Host Eli Crain talks with Josh Resnik the CEO of Twin Cities Co-op Partners and Jack Hedin, founder of Featherstone Farm about how the relationship between consumers, farmers, and Co-op grocery stores offers challenges and opportunities for providing sustainable, regional, and affordable food. In this information-packed episode, Jack and Josh discuss the tension between sustainability, affordability, and equity in our food system from farm to fork.
Full episode transcript available here.
Farmers and Co-ops: Creating a Regional Food System
Tuesday, March 9th 2021
farm, food, people, produce, supporting, Featherstone, business, system, community, growing, twin cities, co-op, partners, challenges, Minnesota
Josh Resnik, Eli Crain, Jack Hedin
Eli Crain 00:06
Hello and welcome to Nourish. I'm your host, Eli Crain and we are coming to you from the original homeland of the Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples or what is known now as Minnesota. Today we are talking to Josh Resnick, the CEO of Twin Cities Co-op partners which includes the Wedge and Linden Hills Co-op as well as the distributor-Co-op Partners Warehouse. These businesses bring over four decades of experience connecting people and local growers, suppliers, farmers, and producers throughout Minnesota and the upper-midwest. We are also joined by Jack Hedin the founder of Featherstone Farm in Rushford, Minnesota. Featherstone Farm is a 250 acre certified organic farm that since 1994 produces around 70 varieties of fresh market fruits and vegetables for local co-ops, restaurants, and grocers, wholesalers and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members throughout the region. We are talking to them today to get their perspectives on how local food can help create a more just and resilient food system. Welcome and thank you both so much for being here for this conversation.
Thanks for having us.
Jack Hedin 01:48
Thank you. Yeah,
Eli Crain 01:50
We are so happy to have you. First off I would like to hear about your backgrounds and what led you to want to work in the food system. Josh, would you like to tell us a little about yourself and your career?
Josh Resnik 02:38
Sure. Well, my name is Josh Resnik. I'm the CEO of Twin Cities co-op partners. I've been with the organization for just about eight years, actually, I think Tomorrow is my eight-year anniversary. So, um, and, you know, I've worked in the food industry for about 25 years. I've always been passionate about the local food economy and how food is produced. I think a lot of my passion for the local food system, you know, came partly from a passion for food, I grew up in a kind of a foodie family where we really enjoyed cooking, we enjoyed finding like a hole in the wall, ethnic restaurants and food was always kind of part of our conversation. And as I got kind of more into kind of cooking and sourcing food myself, um, I would say the kind of shopping for food became part of the fun of it and part of the haunt and so got really into shopping at the Wedge well, before I worked there, got very into going to the farmer’s markets in Minneapolis and getting to know the farmers and kind of building relationships with them. And it was kind of my thing, like, I would go like every single week and just to have conversations and kind of be able to talk with them about the food and like what was good and what was freshest at that time. And just share ideas with them and learn a little bit more about what they were doing. So they really, you know, my coming to the Wedge comes from you know, great respect for the local food system. You know, my background is I worked at General Mills for about 13 and a half years. And, you know, it really kind of was kind of my day job was marketing, things like yogurt in a tube and microwavable dessert balls and something I didn't really eat. I mean, I believe General Mills is a good company. I think they do a lot of really good things. But really, my passion was in this local food system and I got on the board for Midtown Global Market, which helped immigrant business owners kind of set up food businesses in these folks' neighborhoods. As I mentioned, to kind of, you know, really tied in with the farmer’s markets, I ended up getting on the board for Mill City Farmers Market as well. I spent two years kind of after General Mills running a grass-fed bison company which was all about restoring the great plans and very much about what they've done their whole life. So they actually felt part of a state that was 100% grass-fed. And that was kind of my bridge between General Mills and working at the Wedge came to the Wedge in 2012. And, and always really had a passion for the Wedge and shopped at the Wedge and kind of you know, I joked that it was kind of my dream job coming in and it really has been a fantastic experience working here and being part of the local food community and helping you know, further that and kind of connecting farmers like Jack with people here who have a passion for and appreciation for how their food is grown and raised.
Eli Crain 06:14
wow, Great. Thank you so much for sharing, you’ve really had a career that seems to span all aspects of the food system. I’m really excited to get to dig in more with questions for you. I will move on though quickly to Jack, I would love to hear a little bit more about the founding Featherstone farm and about you know, your decision to kind of work in the food system and become a farmer.
