Cows, Colleges, and Contentment | Civil Eats

Cows, Colleges, and Contentment


Northfield has a rich agricultural history. The town’s motto, “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment” evokes agriculture’s influence on Northfield’s fields, factories, and culture. Founded in 1855, the Minnesotan town was central to the wheat industry. A sawmill for processing lumber and a gristmill for processing flour were both powered by the Cannon River flowing through town. As the wheat frontier moved westward during the 1950s, diversified farms and dairy operations become the town’s principal source of income.

Today, large scale agriculture remains central to Northfield and the rest of the state. Agribusiness is Minnesota’s largest industry and the cornerstone of its economy with 80,000-plus farms and $13.2 billion of agricultural products generated a year (2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture). Northfield now specializes in food processing and food production, the latter concentrating on corn, soybeans, turkeys, and hogs. The local cereal factory, Malt-O-Meal, which emits a distinctive malty scent, is a reminder of the wheat boom. Not very far away, agribusiness corporations, Syngenta, Monsanto, and Cargill, are in neighboring towns.

Contentment smoothes over varied perspectives on the current food system. Around Northfield, residents struggle to preserve farmland and protect air and water quality. They want safe foods produced humanely, ecologically, and socially responsibly. They are young and older people, immigrants and old timers, long-and short-term residents. Activists, farmers, chefs, professors, entrepreneurs, organizers, business owners, and students have come together to discuss the health of people and the land on which they are living. To achieve this, they have created powerful networks and alternatives to the status quo.

In the 1970s, Northfielders made various attempts to establish a food cooperative. With limited success, they shifted from garages to church basements to a cooler in a downtown storefront. Seven years ago, residents harnessed their skills, volunteered their time, worked through policies and governance issues, and rented a former Dollar Store. Over 750 Northfield resident-owners invested in the Just Food Northfield Community Co-op before it opened on December 15, 2004. Just Food now serves as a marketing distribution point for family-owned, organic vegetable farms, berry farms, sheep farms, cattle ranches, apple orchards, and other local producers. Carrying a wide selection, the co-op now has anything anyone could need. A viable business and a community institution, Just Food illustrates how grassroots, community endeavors can take root. Joey Robison, marketing manager of Just Food, describes the energy of a recent owner meeting, when someone stood up and exclaimed, ‘We did it!’ Joey said it is “not just the success of those who work there. It is really great for all of us that this co-op is everyone’s.”

Colleges suggest an intergenerational way that Northfield’s food system and agricultural history has continued to evolve. Northfield’s motto speaks to the influence of its two liberal arts colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf. As a recent Carleton graduate, I can attest to the ways young people come together to change campus food culture and the way this influences the larger community.

In 2005, several Carleton students (including me) founded Food Truth, an organization that created a venue for dialogue about the way we eat. Local food activists, farmers, authors, and politicians were invited to campus to engage in conversation, tackle issues, and share dreams. This produced a community of students and townspeople who come together for community dinners, food preservation workshop parties, barn raisings, panel discussions, ideas around a Northfield Community Kitchen, and food activism.

At St. Olaf College, students run their own organic garden, Stogrow. One hundred percent of its produce goes to Bon Appetit Management Company, the college’s food service provider. In 2005, the Princeton Review voted St. Olaf’s cafeteria as one of the top ten in the United States.

Carleton students sought to incorporate campus and Northfield community values into their own campus dining. Northfield farmers, chefs, and activists came to participate in campus discussions, and sustainability and social responsibility were voted the number one concern among students. Petitions and letters circulated urging the college committee to pick a food provider that adheres to fair trade, organic, humane values and for whom “using local ingredients is a core value and intentional everyday practice.” Many were elated when Bon Appetit was chosen after a competitive bidding process. Carleton chefs are now talking with my friends from Northfield, young farmers up the road.

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My time in Northfield taught me that even small changes spurred by small groups of people can have a large impact. At Carleton, there are 2,400 dining meals served daily. There are 32,000 meals served a week at St. Olaf. With 1,958 and 3,007 undergraduates at Carleton and St. Olaf, respectively, both are considered small colleges. However, these meals added together create a food budget that is almost $15 million for both colleges. Next year, if 20% of Carleton’s purchases are sourced locally, as they are at St. Olaf, these two small institutions will impact the regional and statewide food system even more.

These calculations do take into consideration the value of engaging young people, giving them a seat at the table for decisions about how they will eat. In Northfield, food became a focal point, increasing collaboration among diverse groups of people. Without coming together on this issue, many changes to Northfield’s food system may not have happened.

As Megan Hafner (Carleton ’11), co-president of Food Truth describes, “one of the most meaningful things at Carleton is Food Truth’s community of people, working towards the bigger picture and talking to older adults and families who have been living here for a long time… Even though you’re here for a short amount of time, having them be excited to work with you and share information about Northfield and share values, has made Carleton for me.”

These examples of Just Food Coop in Northfield and food initiatives at Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges are just a few exciting projects that are changing Northfield’s food system, updating its rich agricultural history. I have not even begun to describe the Rural Enterprise Center, which works to create Latino agriculture enterprises and is currently developing a free-range, organic poultry co-op as well as Northfield’s second community garden – 48 plots for rural families. Nor have I detailed the organic family farms and their contribution to the community. All these activities make changes through grassroots networks and community organizing, and all have the same goals: strengthen the local food system, sustain our farmers and farmland, create viable alternatives to the status quo, foster a healthy lifestyle, and provide space for people to engage in community conversations.

Northfield is a town with its roots in agriculture, but its innovation is not static. In this small town, everyone, including young people and recent immigrants, contribute to change. Northfield demonstrates the power of bringing people together, not only to work, but also to eat and to teach one another. As people migrate to Northfield, they bring their knowledge, energy, and ideas. Even if people stay briefly, they leave with knowledge on forming community, planting and grow ideas, and building a local system. Although there have already been many changes, in many ways Northfield’s food movement is just getting started. I am excited to see how our rich agricultural history evolves and progresses and influences or inspires other towns and cities across the nation.

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Vera L. Chang is a University of California Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Doctoral Student and National Science Foundation Fellow. Vera’s food and justice research and reporting have been highlighted in the New York Times, Grist, Mother Jones Food, LA Weekly, the Aspen Institute, and Worldwatch Institute. Her writing has appeared in KQED's Bay Area Bites, and Bitch, and her photographs have been published in TIME, National Public Radio, and CNBC. To see more: Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. great article...thanks!
  2. Kirsten Lindquist
    Ahh Northfield, you've captured it so well! I hope the community kitchen is still moving forward! Great article!
  3. Michael
    This is great to read! I <3 Northfield and everyone who's working hard to make it better.

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