The Twin Cities and Minnesota: Still Local | Civil Eats

The Twin Cities and Minnesota: Still Local

Five years ago when I first told my friends in D.C. that I was moving to Minnesota, they were aghast. “But it’s so cold there, what kind of farmers’ market will they have?” I calmly reminded them that not only was there a whole other country to the north of Minnesota but that before modern appliances people all over the Upper Midwest grew their own food and survived just fine. But my confidence belied a secret fear that the shorter growing season would seriously limit offerings at a Minnesota Farmers’ Market. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For more than 20 years Minnesota and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in particularly, has quietly been relocalizing its food shed and waiting for the rest of the country to catch on.

Minnesota is farm county, so farmers’ markets are a given. The oldest market is the St. Paul Farmer’s Market, founded in 1853, five years before statehood. The current market encompasses a full city block with a permanent roof structure and limits its vendors to a 50-mile radius. The market includes a wide range of products beyond the traditional vegetables – apples, berries (including cranberries), cheese, and meats (including venison, bison and elk, all pasture raised). As an open-air market, there are only a few producers who show during the winter months, but Minnesotans pride themselves on their hardiness and the market is no exception. When I arrived in Minneapolis in 2004 there were six active markets in the cities; since then two more have appeared, one of them in the heart of downtown Minneapolis co-founded by one of the city’s foremost restaurateurs specializing in locally sourced menus, Brenda Langton.

Brenda Langton, of Café Brenda and Spoonriver, and Lucia Watson of Lucia’s, are a pair of restaurateurs often referred to as the “Alice Waters” of the Heartland. Both women founded their restaurants in the mid 1980s, with Lucia’s focusing on seasonal menus and Café Brenda featuring vegetarian and seafood, and they later became the gold standard for sourcing locally. Spoonriver opened in 2006 as a more chic showcase of Langton’s local and organic food philosophy, and situated in the heart of historic downtown Minneapolis, it overlooks the Mill City Farmer’s Market that Langton helped found. These award-winning restaurants are only two of an ever-growing group of eating establishments that source locally, from the longtime Birchwood Café to newcomers Corner Table and Heartland.

To many people “locally” sourced most often means produce, but Minnesotans are ideally situated to purchase all food groups locally. The best butter I have ever tasted in my life is produced by Pastureland, a cooperative of dairy farmers in the southeast of the state who only use grass-fed cow’s milk to create their signature butter and cheeses. Faribault Dairy Company, in operation since 1854, hand produces a raw milk blue cheese cured in sandstone caves created by the retreat of the glaciers across the southern part of the state. This unique blue cheese was the first to be distributed nationally in the U.S. Wisconsin, Minnesota’s next-door neighbor, is no slouch when it comes to producing cheeses as well, including an award winning Parmesan, touted as the best outside of Italy. Iowa, the pork capital of the U.S., is a short two hour drive south and poultry farmers are a dime a dozen throughout the state. One of the most successful recent food ventures is 1000 Hills Cattle Company, a 100% pasture-raised cattle company started by a couple “on a whim” with $10,000 from a 401(k) account. The Twin Cities were once the “Milling Capital of the World” harnessing the power of the Mississippi river to mill the grains grown across the state and the Dakotas, and while that industry has declined dramatically, organic farmers still produce wheat, rye, oats and corn. Minnesota is also one of the few places that wild rice is grown, harvested by hand by the Anishinaabe tribe as they have for generations, knocking the seeds from the stalks into their canoes as they paddle the lakeshores along which it grows. I was even shocked to find that there is a thriving wine industry in the state, made from grapes specifically cultivated to withstand the deep cold.

But what really makes all of this abundance so readily accessible to people is Minnesotans’ history with food co-ops, and specifically the extraordinary success of the co-ops in the Twin Cities.  A major force that has facilitated the creation of infrastructure to distribute local foods can be found in the six thriving food co-ops that dot various neighborhoods in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Minnesota holds the distinction of having the greatest number of food cooperatives of any state, with more than 20, and one of the most successful ones in the country, The Wedge. Almost all of the existing co-ops were founded in the 1970s in the heyday of the first natural foods movement and formed as worker cooperatives rather than consumer oriented ones. Unlike the first food co-op I entered in a small college town in southwest Virginia which was probably twenty feet square, stocked to the rafters with bulk food and staffed by volunteer workers, Twin Cities’ co-ops are large and successful, providing the full range of grocery needs including prepared foods and even an in-house butcher shop at The Wedge.

It is the ying and yang of co-ops and the consumer-owners that has raised the demand for locally sourced products. While co-ops have been at the forefront of buying locally and prominently displaying products’ sources, it is customers and their appreciation for this service who have demanded more and more. The growing demand led The Wedge to invest in needed infrastructure by opening Co-op Partners Warehouse (CPW) in 1999. Initially CPW was a means for The Wedge to purchase in greater quantity and store it off site but as demand for local products grew, its board of directors recognized that it was the ideal facility to serve as a distribution center for small producers seeking a broader market. Currently it serves co-ops and restaurants in the Upper Midwest, distributing produce, dairy, juices, meat and prepared foods from Minnesota and Wisconsin producers ranging from barbeque sauce to kettle corn and nuts.

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The success of The Wedge has enabled it to continue to expand the local food infrastructure in the Twin Cities. In 2007 when the owners of Gardens of Eagan, a 20-year old organic farm that has provided produce to Twin Cities co-ops since its inception, wanted to retire, they approached The Wedge to help them create a plan to continue the work of their farm since they had no relatives interested in taking over. The Wedge bought the property and has turned it into a working, educational farm that teaches the next generation of organic farmers while continuing to provide the produce on which the co-ops have relied for decades.

While the success of food co-ops and their ability to create institutions to better distribute the wealth of local foods may be unique to the Twin Cities, it does point to the fact that relocalizing a major metropolitan area’s food shed is a doable venture, even in a place where the winter lasts half the year.

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Kirsten Lindquist has been a progressive policy advocate for the past fifteen years, working at the federal, state and local level. Coupling her interests in social movements and the growing, preserving, and cooking of food, she is involved with food justice issues in the Bay Area where she makes her home. Read more >

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  1. Thank you so much for this article. You have beautifully mined some of the Twin Cities nuggets that exist in my mind and my experience as well. I live in Iowa, just two hours south, and have frequently throughout the years hit the road destined for the Wedge. Most have thought I was nuts for driving so far "just to get food", but as you have pointed out, it IS a destination. This, of course, points out the unfortunate surrounding desert, but what an oasis it is.
  2. I love hearing great news like this amid all the food choas that seems to be going on. It seems like I'm swimming against the tide here, I'm thankful for the local foods I have been able to find and am working to strengthen my local food system. Hopefully more people will become invovled.
  3. We used to live in Minnesota (although not in the Twin Cities) - your post made me want to head back to visit!
  4. Thank you for this post! It's nice to see Minnesota getting some love. I live in Duluth, and even this far north we have a thriving local foods movement, and I can buy some kind of local fresh produce year 'round at the local co-op (not to mention all the local dairy and eggs and meat and canned/packaged goods).
  5. Hey Kirstin - thanks for the shout out. A friend at the Wedge Co-op forwarded your post to me. If you haven't done so already, we've got farm pics and stuff up on our website and blog
    It's almost grass season, and time to make more butter and cheese!
  6. Great article! I've been thinking so much about local food lately, even recently started a blog about it ( Today's post is about the Red Stag Super Club, and soon I'll cover it's "sister restaurants" Barbette and Bryant Lake Bowl. At The Red Stag, even the building is sustainable. Highly recommended.

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