Archive for the ‘COMMUNITY’ Category

VCDC Offers Flood Relocation Funds…to the Wealthy

Dang it, Steve.  The thing is, I really like you, and I think you’ve done good things for the community.

But it kind of sticks in my craw when I read in the Plain Talk that the Vermillion Area Chamber and Economic Development Company is offering relocation funding up to $5000 for victims of the Missouri River flood–that is, if they buy at least 100K worth of house or build a new one [Travis Gulbrandson, “VCDC offers flood relocation program,” 24 June 2011].

What this says to me is that the VCDC wants people who could afford nice homes on the river to bring their wealth to  Vermillion (a truly shocking revelation).  If you had a modest place that flooded out or you lost everything, well, don’t expect a helping hand. The VCDC isn’t offering relocation incentives to young people starting out or families trying to regain their footing in tough circumstances.

I think I have a better idea.  Sure, it won’t make the realtors quite as much cash, but what if the VCDC looked at their priority job development areas–say, food business or light industry or the non-profit sector–and then considered the more modest salaries those people might expect?  And then what if the VCDC decided to incentivize on an inverse scale?

Instead of offering more money as the price of the house goes up, why not offer more incentive as the price goes down?  People who can afford a $100K house probably don’t need a $3K grant, but I’ll bet a young (or not-so-young) person or couple looking in the $75-80K range could be enticed by that figure.  How about a slightly larger grant for people looking in the very modest range–an incentive to help fix up some of the not-so-lovingly-cared-for dwellings?

Now, that would be a strategy that wouldn’t make me choke so much on that final story quote from VCDC Executive Director, Steve Howe–that “…we’re taking care of our own.”

Local Food Meeting in Vermillion Tonight!

From the press release:

Value Added Agriculture Development Center and Buy Fresh Buy Local are conducting a series of meetings to evaluate the potential for local food distribution. The goal is to establish systems to aggregate, process, package and distribute local foods in South Dakota.

All consumers, producers, famers, businesses, schools and institutions interested in expanding the availability of local foods are invited to attend.

Vermillion’s meeting is tonight, December 13, 2010, 8:00 pm at the Vermillion Public Library, 18 Church Street.

And since I serendipitously happen to be in town on other business, I hope to see you there!

Today at the Market

I won’t be selling at today’s market, but before you “boo” me for that, take a gander at one of the things I am bringing…

Six-variety cherry tomato salad

This evening from 5-7pm, we are having a Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours event at the market’s Clay County Fairgrounds location.  Because there is no “after hours” at the farmers market, we’ll be having it during the market’s regular hours, and it will be open to the public!

Our all-volunteer board has been hard at work preparing some lovely seasonal nibbles from market-fresh produce, meats, breads, and other great ingredients.

Three "peas" in a "pod"

This will also likely be my last week at the market, as I work toward my move to Southwestern Minnesota at the end of the month.  So, please stop by and say “goodbye for now” to me and “hello” to all our great regular vendors who’ll be selling through the end of October.

And, sample some of our delicious locally-produced foods while you shop!

Renting in a Rural Area

Rural communities that want to attract younger professionals, couples, and families often focus a lot of their marketing attention on jobs (if they have them) or cheap land/housing or high quality of life.

But one issue that may often be overlooked is that of affordable and good-quality rental property.  Many times, young professionals looking to relocate to a small community want to get to know that community before they invest in property–they want to rent, settle in, and see if it’s a good fit for them.

And consider this Washington Post article about fewer people moving to pursue better jobs.  If prospective new residents of your little burg are going to move there to pursue a job, they need to be able to find a place to settle once they get there.

Not all of them want to buy a house–and especially not if the job doesn’t end up working out–what are they supposed to do with that property if the position is terminated?  Add one more property to the already bloated “for sale for over a year with no takers” list?  Be stuck there with limited prospects and a mortgage to pay?

Unfortunately in many smaller communities, there just aren’t a lot of options when it comes to renting.  Currently, I am packing and planning to relocate to a small rural community in Southwest Minnesota, and finding rental housing anywhere in the county is turning into a tricky task.

There are tons of houses for sale–and for sale cheap–but two weeks before I officially start work doesn’t seem like enough of a time frame to make a big decision like buying a home–especially when I’ve still got one down here in Vermillion to deal with.

I did hook up with some people who might be persuaded to rent their farmstead to me over the course of the winter–it’s for sale, but there’s not much chance of it selling once the colder months hit.  It has been empty for a year and a half.

