Access to a huge walk-in cooler is not what I had in mind when I heard about the resources the East Side Enterprise Center (ESEC) is offering to entrepreneurs and businesses, but it turns out that the cooler and warehouse space are just what some local entrepreneurs need. In fact, when John Flory from Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) saw the 4,000 square feet of warehouse and garage space with 2 loading docks and 5 overhead garage doors, he knew he had found the perfect site for the East Side Local Food Incubator.
At LEDC, John had been working with local immigrant farmers, realizing that there are several barriers to success. A lack of access to prime farmland was the first challenge for Hmong farmers. They formed the Hmong American Farmer’s Association (HAFA) and with the support of LEDC they were able to find an angel investor to buy 155 acres of farmland 15 minutes south of St. Paul. HAFA has arranged a long term lease for this land with the option to purchase it.
Another challenge for Hmong and Latino farmers is access to markets. One immigrant farm grew $40,000 of produce but was only able to sell $19,000 of it. At the same time, the Anglo farmers at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm were finding they couldn’t grow enough produce to meet the demands of the urban market. So Stone’s Throw Urban Farm in Minneapolis, Whetstone Farm in Windom, Agua Gorda Co-op in Long Prairie, Cala Farm in Turtle Lake, Wisc., and La Familia Co-op in New Richmond, Wisc., joined together to create Stone’s Throw Agricultural Co-operative. This marketing co-op acts as an intermediary so that buyers have one consistent contact person who connects them to all of the varied farm products from the member farms and HAFA. The co-op currently provides produce to a 200-member CSA and about 20 restaurants
However, this access to urban markets created a new challenge. Where would the urban farmers bring produce to be sorted and stored, and how would it get delivered to buyers? Many of the farmers of HAFA live on the East Side of St. Paul and they longed for a distribution facility nearby. LEDC realized that the warehouse and garage at ESEC were the perfect solution!
A Healthy Food Financing loan was used to install the large walk-in cooler for storing produce. The warehouse space is perfect for sorting, boxing, and additional storage. The garage is the ideal home for the refrigerated delivery van and truck purchased with federal and state grants. LEDC (an ESEC partner) holds the master lease for the warehouse and garage space and the offices above. They are leasing office space to three organizations connected to local food: Urban Oasis, Twin Cities Mobile Market, and Stone’s Throw Agricultural Co-operative. The marketing cooperative is leasing the van and truck as well as space in the cooler to provide services to its members and other farm groups. Additional space in the cooler will be available for lease by local grocery stores. The East Side Local Food Incubator is truly a place to nurture growing businesses. The terms of the financing loan allow the Incubator to charge below-market lease rates to farmers until they can afford market rates. And, yes, the Mobile Market, an MTC bus-turned-grocery store, will have a parking space in the garage and will load up with local produce from the cooler before heading out around the East Side and North Minneapolis.
Mexican immigrant farm laborers dream of owning their own farms. Hmong farmers long to have sustainable farms capable of financially supporting the entire family. Urban grocery stores, co-ops, and chefs long for fresh, local produce. Connecting the farmers and the buyers strengthens everybody’s business which is exactly what ESEC is all about – and that is why it is the perfect home for the East Side Local Food Incubator and their really huge cooler.