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Local Foods Sustainability Projects
Article posted 3.16.2021
A collaborative project has recently started in Southern Minnesota between Renewing the Countryside (RTC), Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association (MFMA), Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), and Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) called the Local Foods Sustainability Project.
This project aims to fortify the viability of these key stakeholders -- food producers and farmers’ markets -- to strengthen the sustainability of our local food system. We aim to understand how these folks can be better supported and to foster greater collaboration within SMIF’s 20-county region. Central to this mission are taking on the concerns of traditionally underserved populations (women, beginning farmers, BIPOC, new Americans, and more). We recognize that barriers to viability look different to different people, and aim to ensure that we understand deeply the breadth of concerns in the region.
Leveraging the resources of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, or Volunteers in Service to America, to expand the community reach, two AmeriCorps volunteers will complete assessments in the Southeast region of Minnesota, build relationships with key stakeholders, and develop novel methods of collaboration and coalition building around our shared goal of a just, sustainable, and vibrant local food system. Let’s dive into how we’re approaching sustainability with farmers’ markets and food producers.
Farmers’ Markets - Meet Maeve Mallozzi-Kelly
Maeve Mallozzi-Kelly is the Farmers’ Market Economic Opportunity VISTA at SMIF working with the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association. She will be working on developing a survey to capture data from farmers’ markets and the local food economy while supporting Diversity Equity and Inclusion efforts.
Every five years the Minnesota Department of Agriculture conducts a survey, collecting agriculture statistics in the state. These surveys usually target large commodity farmers, unintentionally excluding small-scale and BIPOC producers and markets. By conducting a separate survey, we hope to support markets that are under-represented, demonstrating the positive financial and social impacts local food systems provide. Gathering this information will also put us in a better position to create programming to support more sustainable, inclusive, and financially sound local food economies.
Maeve is ecstatic about the chance to work on such a collaborative and human focused project. Originally from Indiana, she spent the last two years in Paraguay as a Agriculture Peace Corps Volunteer while completing her masters degree in Sustainable Development. She is passionate about the impact sustainable agriculture has on climate justice, rural economic growth, and public health and is excited to learn about and support the local food system in southern Minnesota.
Food Producers - Meet James Harren
James is the Local Producer Economic Opportunity VISTA at SMIF working with Renewing the Countryside and Sustainable Farming Association. He will be working on developing a stronger network of support for food producing businesses in the Southeast region of Minnesota. Food producers come in many shapes and sizes, from the CSA-style vegetable farmer and seasonal pickler and canner to the specialty cheesemaker and coffee roaster. These folks bring life to our rural communities but they face many challenges to their businesses’ sustainability.
Food producing businesses must follow food safety regulations, wrestle with tight profit margins, and garner a supportive customer base. These tasks can be difficult to navigate as a small business person working to produce their delicious and meaningful products. James aims to understand how our local food economy can address the difficult aspects of small food business management, and strengthen collaborative support systems in the region. This way, we can have more viable food businesses in the region that bring so much joy and life to our rural communities.
James is thrilled to be working on this project. He hails from a suburb of Chicago, but fell in love with food and farming right here in Southern Minnesota. He learned about agricultural systems through his studies at Carleton College in Environmental Studies. His senior thesis explored how the local breweries in Northfield developed sustainability for the community and environment. He looks forward to learning from business owners and aspiring producers in the region, and building collaboration to strengthen our food system.
If you have any comments on the project, or would like to be involved, do not hesitate to reach out to either Maeve or James.
Maeve: email@example.com | 507.214.7025
James: firstname.lastname@example.org | 507.214.2014
Meet Chris and Ashley & their California Street Farm - a 1/8 Acre Urban Farm
California Street Farm sits at the intersection of California Street and 22nd Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis. The urban farm spans one eighth of an acre, and it is recognizable by the twenty-foot bunny sculpture sitting in the front yard. Chris and Ashley currently tend the land, but the farm has been feeding Minneapolis residents since before they took over at the start of 2019.
“That was part of why we kept the name California Street Farm,” Ashley explained. “It was the original name of the farm. And so—much like a lot of farmers don't view themselves as permanent tenants; they are more stewards of the land—we see ourselves as the current caretakers of this plot.” Though they have not been certified as organic—it doesn’t make sense for their scale of farm—they use organic and regenerative farming practices. Ashley sees regenerative agriculture as “trying to leave the leave the land better than you found it.”
