Rural Grocery Stores, Energy and Access: Small Employer Sustainability

  • April 23, 2019
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  • Danielle Jackson

What do garlic, lightbulbs and trucks have in common? No, this isn’t a trick question. Each one represents a partner and piece of the Rural Grocery Stores: Energy and Access project. One of the exciting things about the Environmental Initiative Awards is the innovation. We include it as a judging criterion, but each year, we’re surprised by what we receive. This year, we received a nomination that showed the way a hometown grocery store owner’s desire to improve her store’s energy efficiency (that’s the lightbulb) expanded to a large-scale backhaul project (the truck) involving locally-grown garlic (the garlic). The collective action became known as the Rural Grocery Stores: Energy and Access project, our Small Employer Sustainability winner. We spoke to Ren Olive, a project manager for the University of Minnesota’s portion of the project, about how the project came to be.

Small Employer Sustainability — Rural Grocery Stores: Energy and Access

Presented by Barr Engineering

Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery Store is what the name would suggest: a hometown grocery store. Not long ago, owner Bonnie Carlson wanted to improve the energy efficiency of her grocery store for her community, Clinton, Minnesota. While the impact of changes like new lightbulbs, new freezers and more energy efficient appliances can’t be understated, the true collaboration and change came about when Bonnie paired up with Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocery, Russ Davis Wholesale, the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships extension and Big Stone Garlic Farm. Together, the partners came together to establish a pilot backhaul project to change the supply chain in order to benefit each partner, and the planet.

This project developed when the partners noticed a gap between supply and demand. Garlic farmers in Minnesota were donating up to half their crop because they could only sell so much garlic in one community, but they didn’t necessarily have the resources to expands their sales area. On the other hand, smaller communities like Clinton could use more garlic, but don’t have the means to access it. And so a partnership was born. “Backhauling is not necessarily a new concept, but the novel part [of this project] is the public-private mutual benefit for small communities, and having access to wholesale markets for our farmers trying to get their crop out without having to become a massive garlic producer.” When all the partners worked together, they were able to pick up garlic from farmers and transport it to grocery stores, in order to improve the supply chain, without adding any additional burden or cost for any partner. As Ren put it, “for the farmers and haulers, for the truckers, it was just another day, another stop…it wasn’t added work. And for us, it wasn’t added work, which showed it to be feasible.”

Initially, the project was a two-year pilot project. The pilot is now wrapping up, with the team working to quantify and share their results in the hopes of replicating the project in other areas and with other materials. In order to share the project more widely, the team is working to create a document that shows protocol and process, so “if there’s another store or wholesaler or farmer or small business or extension educator or nonprofit that wants to replicate [the project], it’s a document intended for a wide audience.” The hope is also to find more partners and support to continue expanding the existing work. As Ren put it, “there’s so much momentum…and a lot of interest and positive feedback” that the team is hoping to use to kickstart more projects in other areas of Minnesota, to expand the impact.

Collaboration and Communication

With so many moving pieces, it was important to have all the partners on the same page, which is where strong relationships come in. At Environmental Initiative, we value relationships, and the Rural Grocery Stores project embodies the care and attention to detail we hope to see in all our relationships and among all our partners. According to Ren, the most important part in ensuring the project went smoothly was “fostering mutually beneficial relationships, whether through text messages or phone calls, and in-person and on-site meetings.” By taking extra time to build relationships, the project team was able to “take on these big ideas and innovative research questions and ways to make things work better for everyone involved.” Then the rest of the project was able to run more smoothly and benefit more people because they had a solid base of communication and respect on which to build their partnership.

The partnership itself is an example of collaboration and relationships making the parts bigger than the whole. The Rural Grocery Stores: Energy and Access project is a unique private and public partnership, bringing together private businesses and public institutions for a public good. By collaborating this way, each organization involved gets their own needs met, but is also contributing to improved food access and creating efficiencies in the supply chain, which benefits more people than just those in the businesses and organizations involved. Thanks to this project, rural grocery stores have more opportunity to better their communities, shifting from the large-scale importance of environmental concerns to the local level of feeding local people.

Hear from Them

We have more we could say about the Rural Grocery Stores: Energy and Access project, but we figured we’d let the project team tell you more about it themselves.

Special thanks to everyone involved: Justin Ahrendt (Russ Davis Wholesale), Connie Carlson (Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships), Dr. Kathy Draeger (Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships), Anne Dybsetter (Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships), Chris Fields (Russ Davis Wholesale), Duke Harrison (Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocery), Annalisa Hultberg (Extension Educator), Les Olson (Big Stone Garlic Farm), Dojin Park (PhD Graduate Research Assistant), Ryan Pesch (Extension Educator), Dr. Hikaru Peterson (Professor), Steve Poppe (University of Minnesota­–Morris), Greg Schweser (Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships), Dr. Cindy Tong (Professor), Joe Ulrich (Russ Davis Wholesale), Molly Zins (Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships); the Sustainable Farming Association, Minnesota Grown and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Celebrate the Rural Grocery Stores Partnership

Celebrate this unique partnership and their success on May 22 at the Environmental Initiative Awards. Talk to some of the team members in person and hear about their work.

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