Jack Hedin 06:42
Sure. I did not grow up in agriculture. I did not grow up in rural America. I grew up in suburbia and went to college during the Reagan era where I was very involved politically. It was the apartheid era anti-apartheid era, contra war. I was involved in a lot of campus activism and opposition to things marches for submarine new nuclear submarine launches and that kind of a thing. And at some point, I realized that I wanted to do something constructive and life-affirming, as opposed to just opposing things and marching and trying to beat back the tide. And I have always been a great outdoors and very involved in food as well from a family that did a lot of cooking. And so somehow or another agriculture came up and was the natural answer for me. I really have enjoyed working with my hands, my whole life, carpentry projects, building, things of that sort, and being able to translate ideas into action with my hands as well as at a computer keyboard or any other type of thing that has been really you know, it's turned into it's a real vocation for me at this point. I just can't imagine doing anything else. Now we started out my wife and me very, very small. Well, we started by working on farms across the country for many years, Mid New England, Mid Atlantic, California. At some point, we decided to come back to Minnesota where my father's family's roots are right here in the Red Wing area. My great grandfather was a Swedish immigrant who grew up just to Featherstone township outside of Red Wing, which is the name of our namesake for our farm. Did a lot of things in his life but he was an early ecologist and proto environmentalist at the turn of the century before that kind of thing was widely understood. He was probably 20 years ahead of Aldo Leopold, wrote a memoir, self-published memoir that I got my hands on when I was an idealistic college kid and started reading about and this was the thing that his writing more than anything that made me really start to wonder whether we could I could go back to the roots at some fundamental level and build a kind of regenerative agriculture that he would have understood in an era before chemical era the monocultures in the modern systems came into place. And so it's extremely idealistic. I guess that's the important thing here. Got into it with this extreme, high level of idealism, environmental and systems change had been involved in cooperatives, land cooperatives, and housing cooperatives. For many years before we started selling to the co-ops like the Wedge or club partners in the Twin Cities. That was you know, again, foundation-level thing for my wife and for myself for many years. We were founding members of a land cooperative in 1994, about eight miles from here, Southeast Minnesota. Kind of outgrew its poor soil, not a good location for a farm, but it was a wonderful thing when it lasted for 15 years, 20 years we were members out there. Anyway, Featherstone Farms was just in the right place at the right time. And from a humble beginning with five rented acres, I think at the land cooperative early on, a couple of volunteers helping us out a couple of employees early on, we grew to 10% 15% a year for a couple of decades. And a lot of the downside of that. But it did get us to where we are here. Now at this point, which is a fairly stable, well established vegetable farm that is really able to put a lot of its ideals into practice. I'm very pleased to say we've managed to pull off a lot of the growth without sacrificing a lot of those original ideals. Although it was touch and go for a while, we invested so much and stretched ourselves out so much in the wake of flooding (2007), with green energy, solar panels, and geothermal here on our new site here, nearly put us out of business, I'll be honest, trying to, you know, do everything at once with green energy and on climate. I did, I spent two, three years of really active advocacy, nationally on climate, and really took my eyes off of the farm and created a lot of problems here that again, nearly put us out of business again, six, eight years ago, and we managed to keep alive. However, thanks to these wonderful collaborations with places like co-op partners, the food co-ops in the Twin Cities, our CSA membership, we've managed to keep the lights on. And now hopefully finding a little bit more of a balance between the real idealism that got us into it. And the realities of just keeping a business like this running day in and day out trying to navigate the big challenges, one of which is climate change in what we do: fresh vegetables, fresh market vegetables. Disrupted climate is challenge number one, I'm certain of that. And we can talk about exactly what that means. But it's, it is an existential threat to what we do. I just might add too, I think that, from writing and thinking about this for two decades, what we do with fresh market vegetable production in a four-season climate east of the Rocky Mountains. This is in some ways, to me the perfect canary in the coal mine for climate disruption. Because what we do is so seamlessly and vitally connected with these micro swings and these trends and the stability of weather you're in day in and day out, week in and week out, year in and year out. When those patterns are disrupted, either acutely or chronically over a period of time we, we really feel it. And that's been our experience for 25 years here in southeast Minnesota, at Featherstone farm is seeing the stability, that predictability, slipping away from us and suffering the consequences and mighty ways that we can talk about, but it is challenge number one for us.
Eli Crain 13:19
Yeah, I think that's such an important point when talking about why it is important to think about food as part of a climate solution. And also an indicator of how we're doing as a climate as a country and see the trends as they change. I would love to touch really briefly on the ideals that you talked about, for your farm, because I think that's important, for framing this whole conversation. So just maybe just list out a couple of what you refer to as the ideals that you were able to stick through those kinds of hard times.
Jack Hedin 13:53
So I think ideal number one is one of these things that I think that I took from my great grandfather's memoir, which is the idea of some kind of agriculture, which is fundamentally in sync with natural cycles and the natural order of things in the particular area where it takes place in this area, southeast Minnesota. Not trying to push back too hard against the seasonal and all the fluctuations, the landscape, and other things, you know, something that's in, you know, the idea of being in harmony with a natural order of things. That is number one. And that's not easy to do because of vegetable farming at any scale, and certainly, at the scale, we are where we're supplying pallets and pallets and pallets of produce for a place like co-op partners. It's inherently a very disruptive thing. And so finding that balance between say, tillage and soil health, that's a tough one. And it's a big challenge for us. But again, so I think number one, idealism is inspiration and direction from the natural order of things in the environment.
Number two, I think would be some kind of a sustainable community that's in balance. A community of people, producers, our nearby community, neighbors, other farmers in our area, conventional as well as organic. Certainly, the community of consumers and the foodshed, including places like Co-op Partners and Twin Cities in general, that balance and a healthy mutually supportive relationship there to me is a really fundamental ideal that I'm working on. I think cooperatives or and things like Community Supported Agriculture are really good vehicles for that, putting that ideal into effect. And I think also trying to elevate farm work.
I think another ideal for me is elevating, you know, half the work of the hands in the day to day work of producing and harvesting and shipping produce. Elevating that to be a more honorable and important type of work, not just in a pandemic, but all the time. That farm work itself is a valuable and honorable thing and that more people could aspire to do it. That's also a big idealistic thing because fewer and fewer people are farming now. And for good reasons and bad reasons. That's it's, it's, it's slipping away from us.
Eli Crain 16:29
Thank you so much for sharing that. Those three things, respecting the boundaries of nature, supporting your local community’s food needs, and respecting the people who grow and harvest that food are fundamental tenets of the food system MN350’s food system team hopes to support and why we wanted to highlight what you are doing at Featherstone Farm. I'll let Josh speak for a little bit about what Co-op Partners sees as its role in creating a more resilient and sustainable local food system.
