The Village Agricultural Cooperative adds new employee, prepares for further expansion
The Village has expanded from feeding 150 families in the Rochester area to 200 families in less than one year and serves over 15 immigrant communities in the city.
ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Village Agricultural Cooperative is expanding, and later this summer, will have its own market where members will sell produce.
The newest employee of the Village — Chris Allen — has been with the organization since its beginning.
Allen was named as the market hub coordinator for the Village earlier this summer. Her job will be to connect with Village farmers to help them build their online aggregate profiles, as well as setting up the physical market, tentatively scheduled for Tuesday evenings at the History Center of Olmsted County.
"The beauty of this farmers market is that it will be culturally appropriate produce that is not necessarily very familiar to a lot of us that live in Rochester," said Allen of the Village market. "At this farmers market, we'll be offering things that some people might think of as exotic and other people think of as comfort food."
Allen's mother was the founder of Channel One Regional Food Bank in Rochester. She said she got involved as a gardener with the Village in its first year of operation, after she met Kim Sin, one of the founders of the Village.
"The Village has grown exponentially in the last four years, so it's kind of amazing," said Allen. "It's also like an incredible dream job for me, because I feel my mother's strength from 30 years ago pouring into me."
Amanda Nigon-Crowley, executive director of the Village, said that Allen has brought some new growing techniques to the Village garden sites.
Allen said the techniques are things she learned from her grandmother, who was a victory gardener. Victory gardens were small, private food gardens that sprouted during World War II and before that during the Great Depression.
"We were just trying a lot of things like companion plants next to each other," said Allen of the techniques. "This year, we're laying in a living ground cover, to keep the weeds down and keep water retention in the soil."
Without having the money to build proper fencing, Allen helped lead an effort last year at the Village sites to build homemade fencing.
"We built kind of an artistic little fenced in spot, with a gate and all our tools right there," she said.
Allen is a lifelong artist and has helped bring art to the public spaces of the Village. Last year, she secured a grant through the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council so she could teach beadwork to members of the Village.
"We did connect through that," she said of the beadwork. "And that was my goal — to bring community together, even though we speak different languages, our hands know what to do, and it's not very different from farming in some ways."
A Village growing
The Village has expanded its growing locations at its existing Rochester Covenant Church garden as well as a new location at the History Center of Olmsted County.
"We are seeking funding for those expansions to help pay for our water lines," said Nigon-Crowley. "And for other infrastructure needs, like sheds and storage."
Nigon-Crowley said that the Village is looking to raise around $60,000.
The Village has a two-year grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to study three different staple crops which are "very special" to a lot of its members, said Nigon-Crowley.
The crops being studied are managu — a leafy green vegetable common throughout Kenya and nearby countries — in which the Village is exploring proper pest control for; tomatillos, to identify some of the best varieties that local producers could scale up production on for making salsa verde and different sauces; and different Asian green seeds.
"A lot of our farmers here have tried sourcing seed from back home, or different areas, and it's not always what they thought it would be, or it doesn't grow very well," said Nigon-Crowley. "So we're just trying to help people identify some special staple crops that are important to their cultural needs."
Nigon-Crowley said the Village has grown from supporting 160 families last year to over 200 this year.
"We have found that the pandemic has really exacerbated the need for food security," she said. "People are really, really anxious to grow their own food, and excited and so grateful to have access to land."
Allen said she's excited for the new connections that will be made with further growth of the Village.
"What's really great about the growth of the Village is there's more opportunity to build community with people that you might not otherwise cross paths with," said Allen.