Scoop Q&A: Co-op Employee Betsy Peirce & Husband Ketel Paulsen

By: Cerrisa Snethen, Co-op Member/Owner

Can you tell us a little bit about where the two are you are from, how you met and how you landed in Decorah?

Betsy: I am originally from the Twin Cities. I went to Luther College and met Ketel there in the concerns groups. We were really just friendly acquaintances. The summer after I graduated, way back in 1992, I lived with locals Perry-O and David Sliwa. I was an intern of sorts, working to earn my room and board in the garden and cooking. It was the summer I fell in love with Decorah. After the summer was over, I moved to Minneapolis to do Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a volunteer program featuring inner city service, intentional community living and living off very little income. It was a great year, but I did not have a “plan” at the end of it. Through periodic visits to Decorah during my inner city year, I found I dreaded leaving Decorah to go back the city, so when I realized I could come here and live it was like something clicked. That was the right decision. Ketel and I reconnected periodically over the years that he was away, and when we eventually did get together it was because of Perry-O. She did the match-making. We got married on their farm.

Ketel: I’m from Mason City, not far away. I met Luther’s world through tennis camp a couple years in a row. Betsy and I were friends in the environmental and peace and justice groups. I lived abroad for eight years after college, first in the Peace Corps and then teaching English in Turkey and South Korea. Every year when I came home to visit, I would come back to Decorah and check if Betsy was still working at the Co-op. (Pretty cool woman!) I knew I wanted to come back to America after teaching in Turkey and a visit in 2000 cemented the idea. It flew from there.

You joined the Co-op approximately when? And when did you begin working there, Betsy?

B: I joined in 1993, when I moved back from Minneapolis. I did an Ethnography (a anthropological  study of the culture) of the Co-op in college, so when I moved back I was very interested in working there. I got a job right away, which was not easy at the time, because there were so few employees hired. I can remember years and years where we did not have any job openings. At the time I was one of five or six employees. A good day at the store was $1,000 in revenue! Nowadays, our biggest days can reach as much as $55,000!

What’s your general food philosophy, and how did that guide you to the Co-op? Or did your more current views on food come after?

B: Food is such a personal thing for everyone. It’s intimately connected to who we are at our core. That said, I was raised eating whole foods: honey not sugar (my grandfather was a beekeeper), whole wheat flour and homemade bread and granola. We ate meat that my grandparents raised. I hated being different as a kid with my weird lunches, but isn’t it funny how we often go back to our roots? I am passionate about eating well. I love food, and have always loved eating. I am an omnivore. I eat mostly whole foods. Ketel and I spend more time cooking than most other activities in our lives. I eat organic, mostly. When I first started at the Co-op, I was a frugal grocery shopper. I bought whole food at conventional stores, but thought I couldn’t afford to buy food at the Co-op. Plus, we had an abysmal produce section, so I was not inspired to buy it! Things shifted when I read a book in 1993 called Diet for a Poisoned Planet, by David Steinman. In it, he categorized food into three categories: red light, green light, and yellow light, based on their pesticide loads and safety relating to that. It rocked my world, and I began trying to spend what money I had on organic food. I have since come to a more rounded food philosophy. I choose to eat organic food based on many factors–the environment, the safety of the farm workers exposed to chemicals and the sustainability of a type of agriculture that is giving back as well as taking from the soil. I also believe it positively affects my health to eat fewer chemicals. I realize that not everyone is in the same place in their food journey, and lately I really just wish that people were able to have more time to cook and were curious about how to do it. That would solve so many of our nation’s health problems. There is a place for everyone to share knowledge, and that is the Co-op.

K: I was a vegetarian for nearly twenty years, and wanted to see the world in a light that honored less land use for the growing of grain for animals, a system that didn’t make sense for the efficient use of resources. I still mostly see it that way. At Luther one semester, a few friends and I worked with the cafeteria to use some of our “caf” money to experiment with preparing organic meals on Friday nights. That was a fun way to learn about this cool place downtown. The Co-op was always there with food that I needed to be grown and processed in a way that fit my friends’ and my earlier needs and views. It was, and remains, locally-focused in many ways. I started eating meat again two years ago to deal with some health issues. But the base of my food philosophy was always growing our own food as much as possible and then buying some extras from local growers. I believe that local meat production which raises animals with little or no grain is best for the base of it all, including the soil and long term viability of the local economy. The Co-op is still such an important part of our local economy.

How does your relationship with the Co-op shape your overall relationship with the Decorah community?

B: I have worked here for twenty-one years– not quite half my life! I have seen so many kids grow up and leave and then come back. It’s so special for people to have this place to come back to. We are so much more than a grocery store. I have formed many connections to the community via my local growers, customers, friends and co-workers. Decorah is a special place and the Co-op makes it that much more so.