Josh Resnik 16:51
And, you know, I really like to think of it as a conduit between small to midsize growers and consumers kind of across the upper Midwest. So we've got within Twin Cities Co op Partners. We've got four different parts of our business, we've got two stores, which are Wedge and Linden hills Co-Op. We've got a co-op partners warehouse, which is a food distributor. And then we've got kind of our foodservice wing where we were producing food, we cook food, we have a bakery, we have a catering business. Co-op Partners Warehouse specifically started up in 1999. And we've really grown a lot over the last 20 years, we service about 400 different accounts. So a lot of it is Co Op groceries and independent grocers. But we also kind of service more kind of sourcing minded restaurants and cafes as well. Also colleges, you know, there are some colleges that buy from us, universities, schools, but we really kind of see our job is to bring together you know, the farmers like Jack who are, you know, doing great stuff, and the people who ultimately who want the food and so it's a way of also taking miles off the road. So instead of Jack, you know, going out and delivering to, you know, 50 different states, we can kind of through one delivery, reach our warehouse, and then put it on our truck, along with everything else that we're selling, and reach 400 outlets throughout the upper Midwest, and we actually serve a seven-state area. So we go all the way down to Chicago, the UP in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Dakota is even though I mean, our business is really concentrated in Minnesota, but we do cover a wider area than that.
And, um, you know, I think, obviously, during the growing season, we work extremely closely with farms like Jack's, Harmony Valley in Wisconsin and other, you know, small farms that I think kind of provide the food that I think a lot of us want to be eating kind of this type of stuff that people would buy if they were going to a farmers market. And we're bringing that. But then even in the off-season, we work with farms in California, Arizona and Mexico. And we tend to work with small and mid-sized farms there as well. And so it's also providing a year-round source for things like you know, greens and kale and that type of stuff that you just know, it's a relatively short growing season here in Minnesota. So we also kind of believe in eating seasonally. But we know that if we were strictly eating seasonally, and just providing stuff seasonally that it would be pretty narrow in terms of what we ought to buy in the stores.
The other thing I'll say I mean this kind of goes beyond farming, but we also play a pretty important role for local producers of packaged goods. So we've got about 120 different small food companies that we work with. And we're kind of the bridge between when they get too big for delivering out of the back of their van. But they're not quite ready to go to a national distributor yet. And we work with them both in terms of giving a broader market so they can get their product to more outlets and be able to expand their business. Also, provide a lot of services. So kind of helping kind of coach them instruct them through that growth process. And I think that's really important. So whether we're working with a small up and coming, you know, Kombucha maker or, you know, an organic farm in Southeastern Minnesota, we really view these people as partners not it's a really symbiotic relationship. And whether it's kind of with a retail business at the Wedge or Linden hills, or a distribution business with CPW, we are partners, with Jack and other farms, we are partners with these small producers, having been out of big food company and spent a lot of time, you know, going and kind of selling to large, large retailers, where it's much more of a zero-sum game, and we're kind of arguing over, you know, every last penny, our success is rooted in the success of Jack running his farm successfully. And the Kombucha farmers, you know, not kombucha farms, kombucha, producers running successfully. And it's just a very, very different mentality. We're much more about collaboration, and how do we create a situation where we're mutually winning? And I think that that kind of comes across, both in terms of how we buy and like, you know, negotiating, you know, binding agreements, but also then how we're selling products as well. I think, you know, if I compare and contrast us to a large national natural foods retailer, I think they're very much about waiving their own flag and talking about themselves. And we're much more talking about Featherstone Farm and Harmony Valley and Prohibition Kombucha, and producers like that. We really feel like we're successful when they're successful. And the thing that we can kind of most bring is to tell the stories of the people who are bringing your food and just bring you closer, that's there's a greater sense of connection.
Eli Crain 21:53
Yeah, I think that's such an important part of making it possible to have a local food system where you're not having to source things from only from California or, and you can also be, you know, fostering local businesses and producers and, and keeping that like connection going.
Jack Hedin 22:32
I wonder if I could just interject one thing before, while it's fresh on my mind here before we move to this next I think too many of your listeners, what Josh has just described would seem like a no brainer, why would there not be a collaboratively oriented small food hub that does all of these things that bring together and make connects all these dots. It does seem at some level, just like every community is going to have one of these types, of food hubs or businesses. But in my experience and the experience of so many farmers that I know across the country, what we have with Co-op partners is truly a unique thing here. I am not kidding, I have friends visiting from the West Coast and from the Mid Atlantic and all over. And to a person, they are amazed by the lengths to which co-op partners and the food co-ops here in the Twin Cities walk the walk of doing this work and, and doing it collaboratively, but also doing it successfully and profitably, which translates into sustainably because there are so many efforts like this and new initiatives to replicate co-op partners in cities, communities across the country. I hear about them, I read about them. I know people that are involved in these things, and they are inevitably struggling. There is some missing element in so many of them not all by a longshot. And there are I don't want to throw cold water on the idea of the impulse, but to be able to actually pull it off and to successfully for two decades and to be bringing up all of the small farms and small producers that Josh has talked about and serving, not just thousands, but 10s of thousands of families in a community like the Twin Cities metro throughout the upper Midwest, this co-op partners warehouse and these food co-ops and then up in the Twin Cities here in the upper Midwest, it is a really unique deal. And we ought to be darn proud of it and happy that we've got it here because there are few other places in the country where this thing is working as well.
Josh Resnik 24:35
Well, thank you, Jack. You're like our best marketing resource here. I feel like we should be hiring you. You do a great job of telling me you should be tooting your own horn to some degree, but I can too because I see it from the outside. So I just want to interject that before we get to the background. Yeah, thank you. That's a good background. And then you've actually you know, you've kind of had a long relationship with Co-op Partners Warehouse than I have. So I think you're very well equipped to speak about it,
Thanks, Jack. I’m glad you pointed out how unique the work that Co-op Partners is doing to authentically support local, sustainable producers and makers. As you said, food hubs like this are really lacking, the connection piece between small producers and consumers is seriously missing all across the country. I think that is a good segway into talking about how Co-op Partners came to be and how its business model is different from national distributors like Sysco or UNFI and big chain grocery stores.
