FOOD JUSTICE ADVOCATES
On their jars of salsa, Drumlin is described as a multi-cultural organization providing fresh produce and urban agriculture opportunities in Madison. “We are dedicated to feeding our communities with healthy food that is chemical-free,” says David Alvarado, one of the members of the Drumlin Co-op.
For many years, the four- to five-acre plot known as Drumlin Community Farm was located at 2849-2853 Rimrock Rd. The Drumlin Producer’s Co-op is an extension of that collectively run farm, although the land that is currently in cultivation has changed.
Around 2005, the community at the original Drumlin land became aware that developers were in the process of purchasing the land to construct a business park. In response, the Drumin community put up a struggle to preserve that land. Many families who were growing food there helped organize participation and testimony at city council meetings, primarily in the city of Fitchburg. The city officials were won over by the people—families with many children, Spanish-speakers and translators—who came out and spoke of the community-building nature and cultural relevance of the Drumlin land.
Two years ago, however, the farmers were finally evicted from the property. Despite this, Sandy Welander, a Drumlin Co-op member says, “We’re very fortunate to grow on this new piece of land.” The Uphoff family owns the land he refers to, which is actually on the same road as the original Drumlin Farm. The first year, folks worked hard with the fallow land, putting up fencing, cultivating, and getting the plants into the ground. Amazingly, Drumlin Producers Co-op has had these six acres in cultivation for the past two seasons without owning a tractor. This has only been possible with an incredible amount of people power.
Drumlin is planning to obtain organic certification, in support of the idea of an organic standard being set, but David says that he’d rather the farm be known on their reputation. “I don’t understand [the label “organic”]. I remember another person from a Co-op in Mexico saying, what you mean by ‘organic’ is normal food. That’s the food that everyone should be eating, that’s the food that everyone ate for thousands of years, and they clearly managed to do pretty well without chemicals. This food should be considered normal.”
Drumlin Producers Co-op incorporated as a worker’s cooperative when folks started growing on the new land. “The need to organize ourselves as a cooperative was clear,” Sandy says. “We are made up of many people that have a lot of knowledge about growing food, and are coming from different cultural backgrounds to share that knowledge. We realized we needed to market our produce, because low-income families especially need jobs, and they need to be able to feed their families and pay their rent.”
What this means in practice is often a mixture of compromise and varying levels of commitment. Members of the Co-op work to maintain its openness. Everyone can have a say in the conditions of labor, and throughout the season, the details are worked out regarding who has more or less time to contribute. Everyone gets paid the same wage for the work they do, whether it’s weeding, planting seeds, harvesting, canning salsas, marketing, or doing a website. “We are organized so that a number of folks can have the leadership to coordinate the day-to-day farm activities, and to make sure that from seed to sale, we have a good product,” Sandy states. “We farm together and make decisions together. It’s more efficient, and more of a community approach. Some people have more knowledge or specialize at different things on the farm. And some people (mostly younger folks) are coming to the group with no agriculture experience at all and are there to learn and have a job.”
Educating young people has been a priority for the Drumlin Producer’s Co-op and, this past season, approximately 20-30 youth were involved in the farm and value-added processing. Member Michael Goldsby has set this precedent, as he has been involved with securing land for community gardens and access to market space in the Avalon Village community. Many of the youth who have gotten involved with the Drumlin are folks that Michael mentors, or have a personal relationship with one of the adult members of the Co-op. In addition to this, Drumlin works with Youth Services of Dane County.
Some of the young folks approach the farm from different angles; they want a job or want to learn how to grow food. Some of the youth need to work with a mentor or community program to rectify past legal troubles as well. The youth who participate learn how to grow their own food and take their produce home to their families. They can be proud of that, in addition to making a wage. Sandy describes this process: “It shows that agriculture and growing food is noble work. This is something that young people don’t necessarily expect that they’re going to be interested in until they do it. People grow older, and if you don’t pass your knowledge on to younger people, there isn’t much of a future.”
Three seasons ago, Drumlin began making salsa as an experiment, taking the mountains of tomatoes that were left over from their farm and turning them into food that could be eaten by the farmers in the off-season. Gradually, they became licensed as a processor, and began to try different mass production methods. This year, with access to an industrial kitchen, Drumlin Co-op members were able to process the salsa more efficiently, canning about 6,000 jars in three months. “Now, with the salsas, we’re starting to alleviate seasonal fluctuations of income [for members], to have more year-round stability,” David says.
