From Foodshed to ‘Foodcabin’

As I sit in my office on this morning in early May wondering about the significance of a May snowfall and a high of 33 degrees, my spirits are lifted with a new product from Waving Grains Bakery. Just moments before, I warmed up a bacon cheddar scone on the Panini grill in our café and I am about to have a private, salty-cheesy-bacony moment of silence before diving into the day’s work. Yummm.

It is impressive to see many local producers like Waving Grains innovating and producing unique items for our customers. Our customers expect these items to be minimally processed and made with the highest quality ingredients possible. It is not an easy task for most small, local producers. There is a lot to think about in owning your own business just to make ends meet yet most of our local producers find that valuable time to innovate and stay ahead of the competition.

The Driftless Region in which we live is a fragile, yet fertile ground for small-scale farm production and innovation. We know that our farming and business practices and the way we treat our land in this area are important for long-term health, sustainability and productivity. Oneota Co-op values and seeks producers who are certified organic or are transitioning to organic. Our grower questionnaire asks about farming practices, so we do farm visits, and we have other safety measures in place to ensure our local products are safe and meet our high standards. Having a focus on organics helps create a healthier environment for all of us to live, work and play as well as helps create a more sustainable food system in the Driftless Region.

I had the opportunity to hear Philip Ackerman-Leist speak at Luther College on April 28th. Ackerman-Leist gave a lecture about his latest book, Rebuilding the Foodshed. The concept of a foodshed is similar to a watershed in the sense that it is an area of land that tracks how food flows within that area. It takes into consideration economic and physical landscape factors and barriers. What struck me the most during his presentation was that in many instances across the U.S. local foods are priced at a premium. This makes them not very affordable for many individuals and families in the community. When it comes to making food purchasing decisions in a family with a household income of less than $30,000/year, price matters. We can talk all we want about these products being certified organic and the health benefits of being grown without the use of hormones or antibiotics, but price matters to our shoppers with fewer economic resources. It’s not easy to simultaneously make local food items affordable and reach more of our community with locally grown food.

At our Co-op we try to address this issue in different ways. For example, we place higher margins on items like Costa Rican bananas so that we can lower our margins on some basic local pantry items like onions and potatoes. Ackerman names a place where there is a lot of possibility for making local items more affordable. He calls this place “The New Middle.” The new middle is a place where innovation for growing our local foodshed is happening. According to Ackerman, The New Middle “consists of aggregation, processing, and distribution, in a variety of forms and combinations, ranging from community-based nonprofit efforts to savvy entrepreneurial initiatives.”

There are numerous models across the country, like the food hub created by La Montanita Co-op in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They created a separate warehouse that stores, delivers and picks up local products on two different distribution routes from the warehouse. In Northeast Iowa, Grown Locally is a cooperative of over 30 different producers that is providing fresh, high-quality foods to local food service institutions. Luther College and the Oneota Co-op are two of the largest customers of Grown Locally and meet with them to plan purchases on a yearly basis to keep waste at a minimum. There is a lot of opportunity for individuals and investors in the Driftless Region interested in food processing. Possibilities in large-scale canning, baking, dehydrating and freezing are just a few that come to mind in The New Middle. At the Co-op, we have expertise in food business incubation and marketing ideas that could also be shared with producers and processors.

I think communities that exist within this Driftless Region like Decorah, Winona, Viroqua, La Crosse, Dubuque and others are well on the way to rebuilding their foodsheds. I also like to think about a foodshed as a small structure with humble roots sheltering a small portion of a population, but with possibilities of being something a little bigger with fewer holes in the roof and more inviting. With innovative growers and producers seeking new ways to use technology to reach more consumers, our foodshed has the possibility of being more of a “foodcabin” and a model for other communities.

So, thank you to all of our almost 70 local producers. What you do is amazing and important. You’re making a difference to a lot of people every day.

Oneota Community Co-op’s
Alcam Creamery Butter
Angie Amsbaugh Jewelry
Bear Creek Honey Honey
Beyond the Moon Soapmakers Soap
Blake Family Organic Farm Bison
Breezy Bluff Farm Beef, lamb
Brunkow Dairy Cooperative Cheese
Buffalo Hills Bison Bison
Canoe Creek Dairy Organic Valley Milk
Carl Homstad Greeting cards
Carol Bentley Iverson Greeting cards
Carr Valley Cheese Cheese
Cedar Grove Cheese Cheese
Countryside Orchard Apples
Country View Dairy Yogurt
Eco Lips Lip Balm
Elisabeth Maurland Greeting Cards
Empty Nest Wine
Faribault Dairy Company, Inc. Cheese
Ferndale Market Turkey products
Footbridge Farm Basil
Frontier Natural
Products Co-op Wellness & Bulk
God Dag Lefse
Golden Ridge Honey Honey
Grass Run Farm Beef products
Great River Organic
Milling, Inc. Bulk flours
Green’s Sugar Bush Maple syrup
Grown Locally
Assorted meats, eggs and produce
Hanson’s Eggs Eggs
Integrity Mills/
Sun Rich, LLC Corn Polenta
J & J Produce Produce
Kickapoo Coffee Coffee
Ku’un Coffee Coffee
Larry Schultz
Organic Farm Chicken, turkey, eggs
Linden Soaps Soap
Linus Barloon Aronia berries
Lyle Luzum Lamb products
Lynn Staley Bread and bakery items
Marilyn Sabelka Black walnuts
McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita Breads
Meadow Farm Produce, flowers
Montchevre Cheese Cheese
Mt. Sterling Co-op Creamery Cheese
Nathan Matter/Ardvar Prints/Cards
Netty’s Naturals Bodycare/Lotion
Nordic Creamery Cheese
Off the Land Pork products
Organic Valley Family of Farms
Cheese, milk and dairy products
Pasture Pride Cheese
Patchwork Green Farm Produce
Peake Orchard Apples
Plant Peddler Produce/Plants
River Root Farm Produce/seedlings
Rock Cedar Ranch Beef
Rolling Hills Farm Produce
Shepherd’s Way Cheese
Shullsburg Creamery, Inc. Cheese
Simply Bee Natural
Wellness/Bodycare items
SnoPac Frozen fruit/veggies
Stone Prairie Farm Produce
Tom Beard Lamb
Top of the Hollow Farm Potatoes
Trempeleau Hotel Walnut Burgers
Wangsness Farm
Organic Valley soy products
Waving Grains Bakery Bakery Items
Winneshiek Wildberry Winery Wine
WW Homestead Dairy
Cheese curds, cheese, milk
Yellow River Dairy Cheese
Yost Farm Inc. Tomatoes