I would say, you know, just going back a little bit, um, the CO-ops, Wedge was started in 1974 and Linden hills in 1976, both were pretty similar stories, it really was started by people in those communities, people in the neighborhoods who wanted access to affordable, organic, healthy whole foods. And they kind of came together to start these and they really were, you know, community-run. It was the community who worked at these stores at the time, you know, they were run by volunteers, and it really was about food access. And the market then was very different. I mean, that was kind of, you know, as food industrialization was really starting to, you know, blow up and grow. And so it was kind of an antidote to that. And, you know, again, a very different time in food, retail, as well, um, there was much more standardization, there were a lot fewer sources to go and get, you know, organic, healthier foods, you know, produce, grains. And that's really what it started out as, a kind of that passion and that desire. And, you know, I would say that, well, the stores themselves, look and feel very different today, 45 years later. I think it's kind of rooted out of the same ideal, which is, we are here to serve our owners, and that's the people who shop at the store, very, very different business model. So with the food Co-ops, you are either you know, an owner and you own one share, or you're not in your zero shares. So it's kind of a binary thing, you're either in and you've got one share in one vote, or you aren't, unlike, you know, some of these big corporations, natural food retailers, where you might have somebody who has millions of shares, lives, you know, thousands of miles away, you know, in a penthouse apartment in New York. We're owned by people who are in the community who live here, who shop at the store, who are in here, and have a vested interest in the business and the success of the business. So it's a very unique model. It's a much more democratically controlled model. You know, as I said, we've got about 23,000 owners, and every single one of them has one vote. So we have board elections each year, they vote for the board. And it's not like you can have multiple votes, you either have one vote or you have zero votes. And so it's, it's, it's a pretty cool model. And it is a really good way of creating kind of a more fair, more democratic food system. So that's the history of the retail side on CPW, which was created in 1999. And really, a lot of it, I believe, came from a visionary named Edward Brown, and he oversaw the produce department at the Wedge. And I think it really started as how do we ensure high quality, consistent supply of produce for the wedge, and slowly over time, it kind of opened up to other coops, and then other areas beyond the Twin Cities and started to kind of go beyond just food, retail and selling to restaurants, you know, who she was buying from us and Brenda and a lot of the pioneers and kind of the more mindful, healthier eating here in the Twin Cities. And we've kind of created connections now. And that's been carried on by Danny at Common Roots in Minneapolis and a lot of others. So it kind of has evolved over time. And I think, you know, Co-op Partners have also evolved in terms of, you know meeting customer needs. So, you know, it started out as just produce, and we still, a majority of what we sell products, but we've gone beyond that, and we distribute dairy for Organic Valley, and we distribute for other local dairy producers. As I mentioned, you know, we've got about 120, small grocery producers in the Twin Cities and upper Midwest, we distribute for. So it's been kind of an evolutionary model.
Josh Resnik 29:54
One thing I want to mention as well about the co-op model and is there any profit that you know is earned by the co-op arm, we're required to give back a certain percentage at least 20% back in patronage. So, the people who shop at the stores, the customers who buy from CPW, get a certain percentage of the profits back. So it really is about reinvesting the money in the community, which I think is a very, again, unique business model and a unique program also, both kind of patronage refunds to the owners. But also we are putting a lot of our money back reinvesting in local community groups and supporting food justice, in the local community, too.
Eli Crain 30:46
Yeah. No, I'm glad that you added that in. Okay. So, I think the next, the next piece of this that we want to address is you guys are all you know, working towards really important ideals and connecting the community and creating this food system. And I think it's important to ask, you know, what are the challenges that you face sourcing and growing local and sustainable foods. And I'd love to just open up to you guys to talk about maybe what those challenges are and how you're trying to address them. And, you know, what changes you hope to see to make it so that there are fewer challenges in the future.
Josh Resnik 32:09
So I think one challenge we face, I think is differentiation. And you know, in a way, the fact that you know, organic food is becoming more mainstream, I think it's positive in certain ways. But I think kind of really telling our story about how what you're buying when you buy organic food at the Wedge at Linden hills through Co-op partners, is different than maybe what you buy at some more large corporate places. And I think, organic from a farm, like, you know, Jack's, you know, a small farm and the way they produce is very, very different than some, you know, huge scale farm in California. Other retailers get that there is a desire to support local and a lot of these things become buzzwords. But how do we show that we're really more authentic and doing it in a way where we're not cutting corners? And we are supporting great, you know, small businesses where they're paying good wages and supporting their workers in a positive way. I think there's been a very extractive form in the food system for too long, where it's like how do we kind of a race to the bottom to lower or lower the prices and then the farmers aren't getting their fair share and, you know, the workers the people who are putting in the labor and getting their fair share and they're kind of cutting out everybody comes throughout the system. And you know, I understand kind of the desire for low price food, but I think we want to think more in terms of how we provide food at a fair value. We don't want to gouge anybody we want fair prices, but we want to make sure that the farmer is getting their fair share and their workers are getting their fair share and everybody is paid a wage or they can live and have you know, including our workers too and we want to make sure that people can live and have a fair wage come throughout the food system so
Eli Crain 34:46
hmm yeah, it sounds like it's difficult to show customers that you are actually living up to the labels you put on your foods, like local, sustainable when big stores bandy those around loosely because they can see that consumers are looking for those buzzwords. But actually delivering on those promises means that finding a balance between fair wages and accessible prices for the consumer is hard. Jack, I wonder if you face some of those same challenges in farming.