Because they farm in an urban space, Ashley and Chris are constantly reevaluating their relationship with the Northeast community and remarking on the peculiarities of urban agriculture. Neighbors walk, bike, skateboard, and rollerblade by every day. More importantly, the passersby see the work that Ashley and Chris do: “if you're not from a farming background or you haven't lived in a rural space, you don't necessarily see or know how much work goes into growing food.” Ashley’s eyes crinkled above her mask as she spoke about one train conductor that she and her son, Rhys, wave to every morning. Recently, the conductor stopped during his usual route on the nearby tracks to ask where they sell their amazing-looking tomatoes.
With only 5,000 square feet, the farm operates at the scale of a 25 person CSA (supplying twenty-five people with a week’s worth of vegetables, give or take). This year, they organized the rows so that they’d have a better grasp on what was where in the garden. And learning? They’re dedicated to it. Ashley’s background in farming extends to her college degree in Environmental Studies and a year at Prairie Drifter Farm. But, not having grown up in the Minnesota farming community, they’ve spent the past two years taking classes, attending seminars, and joining groups like the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition to create a network around their practice. “At this point,” Ashley explained, “we're drinking from the fire hose in terms of learning. You could farm for a lifetime and still be learning, which is what we love about it.” Ashley said that they hope to move to a place in which they can farm on a larger scale, with more room to live and work. So, they are using this time to try out crops that might not be scaled for their acreage. Ashley pointed to the ground and said, “We're growing things like watermelons that don't make sense here, but we want to learn how to grow watermelons.”
Covid-19 has also impacted the trajectory of their farming path, as it’s encouraged both Ashley and Chris to dedicate more time to farming and growing more produce to feed more people. “I think [Covid-19] has escalated everything in terms of how much we want to grow food for other people and how important it is to be safe in that process.” Though the pandemic has detrimentally affected farmers and markets across Minnesota, Ashley and Chris responded to the sudden need for affordable produce by installing a Pay What You Can Farm Stand. Ashley recounted conversations in which they asked themselves, “how do we open things up and be accessible to everyone in the neighborhood, regardless of whether they can afford the produce or not?” By August 7th, they’d held seven farm stands and are happy to say that “the pay what you can model is gaining even more traction, with people paying a wide range for produce.”
Northeast is home to a large farmers’ market that takes place Saturday mornings in the parking lot of St. Boniface Church. Ashley and Chris had been on the board for a year before taking over at California Street Farm and selling their own produce. Ashley explained that “it was a no-brainer to sell at that market … it's 15 blocks away. So that felt like a really nice story to us.” Living in between the market and the farm, Chris and Ashley live, farm, and sell within a 2-mile radius, which is highly unusual for any farmer. It allows customers who see them at the NE Farmers’ Market to “connect the dots” if they live in the neighborhood and walk or bike past California Street each day.
Because of this close connection with their community—working, selling, and living all in the same neighborhood—Ashley and Chris have used the disruption of Covid-19 and the recent protests against police brutality spurred by the murder of George Floyd to think about accessibility, produce, and what specific actions they can take in order to put their philosophy about food access into action. Chris answered that “healthy and well grown food should not be a luxury. It should be something that everybody can have. That's what we're trying to do. We're, I think, at the beginning of that journey.”
Ultimately, Ashley and Chris think of their place in this neighborhood as temporary. However, through their process of learning, they are also developing this land so that the farm can continue on long after they move on from it. “What we're trying to do with this land,” Ashley expressed, “is set it up so that someone else, hopefully, if they're interested, could come in and take it over to keep it going.” On one eighth of an acre, Ashley and Chris are working to build a farm with a spirit that will live on long after they move forward.
“We never thought that we would be urban farmers,” Chris said, standing behind their farm stand, “and I don't know that we will forever. But there have been some really beautiful things about us ending up here, and I think that one of them is just a reminder that you can get a lot of veggies out of a small plot of land.”
Up North by Sarah and Madison Hilligoss
Hi all, it’s Sarah. Today I’m writing about Madison’s and my first official Farmers’ Market visit as MFMA interns.
My sister Madison and I drive Up North every summer to stay in the Boundary Waters. Our family rents a remote cabin on Triangle Lake that is only accessible by canoe. I love the stillness of the lakes and the loons that pop up next to our canoes as we glide through the water. I love how the lack of light pollution seems to unlock the night sky, showing us stars that I couldn’t have imagined seeing at my home in Eden Prairie, let alone in New York City where I go to school. I also love that we drive through Ely, stopping year after year at Organic Roots, at Zups, and at Piragis.
