Local Food Marketing within a ‘Stone’s Throw’
(First in an occasional series)
Jose Garcia, a former Long Prairie meatpacker turned farmer, and Rodrigo Cala, of Lino Lakes who farms nearby in Wisconsin, are reaching new markets in the Twin Cities through their Stone’s Throw Agricultural Cooperative warehouse on St. Paul’s East Side.
Minnesota agricultural and food industry history is repeating itself. New food producers are combining production talents with food marketers by using Minnesota’s cooperative business tools to overcome market barriers and obstacles. In the process, they are creating a new, locally owned food industry.
When Garcia recently found co-op officials and visitors waiting for his trailer load of fresh produce from Aqua Gordo co-op in central Minnesota, he tossed each a yellow, round lemon cucumber that are new to Latinos and many Anglo-Minnesotans.
Everyone ate the sweet cucumbers as if they were apples. Garcia laughed when asked if Latino farmers usually grow the cukes. “We didn’t know these,” he said through an interpreter. “They aren’t part of our diet. But they sure are tasty.”
More than 20 Twin Cities area upscale restaurants agree. They buy fresh, locally grown produce through the Stone’s Throw co-op while other restaurateurs turn to community-supported-agriculture (CSA) suppliers or make direct purchases from local producers at farmers markets to access local fruits and vegetables.
Working with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) of Minneapolis, Garcia and Cala are among new Minnesota farmers banding together in cooperatives and collaborative arrangements to rationalize the storing and distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables.
This is no small matter. LEDC’s special projects director John Flory said research shows some produce farmers throw away from 50 percent to as much as 75 percent of what they grow. That is inefficiency a marketing, warehouse and distribution co-op can help overcome, he said.
Stone’s Throw is reaching beyond restaurants to metro area hospitals in this, its second year of operation. It will start supplying Minneapolis public schools with fresh produce this fall.
Subsequent articles in this occasional series will look at what Minnesota consumer-owned food cooperatives and Hmong-American farmers are doing to rationalize distribution, overcome waste and increase efficiencies.
Given a choice, Minnesotans have always liked fresh, local produce. Gov. Mark Dayton said as much in proclaiming Aug. 3-7 “Farmers Market Week” in Minnesota. He noted that the state’s Minnesota Grown Directory lists 175 farmers markets across the state while several others started this summer.
The oldest in Minnesota and among the oldest in the nation, the St. Paul Farmers Market dates back to 1852—six years before statehood. What troubles economists, environmentalists and public policy officials are inefficiencies built into farmers markets and CSA programs with individual distribution and waste from over producing markets.
Stone’s Throw Agricultural Cooperative is part of new efforts to correct these marketing problems. It banded together with help from the LEDC, uses Minnesota’s state cooperative business codes and traditions, received help from USDA Rural Development cooperative development programs, and is supported by St. Paul community organizations.
The co-op started as an urban farming project a few years back when three Macalester College graduates and their friends began farming on vacant lots in south Minneapolis, said Robin Major, one of the students turned urban farmers who is the Stone’s Throw manager. That venture expanded and now farms on five lots in Minneapolis and 10 in the Frogtown area of St. Paul.
Issues of scale, scope and distribution efficiency remained. LEDC, meanwhile, was working with ethnic farmers in rural Minnesota and had cooperative development expertise in Yolanda Cotterall, the Greater Minnesota program director, and Flory, the special projects director who has more than 20 years experience with food co-ops and small business development.
LEDC has USDA grants to work on co-op development projects for ethnic communities in Minnesota, including some of Stone’s Throw’s members. In addition to the urban farmers, the co-op consists of the Aqua Gordo co-op at Long Prairie, Cala and his family’s Cala Farms partnership at Turtle Lake, Wis., and two other rural Minnesota farms or partnerships that include Latino ethnic partners.
Two of the five members are worker co-ops; all are producer co-op members, and all make Stone’s Throw a value-added co-op. In the cooperative jargon of Minnesota, Stone’s Throw is a New Generation Cooperative (NGC) providing value-added services and a “federated” co-op. In structure, it is like U.S. agricultural co-op giants CHS Inc. and Land O’Lakes—the Minnesota-based co-ops jointly owned by farmers directly and indirectly through farmer-owned local cooperatives.
All the pieces fit. Teaming with the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council on St. Paul’s East Side, LEDC is helping the co-op buy a warehouse at 804 Margaret Street kitty-corner across East Seventh Street from the Mexican Consulate offices for Minnesota.
It is being remodeled with cooler warehouse space for the co-op and offices and conference rooms for LEDC’s immigrant and refugee business training programs and its agricultural development programs.
LEDC’s work with other groups, and especially the Asian and Hmong communities, will be discussed in a future article. What the St. Paul cooler and warehouse achieves, however, is an immediate way to expand marketing of co-op members’ fresh produce with less spoilage and waste, said co-op manager Major.