K: Most of the people we are good friends with also are long-time Co-op owners as well, often for similar reasons. We’re all in the same boat. Can you tell us a little bit about raising a family in/ around the Co-op?

How old is your daughter Olivia and how does the Co-op impact her life?

B: Olivia is seven and has grown up in the aisles. She loves coming early with me on mornings before school to help Joan put the money in the drawer, take the chairs down in the cafe and draw pictures in the cafe seating area with other morning kids and chat with customers there. She hears a lot about eating healthy local food these days. Not only from us, but from Co-op kids cooking classes, and from Megan Woodward the Food Corps Volunteer who works in local schools. She will have that healthy base that I did, at least.

K: Our vivacious daughter Olivia has known the Co-op building well her whole life, watching Mom come in early and start putting the produce out in the mornings before school, coming in for snacks there and especially taking Johanna’s wonderful classes that teach about other ways of seeing or making food she might not see at home. I sometimes worry she mimics what I say at home about eating good food, maybe even going overboard, but probably it’s just a good mirror for how much we think about all of this already.

Betsy, can you tell us a little about your changing/evolving hats working for the Co-op over the years? And what makes you stay?

B: I began as a cashier in 1993 and when we moved to our 415 W Water location, I was hired as the assistant produce manager and then quickly became the produce co-manager, and then the manager. I also was the coffee buyer and cooked in the deli. Why do I stay? That is a good question. The Co-op is still challenging me. It’s exciting to work in a place that is so clearly thriving. I still like coming to work each day. I have been through so many evolutions of the Co-op, but they have all taught me something. Some of those things have been hard, and I keep persevering and making the best of it. Our awesome employees, co-workers, and our GM David Lester are good reasons to stick around. It’s a very supportive environment. We all are constantly learning and growing as a business, as managers and as a work place. It’s dynamic and I love that.

K: Betsy’s roles have stayed grounded in the Produce department and I think she has built a very strong foundation for that side of the building. I’m constantly impressed with how she deals with staff and customers in a respectful way.

What does Decorah life generally look like for the two of you now? Ketel, care to mention what you do and how the other areas of your life intersect with the Co-op?

B: I am involved in raising a free-spirited daughter. I love to bike, do yoga, contra dance, hear live music and cook!

K: People know us as having a garden that I’m way into. We try to raise and put up as much for ourselves as we can for the long winter, bartering or trading with our food since we often have extra. We give a lot away, too. I am part owner of Hometown Taxi, another cooperatively-owned business in Decorah. I get to meet people from all walks that I wouldn’t get the chance to if I wasn’t driving them somewhere. Of course, in a taxi I talk about my family and how we look at food. People love to talk about what’s coming out of the garden at the time, and what Olivia likes to help with (or not). We all talk about how fun it is to see the thriving Farmer’s Market as we drive by. Plus, we pick stuff up for the passengers sometimes if they’re unable. It’s a nice cross-pollination job in Decorah.

How has or does the Co-op serve(d) as a social extension for your family?

B: Most of our friends, we have met here at the Co-op. It’s amazing to think that, but it’s true. We have so many community connections between our two jobs.

K: The Co-op is, as you say, a social extension to and for our family. It’s like a home at times. It’s like a family one doesn’t have time to talk to at other times, but nearly always welcoming. Can you tell us a bit of what you’re cooking/growing/preserving these days?

Ketel, we hear you’re quite the gardener.

K: One of my passions is gardening, yes. It’s a political and local action. It’s so much. I can see and affect the quality of food that comes into our family’s home, and that feels wonderful. I grow a little of everything, but lots of kale, green beans and red peppers! I am doing less growing of potatoes and onions and trying to find more time to ride the bike. It’s all a balance for our family. We fill up three freezers each fall to get us over winter, also growing for extended families in some part. Our raspberries are very good and plentiful. We make kimchi, fermented drinks, and keep carrots in the ground over winter for extra sweetness. We continually try different things.

If you each had to recommend one favorite item from the Co-op to an out-of-town visitor, what would it be?

B: Really? Only one item? The Waving Grains Sourdough bread and pizza crust dough. It’s so good! First, I would try to sell them lots of produce!

K: Lily’s sugar-free chocolate. Not that the taste is as good as dark chocolate, but I’m so happy there’s something out there sweetened with something that will not rot my already bad teeth!

Finally, can you tell us what you’d love to see (and/or not see) for the Co-op’s future?

B: More education and cooking classes!

K: I’d love to see a large pig painted on the outer wall next to Irene the cow. I’d like more stevia sweetened chocolate. I’m not good at seeing ahead to what could be good in the aisles. I just know it when I see or taste it.