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Duluth area farmers launch year-round market — online

The Twin Ports REKO ring allows growers, food producers to sell their eggs, veggies, meats and kombucha without a go-between.

Merchants and customers exchanging goods in parking lot at dusk during the winter
Kylee Maccoux with Greenfield Meats & More hands off a bag of prepaid goods to a Twin Ports REKO Ring customer Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in a parking lot at Stone Ridge Shopping Center in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Cars lined up and smoke puttered out of various exhaust pipes. Frigid winds whipped through Miller Hill as folks created a makeshift drive-thru for the procession of vehicles in line for farm-fresh, locally produced food.

And, just ’cause it’s winter doesn’t mean the market is closed.

A group of Northland growers and makers launched the Twin Ports REKO ring, a Facebook group, for farmers to sell their eggs, veggies, meats and kombucha directly to local buyers. When the online sale’s complete, folks pick up their goods during a designated time slot. Simple, easy and it cuts out the go-between.

Screenshot of the Twin Ports REKO Ring Facebook page
Screenshot of the Twin Ports REKO Ring Facebook page.
Screenshot

“It’s where you want to be as a farmer, making more on each sale and getting to know your customers,” said Mehgan Blair of Canosia Grove farm and cidery.

Blair heard about the REKO model through a sustainable farming podcast. “REKO” is a Scandinavian acronym that translates to “fair consumption" — free for producers and for consumers.

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Farmer Thomas Snellman launched the first REKO ring in the country of Finland in 2013. The model spread to Sweden, Italy and Iceland. In 2017, there were 3,700 producers and about 250,000 customers in all rings, according to Interreg Europe.

It’s just getting started in the U.S., said Blair, who is in contact with administrators of a Milwaukee group that has been operating for two years.

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The idea is a low barrier of entry, and leveraging the social media platform as a communication tool. It already exists; farmers don’t have to pay for the service; and customers don’t have to log onto a site that’s unknown to them.

Blair described a growing season: Working days on the farm, devoting Saturdays to harvesting, packing and transporting veggies.

“At the end of that market, you're packing up what you didn’t sell, putting it back in your truck and going back to your farm, and that can be demoralizing, frankly, for farmers,” she said.

What doesn’t sell often goes to neighbors, farm animals or the compost bin. It can be disheartening, she said.

And many growers and food producers do several markets a week.

Merchants and customers exchanging goods in parking lot at dusk during the winter months
Kelly Duhn, from left, John Lencowski with Farm Sol hand off a bag of prepaid goods to Twin Ports REKO Ring customer Anthony Bodelson of Duluth on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in a parking lot at Stone Ridge Shopping Center in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

With REKO, food producers are committing to an hour or so only to make the hand-off.

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Blair and her husband, Bob, posted their idea to the Duluth Young Farmers Coalition, and about eight flocked to the opportunity, with Ginga Newton of Growing Together among them.

“If you have 30 boxes that you have to sell every week, the pressure is so overwhelming,” Newton said. The only way to make a living is with a CSA (community supported agriculture), but the REKO ring helps.

Newton was clad in a fluffy coat in the former Shopko parking lot, her truck filled with sold fermented goods.

Next to Newton stood Kelly Duhn of Farm Sol, ready to distribute eggs.

I’m calling it the ‘new-age farmers market.'
Ashley Cestra, Duluth

Duhn and her partner purchased land in Saginaw about two years ago, and they were consumers through REKO before they were sellers.

“We don’t grow all of our food, we’re not diverse enough yet. It’s great having a community of other farmers where we can essentially lean onto to round out our grocery list,” Duhn said.

REKO is a solid model for off-season sales, an added benefit for folks who don’t produce enough to sell at a market and a great opportunity for smaller-scale growers to interact with the community and turn a profit.

“Last night, we met someone for the first time who purchased our eggs, and today, he purchased a summer CSA share,” Duhn added.

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The REKO model works well with computer-savvy food producers who are able to take online payments and produce clean photos with photos, Blair said.

The challenges are slight — the Facebook algorithm can lead to less visibility on news feeds, and there is an application process for sellers, of which there are about 12 regulars right now.

And, there are some farmers who’d rather not.

They want to grow what they’re growing and bring it to market, Blair said. It’s a bit of a niche.

Just like a growing season, the type of offerings change as does the frequency of pickups.

Kari Smith of Duluth smiles holding her dog, Growler.
Kari Smith
Contributed / Kari Smith

Kari Smith prefers this route vs. an in-person market during the pandemic because there’s less human interaction, but she’s still getting to learn about local growers.

Smith comes from a family of Wisconsin farmers, and meeting the folks who pick, grow and raise your food lends a sense of trust, which you don’t get at a grocery store, she said.

She relocated Duluth from the Twin Cities. The REKO model doesn’t exist there, and she doesn’t know if it would thrive like it has in the Northland.

There’s less of a sense of community there, and in Duluth, there’s “a great local pride in supporting each other,” Smith added.

Food production and specifically meat is definitely on people’s minds in the Twin Ports.

A record 129,000 tons of pork produced in the U.S. was exported to China for processing in April 2020, according to the New York Times . As a result, business boomed at Superior's Greenfield Meats & More because people wanted to know where their meat was raised and processed, Kylee Maccoux said.

The primarily-beef farm was able to close its Superior storefront in July to focus on farming — thanks to pandemic-driven sales, the launch of their own online store and participation in REKO.

“We never would’ve tapped this market — Duluth, Two Harbors, Esko, Cloquet — if we would’ve stayed over there,” Maccoux said of their storefront.

Participating in REKO comes with a level of mutual trust. While everyone can join the closed group, there is an application process to post and sell items.

Being involved comes with an unspoken recommendation for a high-quality product, Maccoux said.

Ashley Cestra smiles for a selfie in a snowy park
Ashley Cestra
Contributed / Ashley Cestra

REKO is worth it for their business, as well as “on an emotional, personal level,” she said.

Greenfield Meats & More was one of the first businesses Ashley Cestra connected with when she joined the Facebook group in July.

Today, they’re her exclusive provider of ground beef, chicken thighs, pork loins, pork chops, sausage and bacon, she said.

Cestra appreciates that she can plan her meals for the week while scrolling through Facebook at her leisure, most of the time at night, without a dedicated trip to a market or needing to have cash.

Claudia Cottrell
Claudia Cottrell
Contributed / Claudia Cottrell

“I’ve told a lot of my friends about it. I’m calling it the ‘new-age farmers market,’” Cestra said.

On the other hand, Claudia Cottrell sees REKO as an improvement to that.

“I love farmers markets, but the last thing I want to do on a Saturday is buy my veggies. It’s not always fun or convenient, especially when you go away on weekends,” she said.

A Wednesday night pickup works well for Cottrell, who recently purchased squash and shallots plucked from The Boreal Farm’s root cellar.

“I know it’s healthy and raised with love, which makes a whole lot of difference,” she said.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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