A 300-mile-long snake threatened the Gardens of Eagan.
Actually, it was the slated construction of a section of a massive crude-oil pipeline that would snake through Minnesota that loomed darkly over the future of one of the state's oldest organic farms, Gardens of Eagan. Construction would destroy the topsoil, the lifeblood of the organic farm that had taken years to cultivate.
The brain trust behind Minneapolis co-op The Wedge, along with other Twin Cities natural foods stores, knew something had to be done. Fast. They had to rally the troops—their customers.
Stories like the Gardens of Eagan's, local battles surrounding food issues, can be found in nearly every corner of the country. National issues, particularly with this year's upcoming Farm Bill vote, will affect, and are already affecting, food at every level. Together, they offer a bounty of targets for political action. By mobilizing your customers, your store can make a difference.
"We've done a great job of 'voting with our dollars' and creating a greater demand for organic food," says Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn. "But we need to make our political voice heard so that policy supports rather than retards our issues. If we want to maintain strict standards and have an adequate supply of healthy food, we have to change public policy." The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill, which includes 65 proposals (one of which cuts organic-research funding from $22.5 million to $10 million) provides an enormous opportunity for policy change.
"Unfortunately, not enough consumers are paying attention to the bill and its potential to influence the quality and price of our food and our health," says Mark Winne, communications director of the Community Food Security Coalition, based in Venice, Calif. "As it stands, the vast majority of the funding goes to a relatively small number of large commodity producers who grow corn, soybeans and rice with very, very little going to local and regional producers of crops like fruits and vegetables. We need to address that imbalance."
Redirecting funds to programs that support local and regional agriculture would help make the legislation a "food bill, not just a farm bill," says Winne. "It could also be a 'health bill,'" he says, as supporting local and regional producers could help battle America's obesity epidemic. Currently, the USDA subsidizes commodity crops, which supports their use in food products that have been linked to obesity—those with added sugars and fats. Cheap corn and soybeans have led to the proliferation of high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils. The current farm policy has made eating unhealthily cheaper and easier. Changing the policy could change that by making fruits and vegetables more affordable and available.
The increase in ethanol production is another issue with national repercussions, says Mark Smith, campaign director of Farm Aid, a nonprofit dedicated to helping family farmers and supporting healthful food production, the environment and local economies. "The ripple effects are enormous, from corn prices to land use," Smith says. