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.

HF 1127–Boon for Quarries, Bad for Communities

A new bill came sailing into my inbox a couple of days ago that is a boon for L.G. Everist, but bad for two of the communities in which they operate.

Authored by District 12A Rep. Jay McNamar, HF 1127 provides for double semi trailer-loads of rock coming out of Everist’s Ortonville and Jasper, MN facilities to be transported on highways from those operations via the shortest route to South Dakota highways, where double semi trailers are currently legal.

Double semi-trailers are not currently legal on highways in Minnesota, but this isn’t the only way in which this bill sets bad precedent.

The route proposed from the Everist quarry in Ortonville Township would take loaded double semi trailers of rock up US Highway 75 to the junction of US Highway 12, with a left hand turn at one of the busiest (and most accident-prone) intersections in the county, then down the hill on US Highway 12 into Ortonville, with another left hand turn at a busy, uncontrolled intersection onto the section of US 12 that crosses the Minnesota River into Big Stone City, SD.

(May I also mention the bad precedent of a DFL’er authoring a bill that solely benefits a single corporation, with no thought to its adverse and potentially lethal impacts to the community it affects?)

As the new state representative of the district that includes Big Stone County, perhaps McNamar could be forgiven for mistakenly believing he was doing something positive for the Ortonville community.

However, McNamar made no mention of this bill at the recent cracker barrel in Ortonville nor in this week’s column in local papers, so it comes as quite a surprise to McNamar’s local constituents–especially those in Ortonville Township, who’ve struggled so long and hard to defend their quality of life in spite of unresponsive and occasionally hostile local government.

McNamar’s (Everist’s?) bill currently resides in the Transportation Policy Committee. I strongly urge you to contact members of the committee and tell them to kill this bad bill before someone else gets killed at these already dangerous intersections.

And make sure to contact Representative Jay McNamar (pronounced Mc-NAME-ur), too, and let him know that while we in Big Stone County value our local businesses, we also value our people. And good legislation needs to balance the best interests of both.

[Addition: This bill would also presumably help Strata Corp, with their proposed quarry site along that same stretch of the Upper Minnesota River. Strata is currently sourcing rock from L.G. Everist’s Ortonville Township quarry while they await word from the State of Minnesota about their quarry site’s annexation by the City of Ortonville. Strata officials told the county during CUP hearings that they’d put their rock on rail cars, but it seems likely that if this bill goes through, the US 75 to US 12 route would be blasted wide open to increasingly heavy quarry truck traffic.]

Democracy & the (Im)Polite Objection

How annoying to hear the commentary following last Thursday night’s vice presidential debate.

I’m talking about all the, “Joe Biden was too aggressive” crap. Apparently, it’s “not done” for Democrats and Progressives to call out their opponents on their bullsh…er, malarkey. We’re supposed to be the polite objectors–the effete, “I say old chap! I’m sorry, but I don’t quite agree with what you’re saying over there,” foils to the brutes and bullies stepping on our heads.

Well, I think Joe was great. He called out all the ways in which Ryan and his Mitt’s policies would harm the working class, the middle class, the elderly–the majority of people in this country. And he looked like he was having a great time doing it. It’s not that the issues aren’t serious, but quite frankly, a professorial tone isn’t the best way to reach that majority of people Joe was defending.

And, it’s not that I don’t appreciate calm and rational discussion of facts and the merits of policy. Civil discourse is a great thing. But when opponents are anything but rational and civil, well, the gloves have to come off. And it always amuses me how utterly horrified and alarmed the reaction is from those who seem to think they have a right to wield power.

Just a reminder: the whole point of democracy is that power comes from the people. If you misuse that power and mistreat the people, the power you’ve been given can and should be taken away.

Lately, I’m seeing some of this horrified-and-alarmed reaction on a local level–though here in Big Stone County it isn’t about whether one is a Democrat or Republican. It’s more about whether local government’s process should be by the people and for the people–or whether it should be by a corporation and for them, too.

For one, the citizens have learned that calling out public employees and elected officials on false or misleading statements, conflicts of interest, and non-transparent governing processes regarding permitting a destructive quarry, overstepping jurisdiction, and land-grabbing through annexation is Just. Not. Done.

In the Just-Not-Done view, it’s OK for a public employee to publicly ridicule and attempt to undermine a local government’s state-sanctioned right to engage in their own land use planning process (First Amendment rights!), but it’s Definitely Not OK for local citizens, who are contributing to that person’s salary through their tax dollars, to publicly question how those behaviors affect good relations in and among governing bodies in the county.

One might follow that “logic,” to say that some people have more First Amendment rights than others.

In terms of First Amendment rights, it’s true that the rules for disciplining public employees on their speech are somewhat tricky. But a little research about Discipline and Workplace Rights makes clear that, “[E]ven if the speech addresses matters of public concern, when the employee’s speech rights are outweighed by the disruption that the speech causes to the operations of government, the employer can discipline the employee for speech.”

Shoot. That wasn’t very polite to point out, was it?

The other totally impolite objection to those currently in power in Big Stone County is occurring in a couple of races for county commission. In two districts, write-in candidates are opposing incumbent commissioners who overstepped their jurisdiction and ignored constituent voices in approving the Conditional Use Permit for Strata Corp’s proposed aggregate quarry at the headwaters of the Minnesota River.

In District 5 (which includes Ortonville Township–site of the proposed quarry and current city annexation fight–as well as Precinct 2 in Ortonville City, Odessa Township and the City of Odessa), Mike Hartman is running as a write-in against incumbent Joseph Berning. In District 3, which includes the Cities of Clinton and Correll, as well as Townships of Almond, Akron, Artichoke, and Otrey, write-in candidate Mark Block is running against incumbent Brent Olson.

Reports have it that at least one of the incumbents is completely shocked (shocked!) that someone would run against him, as he thinks he’s done a fine job.

Of course, in a democracy, it’s not really about what an elected official thinks of the job he or she has done, it’s about what the people think of the job he or she has done.

So, it will be interesting to see how well the write-in candidates can get their messages heard and names recognized by the public in the weeks leading up to the election. Write-in campaigns have a notoriously low success rate, but with a small population it may well be easier for those candidates to let the public know they have a choice.

However impolite that may be.

Big Hole County?

Last Thursday night, I attended the Big Stone County Planning Commission’s public hearing on Strata Corporation’s proposed new mining project along the Hwy 7/75 and Minnesota River corridors south of Ortonville.

Clinton’s Memorial Building was packed when I walked in at 7:30pm. The first hour and forty minutes of the public hearing were devoted to Stata Corp’s presentation, an executive summary of which is linked to here.

Because I was sitting in the back of the room, it was hard to make out names–I did not see a hand out that gave information on who was presenting, but I was under the impression that there was a project manager and an environmental consultant to the company. There might’ve been a third presenter, but it was difficult to see over all of the heads and distinguish which of the company’s people (all of whom had their backs to the public) was speaking at any given time.

Before I write about the content of the presentation, let me say that I did not arrive at the hearing set against the project. I grew up in a family whose bread and butter came from the construction industry, and I understand that the raw materials of that industry have to come from somewhere. I spent my middle- and high school years living very near a gravel pit mined by a nearby construction company.

But, I also grew up in a state where you don’t blow up your natural and scenic wonders and crush them into aggregate for road construction. Which is pretty much what this company is proposing to do–detonate a bunch of our beautiful granite formations (for which Big Stone Lake, and Big Stone County are named), pulverize them, and ship them out of area via unit train.

The presentation was a mixture of facts about the industry, the company, and its operations, stories about the quest for this “holy grail” of aggregate sources, and videos purporting to show what they’d be doing here, how loud it’d be, and how invisible they’d try to make it.

The story of how the company came to set its sights on Big Stone County’s namesake seemed calculated to show that they’d invested an inordinate amount of time and resources in arriving at our door. I wondered if perhaps they weren’t trying to make the public feel a little guilty about not giving Strata what they want even if what they want isn’t really in the public’s best interest.

There was a careful comment about NIMBY-ism–not saying directly that the opposition were Not-In-My-Back-Yarders, but bringing up the term and educating us that the materials for construction have to come from somewhere.  And the metro areas are really in need of what we’ve got at the low extraction price it can be gotten for here (being that it’s visible right at the surface, which is a big part of why we’re so proud of it). However, the mine would actually be in Ortonville’s–and Big Stone County’s–front yard–visible both entering and leaving the county seat on a major highway.

The presentation went on with diagrams showing the evolution of the mine’s footprint that changed dramatically over time to incorporate a rare plant protection area to preserve some of the rare species, wetlands, and ephemeral pools located within the initial, “ideal” mining site. The hammered-home message was that this corporation is willing to bend over backward and expend a great deal of resources to be seen as environmentally responsible.

However, the set-aside area as depicted on the maps is oddly-shaped, suggesting that it would be hard to maintain the protected species within the jags and juts of the designated boundaries, and while the executive summary states that the protection area would be turned over to the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge management to administer, there was no indication that BSNWR management had agreed to such an arrangement (BSNWR management was present at the meeting, but did not comment).

The strangest part of the presentation were the videos–especially one showing an aggregate mining detonation at an undisclosed location (which left me wondering why they couldn’t–or wouldn’t–tell us where this video was shot).  The point of the clip was to illustrate how very non-intrusive the sound of such blasts really is, with the presenter enthusiastically urging the tech guy to turn up the speakers and then commenting on how everything was at full volume and it was still so quiet!

They played it over, and over, and over. At least four and maybe five times. You’d hear a little pop and see a huge billow of dust coming out of the hole. The presenter seemed almost beside himself with glee, but for myself and another attendee I spoke with, that huge, uncontained dust cloud was a source of grave concern, and the “true-to-life” sound effects were not really believable. I know when I’ve done recordings, the sounds I’m looking to capture are never as loud and clear as they are in real life–especially when working outside with wind and other background noises.

By the end of Strata Corp’s presentation and the beginning of public comment (which was divided into “for” going first and “opposed” going second), it was 9:15pm. I approached the mike and asked the planning commission to postpone public comment to another meeting time, what with the length of the preceding talk and the lateness of the hour on a school and work night. The commission decided to carry on, since representatives from the company had traveled so far to attend.

No one spoke publicly in favor of the project, and about fifteen citizens spoke against, or with concerns ranging from silica dust, environmental degradation, the corporation’s safety record and reputation, home values, and habitat loss.

At 10:40pm, after all those still present had had an opportunity to speak, the public comment was closed, and the commission recessed. At that point, almost everyone left. I stuck around until a little after 11pm–the meeting was called back to order and the planning commission asked Strata representatives back to the table to respond to the public’s concerns.

The company did give a lot of solid information in their presentation. In my opinion, they also took about twice as long as they needed to get their main points across. Sitting on a metal folding chair for an hour and forty minutes after a long day at work is an exhausting and bone-chilling experience. I was really glad to see so many citizens stick it out, remain present, and make their voices heard.

Altogether, the project would create 6-8 jobs (no promises that they’d be available to locals) and would provide about $20k/year in aggregate removal taxes. And, as I’ve said before, it would also remove a good-sized chunk of our culturally, historically, and environmentally significant “big stones” and leave deep, grassy-edged holes in their place.

The EAW (Environmental Assessment Worksheet) completed by the company does not give enough information or hard data for the public to truly assess the impact of this project. An Environmental Impact Statement would give citizens a much clearer sense of the overall impacts of a project that is expected to go on for 80-130 years. That’s generations.

In considering both the limited benefits of this project for the community and the large amount of our natural beauty and resources this project would extract and export, it’s my opinion that permit approval, if granted, should carry some very significant community-enhancing conditions.

State statute allows communities to impose what conditions they see fit. What is fair here? Asking for support for our schools, parks, and infrastructure seems like a reasonable place to start. The landowners whose property values would be adversely affected would also appreciate consideration.

I think it’s clear that I don’t support this project, though my comments at the meeting were limited to an attempt to give the public time for thought, research, and a little rest after a really lengthy presentation on a work and school night. On personal reflection, there just isn’t much in it for the county, and the guaranteed loss is huge.

I’m also not fond of the comments being grouped into “for” and “against” categories because I think it sets up a dichotomy that privileges one set of opinions and doesn’t allow a comfortable speaking space for those who are undecided and/or have questions or concerns. In other words, it doesn’t allow for a healthy community dialogue about the project.

The Big Stone County Planning Commission did not take action on the conditional use permit that evening–another meeting is set for the beginning of February. Make sure to watch the papers for this one–at the beginning of Thursday night’s meeting, a motion was passed to change the regular meeting date of the commission to the first, rather than second Thursday of each month, due to a scheduling conflict with the county’s attorney.

If a conditional use permit is granted, the aggregate mining proposal goes to the Big Stone County Commission for final approval. You can submit written comments to the Environmental office at the Big Stone County Courthouse. You can also contact your county commissioner–contact information for your district’s commissioner is available on the Big Stone County website.

Post-Rapture Asparagus Omelet

Well, we’re still here.  How ’bout you?

Since we didn’t get taken up in yesterday evening’s forecasted rapture (though I was unclear whether that 6pm time was central or mountain), I decided to make a rite-of-Spring re-birth omelet this morning using local eggs from Draeger-Jorgenson Farms and Joanne Svendsen, too. (And Kathy, I have a five dollar bill with your name on it if you’re reading this.)

The asparagus is from Rocky Gardens out of Milbank–purchased at the Big Stone Lake Area Farmers Market in Ortonville’s Lakeside Park yesterday morning.  Goat feta from Two Rivers Dairy purchased at The Granary.

Technique is simple: toss about a half inch of water in the bottom of the frying pan and simmer the asparagus spears ’til they’re just barely tender.  Plate them, dump the water, wipe out the pan, and melt a couple tablespoons of butter in it.  Add 8 eggs beaten with whatever herbs and spices you like.

Turn on the broiler at this point.  Break up a chunk of feta (or grate a different variety of cheese). When the eggs start to firm up on the stovetop, lay in the asparagus spears and sprinkle on the cheese.  When the bottom layer of egg is firm, stick the skillet under the broiler to cook the top.

So yummy, you’ll be glad you were left behind.

By the way, I spotted local eggs from the above-mentioned Draeger-Jorgenson farm along with the local produce from Sunrise View Farms at Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery in Clinton. Not sure what day the eggs get delivered, but Thursday morning is produce arrival time.