Jack Hedin 35:07
Sure, I can talk about really, I think there are three sets of challenges that I could talk about independently. There are the farm challenges that are often related that are related to climate and Italy and land access, there are the agricultural challenges, there are the challenges associated with being a medium-sized farm with a certain amount of vertical integration where we've got warehouse storage and warehousing and shipping and labor needs, you know, labor to pull all that off. That's a separate set of challenges. The third set of challenges is very much related to what Josh has talked about, which is market differentiation and the ability to reach customers, who, as a part of this general American food system are really taught and encouraged to look for low, you know, low budget, low ball pricing, and kind of uniformity and a universal availability as in strawberries, 12 months of the year, or things of that sort. So, the three buckets of challenges, I guess, on the agricultural side. The thing for people to understand it just is the biggest single thing for people to understand is that the single greatest challenge to growing healthy, fresh market vegetables is moisture. And so when it rains at any time during the growing season, it causes trouble for what we do, it is a difficult challenge. This is why most of all the fresh market vegetables in this country are grown in the arid west where they never see rainfall during their growing cycle. This is why all the salad crops move from the Monterey Bay Area, Santa Cruz, Salinas area down to the desert on the Imperial Valley in the winter, it's not that it's too cold. It's that it rains here during the winter. And what we see with disrupted climate, what I've seen in just merely 25 years of growing vegetables here is the move from a somewhat predictable system situation where in the past, you'd get rains, you get storms, you get wet periods in the upper Midwest here but they would be in my experience fairly quickly followed by big sweeping Canadian high-pressure north winds, things that would come in and dry things down rapidly after rain events. This makes it difficult but very survivable for what we do in vegetables. What we've seen in the last 20-25 years is the rise of these persistent wet spells And it cuts into yields. And it makes what we do so much less predictable, and less sustainable, frankly. And I can tell you it's wetter and it costs us a lot more now than it did even 10-12 years ago. So that agriculturally that's the big one right there now. And then finding the right soils and the right fields to farm that allow a person like me or any small farmer anyone who's really tied to this to crop health based on succession plantings that we have in fresh market produce, finding the right fields where that can really work. That's another challenge because we tend to be at least in our area of Southeast Minnesota focused on developing lands that I consider to be really valuable agricultural lands. That's another big challenge we deal with. So anyway, there's bucket number one, the agricultural challenges.
The second thing is the challenge of, you know, again, of running a business in rural America, which is very related to labor. And related to this ideal that I've got, I've really tried to elevate this as not just something that someone does, because they don't have other choices, but elevating it to a level of what someone might choose to do, given many other options. Producing food, hands-on, in the field, working outdoors, in rural America, and making a living doing this without taking a vow of poverty. So finding a way to be profitable enough as a business, you know, on a five-year average, that can attract and keep really good employees here that would choose to do this over a lifetime, to build an industry not just at our farm, but hopefully to build an industry that is replicable. So there would be more Featherstone Farms and other producers like this that can provide more produce to more Co-ops and other outlets, markets in more populated areas. Growing that in a way that is sustainable, is a big challenge. And we've been reasonably successful at it, but we've got a long way to go. A big part of it is who's going to do the hand labor and how do we do this equitably? Largely with an immigrant population here, that's been another big source. A lot of my work and advocacy over the years is with Spanish speakers who frankly do 90% of the work of growing, harvesting, packaging, and preparing food for us in all industries from agriculture, meatpacking, restaurants. So much of it is done by Spanish speakers. And so that's another big challenge doing that fairly and equitably.
Third, a big challenge, as I mentioned, is having enough access to enough markets and enough people who will pay a fair price and you can see again how this is a tie back into the other two in such an important way. In my estimation, anyway, from my vantage point on the farm anyway, the thing that makes our business work that makes the Wedge Co-Op work that makes Co-op partners work, is that we are in an area in which there is a critical number of people who value what we do enough to pay a premium price for it. And they're not constantly going back and checking penny per penny what a carrot produced at Featherstone Farms sold at Linden hills Co Op, or Wedge Co Op, knows that pound for pound prices compared with what it might show up at a national or international retailer. Because if consumers are taught that the value of the carrot is reflected in that price tag on the shop, then we will lose every time Featherstone Farm, the Co-ops, the environment, the farmworker, these things that we think are so important will lose every time. There has to be a larger value placed on these things. And that's what I think you're challenging Josh, you've just talked about differentiating, really educating people to understand that, that there is something of greater value in something produced and distributed through a locally owned locally controlled system where the $1s. Stay in the community. That is really a shared vision, a shared job that we've got of helping people understand this. We can choose a low value, low ball, cheap food system. We've done that for many generations in this country. How do you go about choosing something different? We're lucky enough to have a core group of people in the Twin Cities that help lay that foundation upon which we can build hopefully something that's even more accessible, more broadly available, and broadly accepted in the community. But that's a big, big challenge, just like Josh said,
Josh Resnik 44:53
And just building Jack, on what you said. Um, but it is, you know, I think on one level, it's about the taste and kind of tasting the difference. And, you know, being willing to pay a little bit of a premium for that better quality product. But I think there's also a certain element of how do you support your values and kind of putting your money where your mouth is? And, you know, it might be the grocery bill is $5, higher? But, you know, is it supporting fair wages? Is it supporting, um, you know, a more sustainable agricultural system? Is it reinvesting in my community and asking those things as well, so that you can do an evaluation. And again, we're not going to win. If we're double the price of other retailers, we need to be competitive. But we also need to get people to understand fully what they're buying when they are coming and shopping in our stores.