This year, my sister and I also stopped at Ely’s Farmers' Market. Driving up to the park where it was held, Madison and I were a little skeptical and very nervous. This was our first farmers’ market stop as MFMA interns, and our previous exposure to farmers’ markets were city markets in Minneapolis. A portion of the park was taped off, enveloping twelve tents spaced far away from each other like little islands that the market goers moved through. From our car, we saw vendors selling very homemade-looking jams, cookies, and popcorn balls in sweltering heat. We didn’t see a single produce tent among the art, the wooden cooking utensils, and the jewelry. I hadn’t known what to expect, but this wasn’t it. So we put on brave smiles, even though they were hidden behind our masks, and we entered the taped off rectangle.
We stopped first at a woman’s art table. She looked a few years older than me and she smiled when we approached. She sold small intricate drawings of birds and fish; each is hand painted, she later told me. She introduced herself as Abbey, and this is her hobby. She’s otherwise an art teacher at Vermillion Community College. When we told her our roles at MFMA, she smiled again and congratulated us for taking initiative. She seemed impressed with our mission, though we have hardly done anything impressive yet. I was glad we talked to her first. She affirmed what had been a vague concept of an internship into a moment in which we both shared a bit about ourselves, and in doing so, made a connection, which felt really special at that point. In my many months of self-isolation, I have begun to crave human interaction. So, a job going to farmers’ markets might fill a bit of that emptiness I’ve been feeling. When I asked Abbey why she liked to sell at markets, she said it was the people. Talking to people about what you do and what you love has become a luxury in the time of coronavirus.
We soon discovered that Abbey’s enthusiastic spirit permeated the hot early-summer air. As I introduced myself to Linnea, a wooden utensil and homemade reusable bag vendor, she immediately reached for a wooden wand looking thing and handed it to me. “This is an Ely Twiddle,” she told me. She thrust a piece of paper into my hands saying, “and this is it’s story. It took me nearly four months to write it.” The utensil in my hand was smooth and two toned wood, about as thin as my pinky finger and as long as my forearm, with a flattened rectangle at the end. As I examined it, she explained that “as each cook twiddles in the kitchen in their own way, so to each Twiddle is different.” She leaned over and told me that the NOTE at the bottom of the page was added by her daughter, a young girl sitting next to Leonna on a blanket, selling pastel, shell-shaped soaps that I could smell even through my mask. The NOTE read : “This Story is NOT True.” Linnea’s eyes crinkled into a smile, and as I thanked her and turned away to leave, she called out, “now write a story about the Twiddle!”
We meandered over to a tent covering a couple selling syrups and jams. The man wore a baseball cap and a shirt that said “I’D TAP THAT” in big yellow letters above a maple leaf. He introduced himself as Bill and asked, “have you ever tried birch syrup?” Madison and I next experienced a taste test of six different types of syrup, each with their own mouth watering, salivation inducing notes. This was accompanied by a detailed explanation of the tapping and heating process, the ratios, and the pitfalls of working with birch. When we asked Bill how he felt that Covid-19 had impacted the market, Mary, his wife, popped in and said, “we disagree on this, but I can tell you what I think afterwards.” He rested his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and explained that because of the lack of international travel to the Boundary Waters, they don’t see some of their most interesting and faithful customers. People come from Australia, Austria, and the UK to visit the Boundary Waters, but they stay in contact with Bill to see if there’s any way he can send his syrup halfway across the world when they leave. The new restrictions also “turn off” some customers from coming to the markets. When we asked Mary what she thought, she answered that “people are ready to get out and support local businesses.” She feels as though, in retaliation to Covid-19, people in Ely have gone out of their ways to support the local businesses around them, and the people who own these businesses.
Covid-19 and global pandemics are scary and world altering for many reasons, but I was struck by how this virus has affected even the most remote corners of my world. Ely, a town that I think of as unchanging, has changed dramatically, and its residents have as well. Perhaps this is due to my privilege of being a tourist and my expectation for the places I visit to remain the same just for me. But because of this change, I, and many others at this market, are cherishing the conversations we have and connections we make. These human interactions make up the very purpose of a farmers’ market, from what I’ve seen. Perhaps I’ve gotten too deep here, but I am so happy to have visited Ely’s market.