But then I discovered the place is managed by no less than three siblings, it’s their parents’ old place, and the whole thing is getting rather more complicated than I had hoped it would be–partly because they’d never really considered renting as an option and have never done it before.

I called two of the real estate places up there, and I got the impression with the first one that they are more interested in selling hunting land and lake houses, not doing the legwork to locate rental property suitable for a young professional and her big black dog.

The second one was much more helpful.  They’re being creative about hunting down properties for sale where the owners might be persuaded to rent–to keep the place occupied and maybe make a little income off it instead of letting the property sit and drain their resources.

I can tell you which real estate agent I’m going to call if I am eventually looking to buy in the area–the one who was willing to work with me when I was “just a renter.”

In Vermillion, the situation is pretty much the opposite, but equally problematic.  There are tons of rental properties, and all the agents and landlords are vying for a piece of the “University pie.”  Rental units (and yes, have I lived in a lot of them in this town) are often over-priced and in poor shape from years of revolving student renters.

What you’re mostly looking at when you look at a rental house is rental bedrooms–landlords are counting on income from each room where a bed can be squeezed in–each bed representing student loan or parental money flowing into the landlord’s pocket.

Now, I know quite a few landlords who aren’t like that at all, but based on my own experiences and conversations with students and faculty and professionals, that’s the basic situation.

It’s a tough one for young families when half or two-thirds of their rental’s bedrooms are housing their kids who, unless they’re flouting the child labor laws, aren’t bringing in cash to pay that rent.

Housing assistance doesn’t even help much–with a low cap on allowed rent+utility payments, lower income families have very limited options here.  According to one woman I talked to, housing assistance is capped at $627/month for her and her son.

That seems pretty decent until you realize that even in an efficient home, heat bills can top $100/month in the coldest months–$200 if the furnace is old and the windows are drafty.  And what about City bills for electric, water, and sewer? Those utilities quickly eat up that allowance until rent has to be in the $300/month range for it to work.

And a single parent who is trying to get an education, pursue work-study, and give her child a decent place to live is in a real bind–if she tries to hide going over the limit of her allowance and make up the difference with her meager paycheck, she can be kicked off assistance entirely.  So, she’s back to the old trailer.

There are plenty of gems in the rental arena here, though often they are not advertised–they fill through word of mouth.  This can present a problem for young professionals and families new to the area–they’re not connected into the grapevine, so they don’t know about all the lovely properties that go unlisted.

While our community leaders don’t necessarily like to think of Vermillion as a “rural area,” it is one–check out the Wiki.  In terms of infrastructure to provide the niceties of small town living, my new digs in Minnesota have a lot of things that Vermillion doesn’t, even though the entire county has half the population of Vermillion (when university is in session).

But quality of life here is high, and economic development is a big priority, especially with the Vermillion NOW! initiative.

I’d like to see part of that development focus on locating and providing quality, affordable rental housing to the families and professionals they’d like to attract–not just apartment buildings, but houses as well.  Not everyone likes to live in a cookie-cutter with 50 close neighbors.

More rural areas–especially those without university centers–need to consider rental property as part of their economic development/invigoration plan as well, and real estate agents should work with property owners and urge them consider renting as part of their management strategy if their property isn’t selling quickly.

After a few days of hair-pulling (my own) and concerted effort, I’ve got at least one more place to look at when I go up to Minnesota again this weekend–it’s for sale, but the owner is willing to consider renting it out at least over the winter months in order to save on utilities and to have it occupied.

I’ve got a few other people up there looking for leads as well.  I had hoped that by this weekend, I’d actually be moving a truckload of stuff to my new home, but until I have a place to put it, the big move will have to wait.

I’m really glad my new employers are understanding about the situation–after all, if you hire someone to work in a rural area with limited housing options, you can’t really expect them to start the day after they’re hired.

The local people have been helpful too–providing suggestions and phone numbers and tips.  And that help from locals and an understanding realtor makes the community more attractive–more like a place I’d maybe consider buying a property and relocating more permanently.

Roosters on the Brain

Woke early again this morning, despite the fact that we are back in Vermillion and there are no roosters crowing us out of bed.  I might have a phantom rooster on the brain–or it might just be the measure of all that needs accomplishing in the next couple of weeks that propelled me out of bed so early.

We returned from Minnesota at about 2 yesterday afternoon, and an hour later I was out at the farm harvesting whatever vegetables ripened in my two-day absence.  There were a few lunker cukes and a few summer squash bigger than the size at which I prefer to pick them, but otherwise it wasn’t too outrageous.