“Heirloom tomatoes have such distinctive flavors,” David explains. “We also pair different types of peppers with different salsas. I’m particularly fond of the Vietnamese heirloom peppers that we’re using. They have more of an afterbite than a straight-up spicy flavor, so it allows you to taste the heirloom tomato’s rich, sweet flavor. Now, when I taste salsas, I look for the tomato flavor. It’s amazing to me that, although it’s the main ingredient in most salsas, often you can barely taste it. I’ve started eating salsa more critically since I started working at Drumlin.”
Beyond their incorporation as a worker’s co-op, what sets Drumlin Farm apart from other small farms is their commitment to making chemical-free food more accessible to low-income communities. This is reflected particularly in their marketing strategy. David illustrates the vision behind this: “Organic farmers often think of CSAs, farmers’ markets, and food co-ops as their retail outlets. We want to think also of Mexican restaurants, low-income CSAs, work-share CSAs, and creating the capacity for a network of farms to supply school districts and universities. Instead of thinking about how to slice the pie in more ways, we need to ask, how do we break open the pie?”
An example of this was Drumlin’s decision to try to get fresh produce into various Walgreen’s stores, primarily in low-income neighborhoods. In the Avalon Village community, the local grocery store went out of business, and no store came in to replace it. This meant that “kids and moms are going to the gas station for junk food when it’s hard to go grocery shopping all the way across town on a regular basis.” Sandy says. The reason for selling to Walgreen’s was not a profit-based decision, but one that came from a need to provide access to fresh produce for members of these various neighborhoods.
The connections between who farms the food and who eats it is one that Drumlin seeks to forge in new ways. David explains, “People have had a hard time accepting that we’re doing a quality product, or that we know what we’re doing. But now, people are coming to us and asking what methods we’re using for canning and production, how can we pull off working with ‘at-risk’ youth, and how come we have a presence in communities of color when a lot of other organizations have been trying to do the same things we’re doing.”
This prioritizing of community connection has also led to a focus on culturally-appropriate foods, and expanding the possibilities for the many skills of the chefs in the Producer’s Co-op. “Often, organic and local foods are marketed primarily for middle- to upper-class consumption, and mostly to white people. Making Mexican, African, and African-American foods available with organic and local ingredients is doable, it just isn’t being done,” Sandy states. David describes organics as a niche market, where people are willing to pay a premium for clean food. But Drumlin seeks to make this affordable for everyone, and more accessible specifically to people of color. David defines his perspective, “I think I really understand why organic is important to us, as Mexicans, and I think the same is true of Latinos in general. All of the things I thought were standard cultural practices in Mexico have changed a lot in recent years. People eat regular, normal, healthy food in the countryside in Mexico. Everybody plants corn, beans, squash, herbs, chilies, tomatoes, maybe onions, even if you have a day job. Then when folks migrate to the U.S., a lot of people find jobs at restaurants, and what they end up eating and bringing to their kids are leftovers. Imagine working at Dunkin Donuts and bringing home everyday two dozen free donuts to feed yourself and your kids. It’s no surprise, then, the amount of obesity among Latino kids. It’s no surprise that we have a way higher risk than white people for diabetes. To me, making connections, it’s no surprise that kids are literally malnourished. They’re not eating proper food. Then they’re cranky at school, and are labeled ‘troubled’ and ‘at risk.’”
Working with youth is one way that the Drumlin farmers offer alternatives. As they look to the future, working with other farmers and expanding operations are also part of the vision. Sandy describes plans to grow more dried beans and heirloom corn, as well as more winter storage crops. “Corn is grown all over the place here, but it’s GM corn that is sold as a commodity, either for animal feed, ethanol production, or food. We want to grow specific types of corn that are good for eating and making culturally appropriate foods. We’d also like to expand kitchen operations to accommodate preparing tamales, tortillas, and East and West African food to sell commercially.”
Drumlin cooperators recognize that farmers don’t often make a good living when they are dependent on selling perishable foods. The absence of start-up capital or solid infrastructure is also very challenging. Yet the Drumlin Community Farm Producer’s Co-op has proven that it is a vibrant and dedicated group of folks who are playing a vital role in the food justice movement.
Willy Street Co-op is pleased to offer Drumlin’s delicious Heirloom Salsas in the grocery section, and keep your eye out for various Drumlin Farm produce throughout the growing season.
Drumlin Co-op members have also been seen at Willy East and West sampling out their delicious salsas and speaking to Willy Street Co-op Owners about their farm.