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Refugees Helped Build a Sustainable Food System That's Feeding the Twin Cities

Since 2010, the grassroots organization has helped low-income, minority farmers make the most of their harvests.

by Lauren Rothman
Feb 26 2015, 7:25pm

Photo via Flickr user Natalie Maynor

Growing up in Georgia in the 60s, Collie Graddick was exposed to farming and cooperative organizing in equal measure. His family ran a 200-acre meat farm, and also grew vegetables. After Graddick's father secured a contract with a local produce broker who helped the family sell their surfeit of vegetables, thereby putting some extra cash in the family's pockets—"my father used that to help us go to college," Graddick recalls—Graddick's father began to see how his low-income, mostly black neighbors could better use their land to raise themselves up: by farming it. He began visiting nearby communities and urging them to grow vegetables, eventually founding the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative in 1968. Under this structure, residents learned how to farm their land and then market their produce to earn a supplemental income and help escape the poverty many of them were born into.

Graddick eventually moved to Minnesota to begin working in pesticide management for the state's department of agriculture, but he never forgot the lessons he learned from his father's work. Graddick's job brought him into frequent contact with the Twin Cities' huge population of Hmong, an ethnic group hailing from areas in China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Thousands of Hmong first arrived in the Twin Cities as refugees in the wake of the Indochina Wars and there they now comprise the largest urban Hmong population in the world. Many area Hmong farm for a living, and Graddick realized that while they were able to grow large amounts of produce, they had trouble marketing them due to language barriers. Huge amounts of the Hmong's vegetables were going to waste, and any profits the farmers could potentially earn from them were, too.

Graddick decided to draw upon his father's work and help connect the Hmong to markets they may not have known about, like CSAs. And in order to involve the Cities' low-income, at-risk youth, Graddick envisioned putting them to work processing vegetables—pickling, canning, and freezing them to be sold year-round—a process called "value added." Under this cooperative system, Graddick thought, farmers could work together, keeping money within the community as well as providing jobs and education for young people. Graddick, along with some like-minded thinkers, founded Community Table in 2010.

No one person or organization can survive by themselves: it has to be owned by the community in order for that community to sustain itself.

Today, Community Table's work extends beyond the Hmong community, also providing tools, education, and guidance to the Twin Cities' Latino and African farmers.

"We're helping people create businesses as opposed to living-wage jobs," Graddick told me recently. "We're teaching people business skills so they can they can take those skills and replicate and build upon them to improve themselves."

Read on to learn more about Community Table's mission to create opportunity, and income, for farmers in the Twin Cities.

MUNCHIES: Community Table seeks to create a "viable local food system." Is that a system that is diverse? Locally grown? Chemical- free? Less wasteful? Collie Graddick: It's all these things. And we try to build that system based on what that community's values are. If some of our growers want to be certified organic, we have a program to help move them into that. We have others that are growing traditional, or transitional, vegetables. They don't own their land, and so they can't get it certified. But they don't use any chemicals, so it's chemical-free. And then we have some of the larger Hmong farmers, who are trying to grow the corporate system, and that's where I work with my Department of Agriculture guidelines, teaching them how to grow conventional—using pesticides, but using them safely.

And we try to recruit people that live in the community. The thing we don't want is outsiders coming in and making money, because that's what's happening right now—the money doesn't stay in the community. So our goal is to try to keep money in the community, revolving between the community members, as often as possible, as long as possible, before it leaves.

CT_youth

A Community Table worker sorts seedlings.

Can you explain that a little more? Well, for example, we're working with the University of St. Thomas on distributing vegetables to some of the corner stores in the inner city, black neighborhoods. Because of the challenge of getting a business model for that, the funding is coming from the university. So all the profits will go back to St. Thomas, which is a white, liberal university here in Minneapolis. And they're working in the black neighborhood, a poor neighborhood. Now as long as the profits go back into that neighborhood, then I'm OK with with them being a part of developing that system. But if the profits are gonna come out and go into the coffers of the university, and they take that profit and use it for their benefit, then yes, they've brought healthy foods into the black neighborhood, but now the profits on that food are not staying in that neighborhood.

It's interesting working with people who have never managed money, to get them to manage money on a business level. That's the kind of thing that we're trying to teach people.

What kinds of farmers are interested in being a part of Community Table, and what is it about the organization that attracts them? We have all different cultures and races of people that we're working with, growing all types of vegetables. I think what's appealing is our grassroots level. We don't come in and say, "Join our training program and we're going to show you how to be a farmer." Basically, we say, "We have opportunities for you."

I guess the best way to look at it is that we're not an umbrella organization, we're a foundational organization. In an umbrella organization, you can only rise as high as the umbrella. But in a foundational organization, the sky's the limit. We won't let you go below a certain level. We can hopefully prevent you from failing. So whatever your bottom is, we make sure you don't go below that.

I'm particularly interested in the diversity of the Twin Cities, and thus of the farmers that you work with. It's interesting when you work with immigrants and refugee communities. Those communities are here because of government programs in the countries they left. They're here because their countries ran them away from home, and so being able to work with them is all about building trust. And that's what Community Table does: we're able to work with everybody. No one person or organization can survive by themselves: it has to be owned by the community in order for that community to sustain itself. If it's owned by someone else, then the dollars will be sucked out of that community and then they'll always be dependent.

Has Community Table's work affected relationships between farmers? I think what we bring to the food movement here is the cooperative model. So now people are working together, rather than competing against each other. We don't need to be in competition with each other; we need to be cooperating with each other, because everybody has to eat.

Thanks for speaking with me, Collie.

Tagged:
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West Georgia Farmers Cooperative