Collie Graddick wants to do something many might say is impossible: Support traditionally marginalized groups of people through one of the least lucrative occupations in the nation—small-scale farming. And yet, despite the odds, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
In 2010, Graddick founded Community Table with ambitious goals: to assist underserved farmers—Hmong, Latino, African-American, and recent immigrants—in improving their businesses, while eliminating food deserts in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. “It’s a way to empower people at the community level,” Graddick says, who grew up on a 200-acre vegetable and livestock farm in Georgia. Forty-seven years ago, his father helped create the Federation for Southern Cooperatives, which works with black farmers to develop co-ops and credit unions, and protect their landholdings.
Community Table helps farmers organize into cooperatives and connects them with consumers. In the meantime, it also assists with production, processing, transportation, and distribution. The first such project was the Hmong Farmers Co-op of Minnesota.
For the past 23 years, Graddick has worked for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, to help farmers hone their growing techniques. In teaching methods that forgo toxic pesticides, he interacted with many Hmong farmers who produced an abundance of fresh food that ended up wasted. These growers sell at farmers markets—almost exclusively—and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these two options don’t make full use of their harvest.
“I felt there was an opportunity in each community to absorb these extra fruits and vegetables,” Graddick says.
In the late 1970s, following the Vietnam War, thousands of political refugees from the mountains of Vietnam—the Hmong people—emigrated from Southeast Asia to the United States and were placed in Minnesota. Twenty five percent of the nation’s Hmong population now lives in the state, and most are in Minneapolis-St. Paul. They brought along a rich history of agriculture and, with the help of farming programs established by the University of Minnesota Extension Service in the early 1980s, have been prominent among the state’s small-scale producers of fruits and vegetables ever since.
But Hmong farmers have also experienced racial and cultural tension as they move away from cities, and face language barriers and other difficulties as they attempt to turn farming practices into profitable enterprises. There are also the usual challenges that accompany agriculture: access to land and equipment, and knowledge of proper food handling and safety measures, among other things.
“To be a farm business in this country there are a lot of rules and regulations,” says Ly Vang, president of the Hmong Farmers Co-op of Minnesota.
Community Table’s role, in addition to connecting co-op farmers to new markets, is to provide additional training. Hmong growers in the network, for instance, have learned about Good Agricultural Practices, a voluntary food safety certification process developed by the USDA, which most big institutional buyers require.
In order to join the Hmong co-op, farmers agree to sell only locally grown produce, practice fair exchange for labor and food, be culturally inclusive, and adhere to sustainable practices. Vang estimates nearly 100 farmers are currently involved.
“It’s very important to teach people how to work together and build a team,” she says. “That will create stronger farm work and build a better economy.”
Besides its co-op organizing, Community Table also helped develop BrightSide Produce Distributors, which collects fruits and vegetables from farmers in its network and distributes it to 10 corner stores in Minneapolis neighborhoods where access to healthy and affordable food is limited, according to Adam Kay, an associate professor at University of St. Thomas, which piloted the collaborative program.
Corner stores are places where junk food sells well and fresh produce does not—primarily because it’s expensive to stock, difficult to get in small quantities, and spoils easily, says Kay.
“Availability really does make a difference,” Kay says. “However, it’s difficult for corner store owners in some neighborhoods to stock their shelves with produce. Our BrightSide project seeks to create a sustainable system for meeting the needs of these businesses.”
The effort was well-timed, as just last fall the Minneapolis City Council modified an ordinance to require grocery businesses to carry certain staple foods to improve access to healthy foods. This change may increase the demand for services like BrightSide, Kay says, adding that opponents argued small business owners could be unduly burdened.
More recently, Community Table has been helping two Latino groups complete the legal documents to be recognized as cooperatives. This organizing among the Latino community shows progress, Graddick says, but several more goals remain to be checked off his to-do list: expand the co-op’s ability to provide quick, no-interest microloans to farmers needing equipment and supplies or applying for organic certification; assist farmers in obtaining USDA crop insurance protection against weather and pest disasters; and provide business planning.
Next up on the docket is developing a Community Table label as a guarantee to consumers that the food bearing its logo is grown by co-op farmers. Graddick says this marketing tool with help conscious consumers pick the food that supports the livelihood of local minority. Community Table is also expanding its CSA program. The group’s volunteers deliver produce to two churches on Sunday mornings and a farmers market held on Saturday mornings, where members can pick up their boxes.
“[Food] is something we all have to participate in,” he says. “And the bottom line is you can help the system by the choices you make … but to do that, we have to put the system in place so those are easy choices to make.”
Photos courtesy of Community Table.