmers and gardeners (all levels of expertise welcome!), bring extra seed or seed packets you have saved or purchased and can’t use all of, and any extra seed catalogs you might have, too.  You do not have to be a Vermillion Community Garden plot-holder to participate!

Those interested in leasing a plot will receive a packet of information and be able to sign up for their garden space.

Refreshments will be provided!  See you there!

Vermillion to hold "Citizens Academy"

The City of Vermillion will be holding a “Citizens Academy” in the months of February and March to provide residents over the age of eighteen with “a  free, hands-on, interactive public information program that allows citizens an insight into City services and the functions of City departments.”

The purpose of the Citizens Academy is to familiarize citizens in the community with the City of Vermillion’s government. The program will include the function of City departments, explain the relationship between the City Council, Planning Commission and City Administration, allow an overview of the budgetary process and it will provide an outlet for citizen input.

The program sounds great for those interested in running for public office who don’t fully understand how the whole thing works, as well as folks who just want basic knowledge about the workings of their fair city.  The sessions include city government and finance, water, landfill and recycling, emergency services, streets, and more.

“Graduates” of the academy will receive a “Governmentology” certificate and a key to the city–no more breaking and entering! The sessions start at 5pm and run for two Tuesday evenings in February and three Tuesdays and a Monday in March.

Click here for the City news bulletin (scroll down the page to “Citizens Academy”) and/or contact Evie Johnson at 677-7159 or eviej@cityofvermillion.com for more information.