Eli Crain 46:42
Yeah, what an awesome discussion, it sounds really like It's interconnected, both of the challenges of providing this food, growing food, and then also, you know, providing it to a customer, and sort of the tension between like affordability and paying for the real cost of food, so that it is grown in a way that's not extractive of a community, of people and of the land. But is it possible, do you think, to feed everyone with this system? I think that there's obviously an issue for some people who have, yeah, maybe $5s more on a grocery bill, probably more than that, if you're buying depends on what you're buying, but isn't really attainable for everyone right now. Is there a future for our food system that is more inclusive, where more people can support this? This type of Co-ops and organic producers, small local producers, because obviously, there's a big market for the cheap food. And obviously, it's falsely cheap. I would just want to talk a little bit maybe about, you know, is there a future where we really do get most, if not all, of our food, locally, or grown in a resilient, sustainable fashion? Is that something that you guys kind of can imagine happening? Or is there a pathway that you can see? And how maybe do you guys fit in that pathway? It's a big question. So feel free to parse it however you like,
Josh Resnik 48:17
Well, I'll just answer on the affordability piece. You know, and then we kind of get to the scalability. But on the affordability side, we do talk a lot about that. And I remember, actually being in a meeting, where we were talking to a lot of our owners and kind of getting feedback from them. This was probably six or seven years ago, and GMOs were a hot topic. And this one woman banged her fist on the table, and she said, You know, you're an embarrassment, you should be 100%. Organic. And I can't believe that not everything you sell in your store is organic, you know, you're a co-op, and we were probably about 45% organic, but which is a lot higher than almost any other food retailer. In response, this other woman kind of in the back kind of, you know, shyly raised her hand and said, you know, look, I am on a fixed income, I don't make very much money. I believe in investing, you know, and buying good quality food, but I can't afford all organic. And the nice thing about shopping at the COP is that there is a range of options. And, you know, I remember there's a very formative moment for me. And, you know, we actually come from that creative thing called the Affordability Project, which was if you are on one of like six or seven different government assistance programs, and you can prove you're a low-income household, then you can, you can sign up for the call for a lot, a lot cheaper ownership fee, and you get 10% off your groceries every day. I also think we, you know, in almost every single category, really tried to provide a range of options. And with a lot of our basics our coop basics, which we have in almost every kind of staple category. We kind of benchmark against what but what are the value retailers doing? And how are we really close to that in terms of providing price and value on those items. So, um, I do think, you know, we're not necessarily going to compete on every single item in the store dollar for dollar, we do really believe that affordability and accessibility are extremely important is one of our values.
Eli Crain 50:19
Awesome. I had no idea about that program. And it's so cool that that exists. So sorry, that's my one interruption. Yeah,
Josh Resnik 50:25
no, that's an interruption at all. Yeah, it was awesome. We had probably in the first couple of years, like over 1000, people sign up for Co-Op ownership through the comp affordability project. So it was a great way to bring, you know, the co-op and those values and high-quality food. Who did all their shopping at the CO ops before?
Eli Crain 50:46
That's great that you guys are addressing some of the affordability issues at a store level and makes me think of how in the farmer's markets here in the Twin Cities have started accepting EBT that’s definitely something that I hope to see in other places and potentially at a national or system-wide level to address affordability. I mean there are plenty of ways the cost of conventionally raised food is made more affordable as Jack mentioned previously things on the farming side like diesel subsidies for example.
I think maybe the other piece of my question for Jack, and I'm sure you already had some thoughts, but, um, is it going to be possible for us to, to shift this system at a massive scale and still provide enough affordable food? Do we have to grow lettuce in the desert or huge swaths of monocrops? Is that going to be a piece that has to exist? Or can we really grow all of our food for Minnesotas within the region? Or can it only really be achievable for a relatively small percentage of people that are willing to pay higher prices for organic, sustainable, local food?
Jack Hedin 51:46
So I think Josh has got a much greater sense on a larger scale about food systems and, and whether or not this feeding, providing and feeding people organic food on a very large system, the global level is, is affordable, achievable, whatever my experience is all within this just the very narrow world of fresh market vegetables. Okay, so that's the very first part of it. And my end, and my thinking on this honestly has evolved a lot over the years. And it's evolved towards, unfortunately, a position of more skepticism and doubt, because, particularly with disrupted climate, I no longer believe honestly, that we're going to be able to produce the type of fresh market vegetable crops consistently in the way that the American public wants, at a price point that the American public is used to, in a more regional or organic way. There is simply no way that what we do that no matter how quickly we scale, or reach economies of scale, or shift systems, or invest in regional or quit subsidizing California, whatever. There is the weather factor alone in the world of fresh market vegetables, the weather factor alone means that we will never be able to produce fresh market salads, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, melons, as efficiently or as predictably, in a four-season climate like Minnesota, or Georgia or Oklahoma, or Maine or Texas, we will not be able to produce those crops in these areas as affordably or as predictably as they do in the arid West. I'm just not, I don't think that is possible. I think that what we see therefore, is a situation of artificially cheap produce coming out of the arid West, that is affordable only because of sufficient irrigation water out west, and a series of price supports for diesel fuel and other things that go back a long time in American food history and food policy. But honestly, even if, even if we decided that everyone was going to pay twice as much for local carrots or local broccoli, I don't believe that we would be able to produce those crops as predictably as the market requires. Because it's not just the affordability and the cost point but it is our ability, for example, to produce consistently enough broccoli over a 10 week period. During the best part of our broccoli season from the middle of August to early October, the middle of October. And it's really hard consistently to produce the number of boxes that Co-op partners and the Wedge and Linden hills want a week in and week out, because of these fluctuations of weather, and cold fronts and warm fronts and rain and dry and the swings, I just don't know, you know. I think the big change that would have to be required in order for this to really take off would be not merely the willingness to pay more for produce, but the willingness to accept gaps on the shelves at certain times. And this is where, again, Co-op Partners and food co-ops have been so supportive of us over the years. And I think they really get this that, that we just cannot, you know, short of growing all the tomatoes in a greenhouse tunnel, which creates a small Yolo County, California here, Central Valley, California, right into under a plastic tunnel in our field short of that, we're just not going to be able to guarantee 500 boxes of broccoli a week for a regional warehouse, like Co-op partners, it's just too volatile. It's too volatile, no matter what the price point is, you know, we could probably produce, hit those windows eight times out of 10. And maybe if there were a dozen other farms from St. Louis to Winnipeg, that were also producing broccoli, you know, they could fill in the gaps, we might be able to cobble together a system that could meet that kind of demand, as consistently as you would need to really substitute and grow and build a different food system. But I am really doubtful, it would really take a level of coordination and vision and support from the general public that I'm just not certain is there. I hate to be skeptical.
