Farm to Market

An inside look at the people and processes that get fresh food from farm to co-op shelf.
Marketing manager Tom Vogel and merchandise manager Auralie Haven at Seward Co-op Friendship store

As a community, we’re lucky to have plentiful options for procuring high-quality food; local produce and organic poultry abound at farmers markets, CSAs, and retail outlets big and small.  The Twin Cities also happens to be home to one of the largest concentrations of food co-ops in the nation. Unlike traditional grocery stores, co-ops are member-owned cooperatives that operate with a shared set of values, often emphasizing socially and environmentally responsible practices and strong relationships with small, local producers.

“What makes co-ops unique is our business structure,” says Tom Vogel, marketing manager at Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, the largest and oldest co-op in the metro. A small, one-time purchase buys you stock in the co-op and makes you an owner, entitled to benefits like discounts, a vote to choose the board of directors and patronage refunds, a way for the store to return money to its owners in profitable years. “The ownership structure resonates with a lot of people,” says Vogel. “There’s a community component, a sense of shared risk and shared reward.”

While membership has its benefits, Seward’s annual owner’s survey reports that the most important thing to its more than 17,000 members is access to locally sourced food. Eating locally not only insures that food, especially freshly picked produce, is at its tastiest, but the practice also has far-reaching positive effects, including reducing transportation emissions, creating jobs, sustaining small family farms and keeping money in the local economy.

To this end, Seward champions Principle Six (P6), a nationwide labeling program aimed at increasing market access to small, local farmers and producers, and promoting customer awareness of the people behind the produce and poultry at their co-ops. Approximately 45 percent of sales at the two Seward’s Minneapolis locations are P6.

“We’ve been around for over 44 years, and some of these farms we’ve been working with for the majority of those years,” says merchandise manager Auralie Haven. “We keep our deep relationships with them as well as try to find small farms that are up and coming to help develop their production and our business.”
 
Seward’s buyers sit down with suppliers such as  Heart Beets Farm every year to predict what the co-op’s members will buy over the next 12-months, trying to forecast how the weather and trends will impact their needs. “Our relationships with the co-ops just gets stronger and stronger over time,” says Jack Hedin, owner of Featherstone Farm, a 200 to 250-acre organic farm in Rushford, Minn., that supplies about 20 to 25 varieties of fruits and vegetables directly to local co-ops. “By and large, co-op buyers and their memberships understand that you get what you pay for. When you buy local and organic, that magic combo has the most impact for the environment, the health of the economy and for human health.”

Hedin and his wife, Jenni McHugh, founded Featherstone Farm in 1995 with the mission of growing organic produce in environmentally responsible ways while expanding access to healthy food. The farm relies on a combination of channels to get its crops to people’s tables, including a CSA program, wholesale distribution and direct sales to co-ops.

What started as a small family farm has grown 15 percent annually for a decade and is now one of the largest organic producers in the state, and Hedin’s focus has grown to include  revitalization of regional agriculture and the power of buying local to create stable, well-paying jobs.

“Featherstone and I are a small part of this groundswell of public and social interest in local economies,” says Hedin. “We had no idea that the demand would grow as it did; we could never have anticipated or asked for more.”

“Featherstone is the main hub for the bulk of our local stuff,” says Nolan Greene, produce manager at Linden Hills Co-op in southwest Minneapolis. In addition, Linden Hills works with a diverse group of even smaller producers like Sandra Jean’s Herb Farm and Wisconsin-based Seed to Seed to ensure a full roster of unique and locally grown goods are available.

“In our growing region, things ebb and flow quite a bit, but we try to do as much in-season as we can,” says Greene. In a competitive grocery landscape, the co-op’s commitment to supporting local farms and the staff’s passion for sharing their knowledge with members are key to fostering the sense of shared purpose that defines the co-op.

“We’re dedicated to highlighting those people who do the hard work in our communities and deserve the recognition and the ability to push their products to the public,” says Greene.

One of those people is Larry Schultz of Larry Schultz Organic Farm in Owatonna, one of the top providers of organic eggs, chickens and turkeys in the state. Schultz first started selling eggs to the Seward and Linden Hills Co-ops in 1992, but the farmer’s son remembers a time when “organic” was synonymous with “subpar.”

“Back in the 1970s, we were mocked because we were organic; we were the weed farmers,” Schultz says of the family farm that now bears his name and which has never seen a chemical herbicide or pesticide. His cage-free chickens are fed a certified-organic diet and are never treated with antibiotics or growth stimulants, and each egg they produce is graded, packaged and delivered straight from the farm.

Schultz supplies most of the major co-ops in town, including Minneapolis’ Wedge Community Co-op, which recently merged with Linden Hills to form the Twin Cities Co-op Partners and has close to 25,800 members combined. The Wedge, which grew from a tiny apartment in 1974 to a thriving grocery store, café and catering company with more than 5,000 local products, also gave rise to Co-op Partners Warehouse (CPW), a certified organic distributor that helps small, regional growers get their food to more people more efficiently.

“We buy direct from small family farms, and since we are a co-op, we’re committed to supporting local and organic producers,” says sales manager Lori Zuidema. “We’re a values-based business, so we do things like seek out ethically raised meats and newly certified organic farms that want to talk about distributing their product.”

Urban Organics, which goes through CPW to get their organic swiss chard, kale and cilantro on store shelves, is part of a new wave of local farming that combines technology with sustainable growing practices. Housed in the former Hamm’s Brewery building in St. Paul, the startup grows produce hydroponically, using water and vertical space in place of soil and acreage.

“We have 14 large fiberglass tanks in which we raise salmon and Arctic char,” president and co-founder Dave Haider explains. “We capture and filter their water and convert the ammonia to nitrates, then pump that nitrate-rich water through the hydroponic beds. The plants use the water for fuel, then the cleaned water is recycled back to the fish.”

Haider says that creating a sustainable indoor farm in the city not only cuts down on transportation costs and increases consumer access to their product, it also aids in neighborhood revitalization and community-building.

“The focus is not only on organic food but on knowing where your food comes from and who is growing it,” says Haider. “It takes a village to move something like this forward.”