WABASHA, Minn. — How does a small town farmers’ market go from a group of retail vendors to one wholesale entity which sells to schools and other institutional markets? It’s not easy; but Sara George, a produce farmer and employee of Renewing the Countryside, has figured it out and she’s sharing her idea with anybody who wants to listen.
The idea began to hatch in 2016, after George had been managing the Wabasha farmers market for five years.
“Our local school food service director wanted to buy local, but she just wasn’t sure how to connect to the farmers,” George said. “Her idea was to swing through the Wabasha farmers’ market and buy there. I was elated. I rode on that excitement until the next week, when she came back to buy again.”
On that shopping trip George got bold. She asked the food service director how much she could spend. She had $38 — the entirety of her petty cash fund.
“I am limited to petty cash without you each being registered vendors for our food service,” she told George.
George spent quite a few restless nights trying to figure out how such a cumbersome arrangement would work — or even if it would work. Then, in the dark of a sleepless night, she had an idea.
“Why not register the farmers market as the vendor, she wondered. “Then Annette (the food service director) could order from me. “I would make it so that the farmers gave me the product and I would even volunteer to deliver it. I just wanted to make more sales for my farmers.”
She did make sales.
“I would call Annette and ask her what she wanted and then I would call the seven farmers that were in the area and find out if they had it,” George said. “Then I would call Annette back and tell her what was available and she would order it. On a rough week, she would ask pricing and I didn’t have it and had to call the farmers back. It was a heavy game of phone tag; but we were really moving produce through to the schools. What a win!”
But there was a bump in the road. A license was required to aggregate food from a number of farmers and then sell it.
“Plus, we were a farmers’ market, set up in the middle of the street,” she said. “There was no business address, no sinks for hand washing, no buildings to inspect and it all made the licensors uncomfortable.”
That’s when George reached out to ReNewing the Countryside, the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.
Since then, George, along with the three organizations and funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has created a legal model for farmers’ market to be food hubs serving local school districts and other institutions.
“That early model of me making calls to get the orders placed got outdated quickly and we upgraded to an online sales platform,” George said. “You can buy from multiple farmers, using one shopping cart, one check out, making one payment and it all arrives at your door at one time for delivery. It’s slick.”
Farmers’ markets in Red Wing, Wabasha, Aitkin, Grand Rapids, Virginia, Willmar, Moorhead, Mankato and Rochester are using the system using a Hub Manual developed by George and the three organizations.
Both farmers and schools have shown flexibility in adapting this innovative distribution system. But schools using the approach developed by George and her partners are making big changes in their kitchens as well.
The Hutchinson, Litchfield and Dassel-Cokato schools don’t participate in Sara George’s project; but they have made a major commitment to building a farm-to-school program by jointly hiring Leslie Mueller, a nutritionist, and another staff position the three districts are calling a “farm-to-school liaison.”
“When Lesli took over as the director for the three districts, launching a farm-to-school program was one of her hopes,” Aimee Haag said. “A few years later, we met at a school in Hutchinson where I was substitute teaching. At the time, I was still vegetable farming seasonally but was ready to dedicate my farming heart to a different part of the farming puzzle.”
Mueller and Haag started talking about how a farm to school program might work in the three school districts and Mueller eventually hired Haag to become the farm-to-school liaison.
“Our farm-to-school program began (in 2020) as one heavily focused on fresh produce,” Haag said. “We have a handful of talented produce farmers in the community that believe in our program and have become important partners. Together we create a school menu that is representative of what's locally available and abundant; but also considers what the schools have in labor, equipment and food budget to do well.”
Since that first year, the schools have worked with the farmers to also provide the districts with winter storage vegetables as well as locally-produced beef for hamburgers and other ground beef recipes.
“We learned how to handle more foods in their whole form and how to embrace the seasonal nature of our place,” Haag said. “Adapting to a farm-to-school model does require systems to change and the staff has truly worked hard and been willing to adapt and innovate.”
Haag says they have used the Minnesota Department of Agriculture grants to purchase equipment to more efficiently process whole foods. The grants also subsidize the purchase of some of the locally-grown food.
She says that the program continues to evolve.
“We’re working with the farmers to scale up certain crops while also introducing new ones,” she said.
You can learn more about Minnesota’s farm-to-school grants at by contacting Emily Mehr of the MDA at (651) 201-6456. You can see the Wabasha farmers’ market on-line ordering platform by searching for the Wabasha Open Food Network.