Josh Resnik 56:34
No, I agree with you, jack. And I think there definitely is, you know, you kind of talk about public customer acceptance of gaps. I think there's also customer acceptance of imperfect produce. And I think that's kind of coming around, I don't think we've been trained to look for a certain type of strawberry, a certain Look, a certain look for broccoli. And I think I would say a lot of our customers, maybe have an understanding that you can't judge a piece of fruit or vegetable by its cover. And, you know, to kind of celebrate, and use more of the imperfect looking stuff. I think that that's a change in consumer mindset. Do, I think we can fully, you know, get every person fed by a system of Featherstone Farms kind of spread across the country. I don't think we're there. But I think we can make incremental changes. And I think we have I mean, if you look just at organic food production over the past 10 or 20 years, the growth has been exponential. And again, you know, while I was touting that not all organic food is grown the same. And that's different, you know, the way Jack is growing it versus these huge organic farms in California, it still is a better system than maybe what the old system was or the conventional system. And so I think we have really moved the dial and improved the quality of the food system and been able to scale up pretty considerably pretty quickly, with organics over the past 10 or 20 years. So, you know, it might not be enough to feed everybody, it might not be enough to impact the whole food system. But I think you can make changes. And I think another thing and again, I'm not an expert on this topic. But I do believe that our agricultural incentives, and you know, government funding has really gone to big agriculture, and has supported monoculture, just large scale agriculture. And I think if we were to be able to scale up with more farms like Jack's, you know, how are we reinvesting in small farming communities in Minnesota and other places like that? Where there are more challenges? And I think, you know, that that whole system is pretty broken as well. And I think that would be another kind of fundamental thing that would need to change.
Jack Hedin 58:57
I don't mean to sound too skeptical. I think Josh is absolutely right. There has been an enormous improvement, there's been enormous growth. I think there is still more room for growth and more room for broadening and not just not growing a business like ours, but replicating a business like ours, I think there is greater potential. I just think that without some larger shift in the paradigm of thinking among a lot of Americans there's going to be a glass ceiling. We're not going to necessarily just continue the same rate of growth that we've seen over the past couple of decades. It's not going to be something as I thought 10 years ago that would just naturally take off and continue to be a self-fulfilling, self-replicating thing that would gradually get out of the world of the food co-ops to the Rainbow Foods and Cub Foods and eventually the Walmarts of the world. I used to think that would happen. And now I'm not as confident. But one can always hope.
Eli Crain 1:00:07
Yeah, the key is to remain optimistic. Um, I think what it sounds like what both of you guys are touching on, is that there needs to be some real education of consumers. And we need to sort of have a mass kind of change in mindset in order to facilitate and create a consumer base for a better food economy. And I think that's a good lead in to talking about what listeners can do to participate in, in shaping that, and supporting co-ops and local farmers. And it sounds like supporting policy is an important part of this shifting of resources in order to make Featherstone Farms possible and make Cub Foods more like Co-Op partners. I think maybe that's a good little way to close up is to have you guys maybe talk about some suggestions you have for our listeners, how they can join a co-op, or what it means to be a member of a co-op, and what it is to be a CSA member and why that's important as well.
Josh Resnik 1:01:19
Okay, great. I, you know, I want to kind of stress it with education. I think it's also important for us to kind of meet people where they're at. I think we really have focused a lot in the last few years about being more open, more accessible, and really welcoming in kind of a wider group of people and really just, you know, exposing them to the real positives and pleasures of really kind of healthier eating, and kind of the benefits of supporting local community food system, in terms of, you know, how people can, support the system. And with Co-ops, um, you know, I said this earlier, but I really do believe you vote with your dollars. And so the single best thing people can do is to make, you know, conscious choices. And again, you know, people have different budgets and different amounts that they can afford. But I think kind of, again, we've got a bunch of different options. And, you know, I will say kind of, you know, self-grind peanut butter is probably cheaper than what you would get at Walmart. And so there are things that are very affordable, that are really high quality. And so I think kind of making some of those conscious decisions to support local businesses and having that money stay in the community and support fair wages, not just for our workers, but for everybody through the food system is a big deal. For you know, co ops kind of co-op one oh one, you don't need to be a member to shop at the co op. So I think there's a perception that you know, I don't know if they if I can shop there, I don't know, if I want to become a member, we're open to anybody. And you know, anybody can kind of come in and try it out. And, you know, you can shop here for 30 years and never become a member. Now, becoming a member is pretty easy. And you can get signed up in less than five minutes. It's $80. It's a one-time investment. It's not an annual fee, you've got one, you know, one share ownership stake in the business. And if you decide in six months, you know, hey, I don't want to be an owner anymore, you decide in 30 years, you don't be an owner anymore, you come back, we give you your $80 back, and so we're just holding that share, we're holding your $80. So it's kind of a no brainer. In terms of the value, you get a lot of savings. As an owner, you get kind of a say in the business and you're supporting a local food economy.