After a shower and some time listening to “the boys” down at Carey’s (I will miss their Friday night shows enormously), I returned home to process about thirty pounds of tomatoes that needed saucing.  That kept me up ’til past eleven–it was good to have a friend come over and chat to keep me awake!

I tried a new cook-down technique wherein the sauce goes into the crockpot (the lid slightly askew) overnight to cook down, but at the last minute I chickened out and put it on the low setting, so it didn’t cook down much. I just couldn’t bear the thought of cleaning up massive tomato splatter in the wee morning hours.

So, now I am cooking down the sauce on the stove-top to can later on today while boxing up cherry tomatoes, bagging potatoes, and figuring what else I should bring down to the Saturday farmers market.

This latest Big Stone County trip was to look at some housing options and meet a slew of community members I’ll be working with up there, as well as to survey some of the projects that are underway already.

I’m really impressed with the groundwork that has been laid there–the community gardens and plans to build a greenhouse on the Graceville school and the openness of the community grocery store owners toward carrying local foods.

It’s got to be hard to be the owner, operator, and main employee of a little store in a little town like Clinton and have so many requests for better, fresher produce, but know that ordering a case of anything as perishable as produce will result in half of it spoiling before it sells. How can you charge a reasonable price when half will go to waste?

These hard-working people don’t have time to search all over the county for farmers to fill their produce sections–they hardly have time for an afternoon off once a week (if that).  So, solving that puzzle is one of my first priorities there.

I also met an older couple who came back to the area to care for an ailing relative and ended up building something beautiful–a garden that supplies produce to the senior citizens and assisted living facilities and also serves as a living laboratory for the school kids.

Bill and Carol had been talked up a lot by my main contact there in BSC, and I can see why they are a treasure in their community.  They are in the process of moving away, and I hope I can maintain even a portion of their legacy. Just spending part of an afternoon talking and touring with them was a blessing.

In Beardsley, where the little community grocery is also set up to process meat, a local organic farmer has bought the old middle school building and has filled the athletic field with sweet corn–basketball-sized cabbages bloom in the old schoolyard.

We topped off the Wednesday tour with a local foods dinner at the home of another couple who’ve been active in the local foods movement in the region–our small contribution a bottle of Valiant Vineyards wine brought up with us on the trip.

The spread of delicious dishes was definitely the main attraction–that, and the conversation around the farmhouse table about local foods and local affairs.

My phone doesn’t ring in BSC (I need to switch cell companies), so it was through e-mail that I was reminded I’d tentatively agreed to travel to Montrose, CO to speak about local foods at the Western Colorado Congress’ annual meeting in October.  I hadn’t heard anything on it in a couple of months, so it kind of slipped my brain.

They are wanting to get my travel arrangements in order and get going on their promotional materials as well, so I am checking in with my new employers about taking off during that time (which is also during the Meander–Upper Minnesota River Art Crawl).  It’s hard to figure how to be in two places at once!

I’m already feeling a bit like I’m in two places–we looked at a farmstead outside Clinton where I hope to live at least through the winter months, and I am anxiously awaiting a call to cement those plans, so I can start packing up the truck and getting this show on the road, so to speak.

In the meantime–the tomato sauce is bubbling away, and I’ve got afternoon plans to can it, and also to chop vegetables and salt them down for another canning project tomorrow–zucchini relish. I’ll spend at least a couple hours at market this morning before tackling all of that.

So, I’m filling the jars and filling the boxes, and my brain is full of details and ideas and inspiration for the new job up north.

I hope to get some images of the new homeland posted soon–I was so busy meeting people and listening and writing and thinking and asking questions on this trip that picture-taking was just not a priority.  Soon!

Local Foods in Big Stone County

Big Stone County from

I have some exciting news to share this morning: I have been offered the position as Healthy Foods Organizer in Big Stone County, Minnesota.

The position is administrated by Land Stewardship Project, an amazing organization that promotes good stewardship of the land and sustainable farming and communities.  The job focuses on developing and promoting local foods production and infrastructure in the area and working to ensure social justice in the food system.

Regular readers of my blog know that I have long been working on these issues in the Vermillion area and in the state of South Dakota as a whole–focusing much of my free time toward these efforts while, at the same time, teaching English online for the University of South Dakota.

Considering all that needs to be done, I’ve often wished that I could devote myself full time to this effort–to working on all the things that there’s just not enough time to tackle when you’ve got that “day job.”

I’ve often thought, if I just had a little more time, I could help those dairy producers whose contracts were dropped to form their own cooperative.  I could devote myself to getting the WIC and senior citizens coupon programs going.  I could work more closely with local grocers and restaurant owners and schools to get local foods on their shelves and in their menus.

