In this issue we have an immigrant's farmland access journey, a new regional flour mill in Wisconsin, and we introduce you to two new Vista project volunteers, a new Farm to School project, and more. Read to the end and you'll discover a chance to win a free registration to the Cottage Food conference, April 6-9!
Beatrice Kamau has been on a journey towards agricultural sovereignty since she emigrated from Kenya 21 years ago. Growing up, her family grew tea and cash crops, and she’s been seeking out space to grow the vegetables she knew and loved—even when it was just in her Chicago backyard. She grows things like pigweed and callaloo (amaranth), Egyptian spinach (Molokhia), and African cabbage—"difficult to find in international stores, and when you do find them, they will be imported,” she says. Some things, like cowpeas, which she enjoys for their leaves especially, can’t be found in stores so it was up to her to grow them for herself. She knew she needed more land but worried that space in community gardens was too limited.
In 2017 she was introduced to the Urban Growers Collective, which offered generous plots of 50 by 250 feet. In addition, they offered classes on microgreens, mushrooms and compost, as well as accounting and business management.
Beatrice has gradually built a small customer base for her vegetables and honey by direct marketing through email, but recognizes that for financial sustainability, she needs to grow, and that means more land. She began working with Farmland Access Navigator Erin Schneider in January after learning of the program through her work for MOSES (Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service) advising immigrant communities and beekeepers.
“Erin has so much knowledge,” Beatrice says, “as I’m looking at properties, she’s able to tell me about the soil, water, sewage, and zoning.”
She’s seeking land in Northern Illinois, not too far from most of her customers in the Northwest suburbs—migrants from Africa like herself—but also close enough to supply some wholesale customers. Renting is less desirable than buying because she’d like to plant some perennials as well as build some structures for growing vertically. She currently provides some products for CSA boxes, and would also like to explore selling to restaurants when she has scaled up her production. “If I didn’t have Erin I think I would have made a big mistake buying a property that wasn’t well suited for what I needed. She helps me make informed decisions based on how each property would affect my business.”
Learn more about Farmland Access
Because grain requires large equipment to harvest, clean, store and mill, farmers who grow small grains for their crop rotations or cover crops frequently have to drive quite a distance to find the needed infrastructure—especially if they're selling into the food-grade market rather than animal feed-grade. That's why the recent addition of an on-farm mill at Halee and John Wepking's Meadowlark Organics farm in Ridgeway, Wis., is such a big deal. They're pictured above with mill manager Rink DaVee, who has been instrumental in adding the milling. As they continue to incorporate more equipment, they'll have more and more capacity to do toll milling and grain cleaning for other farmers.
Read about their story from the latest edition of The Crumb newsletter from the Artisan Grain Collaborative. If you like podcasts, also check out Tera Johnson's recent Edible Alpha interview with John Wepking.
Photo: Jas McDaniel
We know the importance of a strong local food economy in sustainable rural development, and have recently started a collaborative project with Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), and Sustainable Farming Association called the Local Foods Sustainability Project.
This project aims to fortify key stakeholders—food producers and farmers’ markets—to strengthen our local food system and foster greater collaboration within SMIF’s 20-county region, especially for traditionally underserved populations (women, beginning farmers, BIPOC, new Americans, and more).
We’ve leveraged the resources of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, or Volunteers in Service to America, to expand our community reach. These 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 to collect agriculture statistics. 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 an 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 Southeast Minnesota. From the CSA-style vegetable farmer and seasonal pickler and canner to the specialty cheesemaker and coffee roaster, food producers bring life to our rural communities while facing many challenges.
They must follow food safety regulations, wrestle with tight profit margins, and garner a supportive customer base. These tasks can be difficult to navigate while also producing their delicious and meaningful products. James aims to understand how our local food economy can contribute to small food business management and strengthen collaborative support systems in the region to sustain more viable food businesses 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 while learning about agricultural systems through Environmental Studies at Carleton College. 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, and building collaboration to strengthen our food system.
If you have any comments or would like to be involved, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Maeve: [email protected] | 507.214.7025
James: [email protected] | 507.214.2014
Farm to School & Early Care
Eric Sonnek, Principal of St. Felix School in Wabasha. Photo by Sara George
PARSNIP is a new project we’re conducting in partnership with the MN Dept. of Ag to study the benefits of strategically placing regional coordinators to connect farmers to schools and early care settings, and to provide resources and track outcomes.
“Farm to School is a win-win, but there are challenges that come along the way,” explains Sara George, a farmer out of Pepin, WI, who is the lead on the project alongside Brett Olson. “Schools operate on what farmers refer to as the shoulder seasons here in Minnesota—September to May. There are questions about how to access local farmers, what crops are available during that time, quantities needed to feed a school, and what are the easiest ways of placing orders.”
Sara not only understands the farming side of things, but has also worked in an institutional kitchen that uses locally-grown produce. She understands that the obstacles are there, but that there are ways to look at those obstacles as benefits if you listen and learn together.
The coordinators will engage schools within Goodhue and Wabasha County, not only encouraging local food purchases but also building networks. They’ll also provide technical assistance to the farmers, food service directors and other school staff so that food services directors have a team that understands the value and can offer support and encouragement for this to work.
An aggressive outreach campaign involves presenting to different community groups in each county—including Kiwanis, 4-H, school boards, and local government bodies—on what Farm to School is all about and how to get involved. Over 40 farmers are already engaging in this work. To learn more about this project or request a presentation for your group, contact Sara George at [email protected] or 715-651-5046.
Cottage Food Con
Renewing the Countryside is excited to host the first ever Home-Based Food Entrepreneur Virtual National Conference, and it's coming up soon! If you're currently making and selling foods under cottage food law provision, or dream of doing so, this conference is for you. Register online here for just $20.
Or if you're feeling lucky, email [email protected] and tell us:
What do you think makes cottage foods makers such a wonderful part of our communities?
We'll enter you in a drawing for a free registration, to be announced on Sunday, March 28!
We continue to invite you to donate and to consider becoming a sustaining donor if you haven't already. Your generosity makes a big difference in the sustainable finances of a small non-profit organization like RTC!
We build awareness and support for these initiatives by collecting & sharing stories of rural renewal, providing practical assistance & networking opportunities for those working to improve rural America, and fostering connections between urban & rural people.