Saying goodbye for now, ~Sarah
It’s Madison, Sarah’s younger sister--the other intern who runs the Instagram (give us a follow @mfmaorg!). If you’ve read Sarah’s post this far, you’ll have heard all about our family trip to the BWCA and the Ely Market by now… you’ll probably also have heard her deep thinking and beautiful writing.
I’ll admit, as a somewhat regular shopper of the Minneapolis city markets and NYC markets, I’m used to seeing what feels like 75 tents lined up on busy streets with vendors selling anything from pizza, soaps, art, and kombucha to huge bundles of leafy greens and some vegetables I can’t name. So, when we drove up to the Ely market, I realized my expectation was very much formed out of my limited city experience... I was kind of nervous upon entry. But, like most new things in life, I ended up really enjoying the experience even though it looked and felt different than I thought it would. Speaking with a veteran about the wild rice he picks out of his canoe, the man who sells countless flavors of infused syrups (including a northern birch), and a woman who makes wood crafts with her sister and daughter, truly felt like “Ely” to me, as cliché as it sounds; it was small, natural, personal, and the “up north” vibe I didn’t know I was missing. I’m quickly learning that MN farmers’ markets are deeply based in community, so no two markets are alike, and each market offers something unique to that community.
At the end of our trip on Thursday, June 18th, on the way back to the twin cities, Sarah and I (and our little brother, Anthony, and dog, Jules) headed to the Virginia Market Square. Lucky for us, it was opening day at the Virginia Market! And a successful opening day it was. Driving up to the market, we saw cars lined up for a few blocks and many signs pointing us to the market on the way in. The market was situated in a park near Silver Lake that looked out onto the water where a huge loon statue floated, marking the city with its familiar shape. It was beautiful. For the amount of people flocking to the market, I was surprised to see only a handful of tents. I’m assuming this has to do with COVID-19, the new location of the market, and the fact that part of their market is inside.
As we walked across the grass to where the vendors were selling, we were greeted by some kind volunteers who were encouraging us to use a warm hand washing station they had set up, pointing us in the direction of a few popular vendors, and offering handmade masks to those who had not come prepared. We were also greeted with informational signs that detailed their use of the SNAP-EBT program, their pandemic policies, and where shoppers could put used masks.
The first vendor I spoke with was selling some beautiful produce from Bear River Farm. Missy spoke about her produce, her proud membership of the MN Farmers Union, and about how COVID-19 has challenged her farming and her life in ways that have felt inspiring. She told my sister and I about how the pandemic has unexpectedly forced her to reconsider old practices and to constantly be working to keep herself and her customers safe. This interaction reminded me of how these vendors simply are humans with lives, goals, and interests; unlike your grocery store or co-op visit, when you go to a market and hear people like Missy speak about the work that went into the food they’re selling, their process, and their mindset, it makes you shop, consume, and eat much more mindfully. Their food doesn’t magically appear on your plate, and it shows. Your local vendors, like Missy, have stories, passions, and hearts that you can’t find shopping at a large food corporation.
After visiting a few more vendors and browsing the indoor space at Virginia Market Square, we spoke with Calli from Hometown Homestead. She is a first-time vendor at this market, and greeted us with the biggest smile and wave (under her mask of course). Her stand was full of the cutest, colorful, crocheted items: little hats, bags, scarves, infant toys, as well as a few jams and some herbs. She exuded happiness and light and seemed so eager and grateful to be selling at this market (which apparently had one of the greatest customer turnouts it’s had!). Hearing her story made me think a lot about how during the pandemic, many people at home have come face-to-face with the hobbies that truly make them the happiest--the things they turn to and become obsessed with when they’re at a low. For my sister, Sarah, it’s making sourdough bread. For others, it’s making art, making music, or gardening. For Calli, it’s crocheting. She’s turned her passion into a business and is supplying the people of Virginia with the sweetest goods. Seeing vendors so passionate about what they do is part of the magic of a local market. It was special to be there on the opening day. As a theater performer myself, I felt like I could identify the butterflies and excitement of the “opening day” energy.
Walking away from Virginia was much like walking away from Ely; I felt like I had a little glimpse (and a taste!) into a northern Minnesotan city that I otherwise would not have known much about. Although both Virginia and Ely didn’t look or feel like the city markets I frequent, they were tasty, interesting, friendly, beautiful, and very representative of their communities.
For a glimpse into the Virginia opening day, check out the video I made on our Instagram!
Until next time, ~Madison