Connecting Small Farms to Large Communities
As Minnesota’s culture increasingly values a diverse and local community and economy, some may find themselves somewhat lost when trying to turn an idea or hope to eat locally produced food into a reality. For many—myself included—there is a tendency of falling into a state of complacency, being content to blindly believe the loud, colored stickers that reassure us in all caps that what they are selling is what we should be eating. Fresh and locally produced food is a claim that seems to be being stamped onto any pre-packaged container of vegetables, or package of ground beef from an animal farm and factory states away. But it does not have to be that way. Shared Ground Farmers’ Cooperative is an up-and-coming distribution outlet that has created a partnership between small, independently run farms and the Twin Cities community. Using a variety of resources, Shared Ground is able to bring together small farms as co-owners who are invested in promoting and supporting the local, organic food movement.
Though it was only created just two years ago, Shared Ground Farmers’ Cooperative has made long strides in establishing itself as a staple of the local organic economy in the Metro area of Minnesota. Selling to approximately 135 families around the Twin Cities area, 35 different restaurants and the Minneapolis School system for school meals, Shared Ground has proved itself to be a thriving, sustainable source for organically produced vegetables and livestock. The cooperative is co-managed by Robin Major and Aaron Blyth, and as Robin explains, the intention of the cooperative “Is an attempt to alleviate the great financial stress that most small farms face in the United States-accessing and delivering to fair paying markets.” Being a small farmer has many difficulties in creating a sustainable living, and being a small immigrant farmer can carry with it a whole new set of difficulties when trying to break into the market and create a living. That is why Shared Ground “prioritizes selling food from immigrant and beginning farmers.” The goal is to help those who are trying to get their foot in the door.
The cooperative consists of five different farms, three of which are Latino-run farms with the other two being Anglo-run farms. Out of the five farms, three are Certified Organic, though all five must follow environmentally sound practices. By having five different farms from all around Minnesota and Western Wisconsin working together as owner-members of the cooperative, each farm can centralize their efforts on a few specific crops rather than becoming overwhelmed with the demand of a large diversity of crops. As Robin explains, “By coming together as a cooperative each farm is able to focus on 6-8 crops they grow well, rather than 40 crops like most CSA farmers, and put less energy into marketing their produce and more energy into farming itself.” And the quality speaks for itself.
Shared Ground’s success and unique business model can also be attributed to those behind-the-scenes who create the connections and relationships with the local community. Before traveling to the farms themselves, I visited the Shared Ground warehouse where employees gather the harvested produce and box it up to be delivered weekly to restaurants and CSA customers. Seeing the vast variety of produce being grown for the cooperative, it is evident that Shared Ground’s farming methods and organization of specializing in specific crops for each farm is paying off. Every vegetable going into every box is lush and beautiful, unlike most vegetables I have seen in any average grocery store.
Though most of the farms of Shared Ground are outside the cities, there are also farmers working deeply within the Metro to promote small, community-driven farming. One of the five farms, Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, works to infuse itself into the Minneapolis-St. Paul community by converting vacant housing lots around the Twin Cities into small, micro-farms. And even with such limited space, Stone’s Throw is able to produce a large variety of herbs, greens and tomatoes for Shared Ground, showing the surrounding community the realistic viability of being an independent, self-sufficient grower.
After speaking with, and being shown around the farms, it is clear that every farm and farmer in the cooperative is incredibly passionate about the quality of what they are producing. The deep-rooted pride they have for the animals they raise and the produce they grow is visible. Visible not only in their faces as they look over their fields and pastures, but in the vegetables and livestock that is the outcome of the passion each farmer puts in. For example, at Cala Farms in Turtle Lake, WI, brothers, Rodrigo and Juan Carlos Cala, are growing the most beautiful and perfect green peppers I have seen all summer. Or, in Amery, WI, at Whetstone Farms, husband and wife Klaus Zimmerman and Emily Hanson are raising quality grass-fed lamb, turkeys and Mangalitza pigs while simultaneously maintaining a vegetable crop that follows organic guidelines.
Walking amongst the fields and pastures of the farms, I began to understand the whole-hearted investment that Shared Ground’s farmers have towards creating a successful and sustainable future for both their families and the land on which they grow. Whether they have been farmers their entire lives or simply started only a few years ago, there is an almost tangible love for the land and for what it gives that I have not witnessed or experienced ever before. In a time where GMOs and companies like Monsanto seem to be forcing themselves into everything we eat, the local organic revolution is giving our culture something real and genuine to hold onto and support. Each farm in the cooperative brings forth its particular specialization and, with strength in numbers, is making large strides towards a healthier and more aware community. It has never been easier to find locally-grown food that is not genetically tampered with or infused with dangerous pesticides. It simply takes an element of awareness of what you are putting into your body and it is organizations and local businesses like Shared Ground Farmers’ Cooperative that are making it increasingly easier to eat healthier while simultaneously committing support to a localized, organic economy.
After having the opportunity to visit some of the farms that make up the cooperative and see where it all comes together in Shared Ground’s warehouse, I was able to see first-hand the true effort and passion that goes into every element and stage of farming and raising of livestock. I saw people who farmed the land as it should be farmed, appreciating everything that earth brings forth while maintaining it in such a way as to remain fruitful and sustainable. I saw people who came together from all different ways of life to help each other grow and succeed. And lastly, I saw a healthy, viable option for the Twin Cities to support their local economy while gaining access to some of the healthiest—if not the healthiest—sources of food possible.