Basically, I thought–if local foods organizing could be my full-time job, think of all that could be accomplished!

Well, it looks like local foods organizing is about to become my full-time job, and I’m so excited, I might just burst.

Another perk of this position is that it puts me two hours closer to my son.  It’s in an area where I already have some friends and contacts.  I met a few more local producers on the South Dakota side of the border while I was in the area interviewing for the position last Friday–got to pet some gorgeous Nubian goats and Holstein calves, too.

I’m confident that the local foods movement in this area can and will do just fine without me–it’s never been just me moving things forward–there are producers and supporters all over this and other areas and all over the state who have done just as much as I have–even more.  I’m just the one who never shuts up about it.

There’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes that I have nothing to do with except to say, “right on!”

You may remember the whole itinerant merchant issue with our farmers market and the city a few months ago–but what you may not know is that while I was working very publicly on that issue, a couple of our other board members were writing a $65,000 FMPP grant that I was only marginally involved with.  It wasn’t me that secured the current fairgrounds market location, either–that was another member of the market board.

I do hope that within a few years, the state of South Dakota or some other local or regional organization can find the funds to do what Land Stewardship Project is doing in Minnesota (and other organizations and states are doing elsewhere).  I think it’s coming–it’s just a matter of time.

For now and the foreseeable future, I’m going to do my best to achieve an exponential learning curve and apply my skills–and get some new ones–on the Minnesota side.  I’m hoping to have at least a little garden prepped there this fall to plant my garlic in while my gardens here are put into cover crop for the time being.

And I can’t wait to put my kayak in some of those Minnesota lakes!

Floods R Us

Well, last night’s projected heavy rain didn’t materialize in this immediate area.

Or if it did, it’s hard to tell because I seem to recall only one semi-dry moment this season–when I decided to dig the new potatoes and figured out that just because it looked kinda dry on the surface didn’t mean I wouldn’t be excavating mudballs that I’d have to squish to find out if they were potatoes or just glops of saturated soil.

Heading out to the farm this morning to harvest for CSA deliveries, I met a dense wall of fog in the valley that allowed just enough visibility to see that the Vermillion River is out of its banks again at the first bridge on North University Road.  I had never seen that happen before this year.  So far this season, I’ve seen it twice.

August 3--Vermillion River at the first bridge on North University Road, looking north

I read last night that at the crest of this latest round of flooding, 25,000 acres of farmland between Davis and Vermillion will be inundated.

The corn is pulling its leaves in and starting to yellow–not the “late-summer-ripe-corn yellow,” but the “please-give-my-roots-some-oxygen yellow.”  You can tell where the edge of the flooding is by the fact that the corn in those margins is still a deep green.

The gardens are starting to show extreme moisture stress–in that everything that isn’t actively growing is starting to mold.  Anything with a hole or insect damage of any kind is simply rotting.  I spent part of my harvest time this morning disposing of anything with a fuzzy white sheen.

I did still manage to get a good harvest for today’s deliveries: summer squash and peppers, tomatoes and onions, cucumbers, basil and sweet corn.

The corn is from our neighbor’s acre-sized patch–she came outside when I pulled in the yard to tell me (again) to take as much as I want–to thank me for picking it (waste not-want not) as I was thanking her for sharing it, then ran back in the house to escape the mosquitoes.

I was wearing my headnet, of course.  I have not been on the farm without it for three months now.

At this point, the pickings are gleanings and secondary ears–there’s still a fair amount of corn out there, but it won’t be worth eating in another week.  So, I picked enough for all my members to have a dozen ears, and somehow managed to end up with a dozen extra for us.

I might go out and get a couple dozen more to go with those and do another round of canning–H has been sick for a couple of days, so he’s not really in the mood to eat more of it.  And no, it wasn’t the corn that made him ill, but getting ill in the temporal vicinity of eating so much corn has killed his appetite for it.

At any rate, the neighbor has a better view of the valley at her place (if the view can at this point be described as “better”), so I snapped a couple images of the perspective from there.

The river is supposed to rise a couple more feet before it starts to subside.  I was disappointed earlier this year that I never managed to get my kayak out in the flooded fields, but it looks like I’ll have another chance.

On my way back into town, I stopped to take the image at the top of this post, and saw our other neighbor (whose family members are almost all “conventional” farmers in this area) drive by.  She gave a friendly wave, then indicated the river, threw her hands up, and shook her head sadly as she headed past and into town.