Jack Hedin 1:04:02
When I think about the evolution that I'd like to see for the food system and thinking of our customers and our communities around Featherstone farm, I'll just reflect that in evolution and my own thinking over all the years. And one in particular this question of affordability and accessibility. And I was deeply uncomfortable with it. And it just seemed, again, we were catering to a certain narrow section of the population. And it was very important to me to diversify to broaden that out And when I did that I found myself apologizing for the cost of our produce right away. And for the first 10-12 years of my own career here, farming at Featherstone farm, I apologized for this high cost. I felt as though I had to explain this and justify it in some way. And it was one of my goals as a farmer to try to scale up our farm to reach some kind of economies of scale to where we could eventually bring the costs down. To me, that was an active goal. Well, somewhere along the way, my thinking began to shift and to reflect different values, different goals in some ways. And now, I am completely unapologetic about the high cost of what we grow our crops so now I am again, unapologetic about what we charge for food because I am really clear on the values that that high price supports. And so, again, I would like to think that our CSA members or members of wedge Co-Op or people that buy our produce elsewhere, can say can take home a bag of Featherstone carrots that are significantly more expensive than organic carrots, even from California, organic carrots from California and say, Well, didn't get a good deal on carrots today, I paid more for these carrots. But here's what I invested in, it's not merely that they're tastier or fresher or better eating or whatever. But I also really invested in things that are important to the environment and to food systems and to people in this home state. And I'm really supporting an alternative to this industrial food system that honestly has delivered over the course of many generations, I think relatively poor value long term to consumers and producers alike. So I'm unapologetic about that. And I'd sure like to think that, over time as people can afford it, as people understand these things are going to consider a good value on carrots to be a buck 50 or two bucks a pound, not 19 cents a pound.
Eli Crain 1:08:33
Awesome, thank you, I think those are such good points about finding value apart from what you're buying and the food that you're producing. And the place that you're buying your food at and using you know your dollar to sort of support that whole system and vote with it really. And I think that kind of leads me into something that MN350 is working on which is supporting a piece of legislation called the Headwaters community food and water bill, which would provide funding and infrastructure for a resilient, regenerative and inclusive food economy here in Minnesota. I'm not sure to have either of you guys heard of this? So we don't need to necessarily dig into it. But have you there? Have you heard of it? Yeah.
Jack Hedin 1:09:36
no, absolutely. I'm not familiar with the specifics as much I, unfortunately, had to backpedal off of a lot of the advocacy engagement on things that last few years that I I was in before so I don't know a lot about the specifics, but the general goals and the idea of taking these things on in with a broad agenda like this, I think is just a really fabulous idea. Putting climate and the environment At the forefront, I just could not be more important in my mind. One of the things I might throw out to Josh, I'll let you comment. But one other thing too, I think is really important. You know, when we think about, you know, the cost of climate action, as a broad society, I think we're starting to recognize right now that the cost of inaction is going to be a lot greater than the cost of, of putting a price on carbon or moving quickly towards green energy sources, and so forth. That the cost of inaction is ultimately much much greater than the cost of action. To me, this is the same thing with the cost of food, organic and regional local food, you know, the cost of what we grow at Featherstone farm, or in a, ideally a more regionally based, locally controlled, environmentally responsible way. And it's done in 100 different ways, we don't have the only solution here, but integrating these values is going to be less expensive, very long term than continuing to rely on a model that is, is, you know, just to my mind doomed to collapse with fossil fuels with, you know, drop these droughts and climate change in the American West, the system that we have is not going to sustain itself, midterm long term here. And in the cost of not moving in these directions, not supporting alternatives, ultimately, me a lot higher than the cost of paying more for carrots right now from us, or for buying from a locally controlled, Principal business like Wedge Co Op.
Josh Resnik 1:11:52
I just would add to what Jack was saying that I do think, um, you know, it's taken a long time, but it feels like climate change, and the seriousness of it is really becoming a much more mainstream issue, and it just is getting wider recognition. And, you know, just even as you could see, kind of in the last election, I mean, I think it was it was talked about a lot more and I think, you know, as younger generation is coming up, and they really see this, you know, at the top of the most important issues. Um, I'm just I'm very, very nervous about what the future holds. But I'm also encouraged that there is finally a little bit greater focus on this and greater commitment to the things that are going to kind of hopefully positively impact climate change in the future.
Eli Crain 1:12:51
Yeah, I agree. I, I think that for our listeners who want to try to take a little bit of action in you know, whatever small way they can right now, I would encourage them to go to MN350.org/Headwaters to learn more about that and visit Featherstone farms website as well and check out their CSA program and also go to CPW Co Op to learn more about co-op partners warehouse and their locally made products and visit you know, our awesome co ops that we talked about here like Wedge and Linden hills. So thank you, Jack, and Josh, so much for taking the time to sit down and you know, share your knowledge with us. So thank you, Jack Hedin from Featherstone farm, and Josh Josh Resnick, the CEO of Twin Cities Co Op partners so yeah, we really appreciate it.
Josh Resnik 1:14:05
Well, thank you if this is always the fun part of the job and I always value the time I get with Jack. I always learned so much from him. So this was a great experience for me to get to listen and just be part of the conversation. So thanks for including me.
Jack Hedin 1:14:19
Sorry, Josh, your captive audience hearing me spouting off again. That's mean but there's some upside but I can't. I don't know, I've learned so much from it. I really truly appreciate it. It's I'm truly sincere and saying that it's been we'll deal with Yeah, so you're doing so much I mean, club partners. Again, I just cannot say it enough, not just the food co ops themselves, but Co-op Partners Warehouse, and then the regional impact that a business like this has is really really unique and important in our part of the world. Thank you.
Eli Crain 1:14:51
Awesome. Yeah. And I would like to also thank our listeners for tuning in and until next time, I'm Eli Crain. And this has been Norrish by MN 350
Eli Crain 1:15:23
Nourish by mn 350 is a production of the MN350 Food Systems team. We are changing the way people think about food production, distribution, and consumption practices in the context of rapidly changing climate. This series is made possible by the hard work and passion of a group of dedicated volunteers. Our executive producer is Sarah Riedl. This episode was written by Eli Crain. The sound editor for this episode was Eli Crain. Our logo was designed by Fiz design collective and the music is by Ecuador Monta. You can learn more at mn350action.org slash podcasts.