Change & Continuity in the Local Food Scene

How Twin Cities’ Co-ops & Co-op Partners Warehouse Are More Important than Ever

Founder and Owner of Featherstone Farm

There have been extraordinary changes in the regional farm and food scene since Featherstone Farm and I got started in Southeast Minnesota over 25 years ago. And this is as it should be; after all, didn’t most of us get involved in the Wedge, Linden Hills, and other Twin Cities food co-ops precisely to change the way we grow, distribute, and consume local and organic food?

It seems to me that we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in this great work, and we should all feel satisfied and even proud of what we’ve accomplished, co-operatively. And yet this is hardly the time to declare victory and leave the field. There is still important work to be done. The local and regional food system that we’ve developed depends on steadfast, dedicated engagement and support from us all, now more than ever.

Here’s what I mean. With certified organic foods available virtually anywhere these days, with delivery-to-the-doorstep an option for nearly any meal, and with big business consolidating its hold on much of this “industry,” I believe it’s more important than ever to ask ourselves what we are really trying to achieve, and how best to get there.

One way of framing this “big picture” question for me is as a continuum, with two different visions at either end. Are we trying to build a completely alternative, independent food system alongside industrial agriculture and mainstream grocery? Or are we trying to create hybrid models that attempt to move “big food” toward a more sustainable, equitable way of doing things? Where along this continuum do we focus our efforts?

Answers to this and other “big picture” questions can and will change over time; no doubt my understanding of why I am a farmer has evolved substantially over the years. But as a consumer, community member, and someone passionately committed to values of sustainability and economic justice, my baseline dedication to supporting food co-ops has only grown over the years.

Change and growth are not always smooth, easy processes. And they are not without sacrifices and losses, even painful ones. (Honestly, I still regret the loss of the volunteer programs at my co-op in Winona). But I truly believe the maxim that the arc of history bends toward progress and toward justice. And I believe that, whether the value is environmental stewardship, local economic autonomy, fair employment practice or any number of other important things, that the Twin Cities’ food co-ops are unique and powerful agents of positive change.

In over two decades at Featherstone Farm, change has often been a matter of “two steps forward, one step back,” and there have been growing pains — hard ones. All of us at the farm have been humbled over and over again, reminded (sometimes sharply!) of the foolishness of over-ambition, of the limits to our vision and capacity. We’ve gradually drawn down the scale of what we’re trying to achieve, from “saving the world” at a hundred levels (big public advocacy on everything from immigration reform to climate change), to running a sustainable, ethically managed, super-transparent business that (hopefully!) can be a replicable model on the road to an even better farm and food system.

But I will be honest and say that we owe our very existence at Featherstone Farm, to the Wedge and Linden Hills Co-op, to Co-op Partners Warehouse (CPW), and to the Twin Cities’ food co-ops in general. Yes, for “bailouts” following acute (2007) and chronic (2016) flood losses at the farm, when these community institutions — and you as owners — put your support behind our farm and many others in the region. But even more important, I think, is the day-in-and-day-out, year-in-and-year-out support in the form of consistent, dedicated buying of our produce, even when it was not altogether convenient or easy, when the price was high, or the supply erratic.

I cannot say strongly enough what this support has meant to us or how grateful all of us at Featherstone Farm are for it. And I cannot emphasize too strongly how many other regional farms and local businesses have benefited by their association with the Twin Cities’ co-ops, how many of them are here now doing the great work of food system change, precisely because the co-ops supported them through thick and thin.

So what, specifically, is so unique and so powerful about the work of the food co-ops in the upper Midwest? The answer, I think, has to do with the baseline commitment among these institutions’ ownership and leadership, both, to walking-the-walk of supporting local, organic, and independent producers. Paradoxically, this means advancing change in the food system through consistent, unwavering application of principles and vision in buying choices.

For food co-op owners, this means seeking out and preferentially choosing local, organic products whenever possible, even when prices are higher. (I am a strong believer in the idea that most often, consumers “get what they pay for” at some level or another). For co-op produce buyers — the store-level staff with which I have had the most contact — this means being willing to work with many different independent producers, even when this makes daily ordering way more challenging than it otherwise would be.

It is at this store buying level that the dual goals of change and continuity in the local food system are most difficult to balance, I believe. Should a co-op produce buyer spread orders and business broadly, among as many new and innovative farmers as possible (prioritizing change and growth of a certain kind)? Or is it better to stick with “legacy producers” like Featherstone Farm and “fill in” with other farms’ produce only when there are gaps in our supply or quality (continuity focus)?

Honestly, I do not know the answer to this question. No doubt older, more established producers like Featherstone Farm benefit from commitment to continuity. But does the broader food system in general grow and change sufficiently in this model, particularly as opportunities for new farmers to get into the “market” have all but dried up in recent years? Again, I’m just not sure. But from a certain distance, it seems to me that the co-op produce buyers have balanced these somewhat conflicting priorities — change and continuity — remarkably well over the years.

At Featherstone Farm, two decades of consistent, loyal support from the co-ops — and in particular from CPW — have allowed us to accomplish things we could never have dreamed of when we sent those first six cases of green butter lettuce to the Wedge. I believe our farm has matured in its vision and daily practice, much as the co-ops themselves have, from insurgent “disruptors” to professional, sustainable, transparent businesses that can (hopefully) provide models of incremental change for the “system” at large.

Any discussion of the “big picture” of local and organic food, would be incomplete without reference to CPW as a “force amplifier” at all levels. There’s just no way to overstate how completely unique and vital this warehouse is in providing a national model for food system change. And in particular, how the clear-eyed vision of CPW Produce Buyer Rick Christianson has led this industry forward for three decades, locally, regionally and even nationally. Rick’s steadfast commitment to seek out, develop and nurture long-term relationships with small and medium-sized family farmers from all parts of the country, has been a total inspiration to me and to so many others. Rick and CPW’s efforts comprise one of the “untold stories” of the success of local and organic agriculture in the upper Midwest over the past 20 years.

Just as CPW maintains direct relationships with growers nationwide, I am lucky enough to know a great many organic vegetable farmers from other parts of the country. Invariably when these growers visit me and Featherstone Farm in Southeastern Minnesota, they are impressed by two things. The high grass prairie silt loam soil with which we are blessed is the most obvious. But the food co-ops — and in particular CPW — are even more extraordinary resources, in their minds. We have created such a great model of change here in the upper Midwest! We cannot take this for granted, in this era of churn in the world of organic foods. Let’s double down in our daily commitment of support for the Wedge, Linden Hills and all Twin Cities’ co-ops!

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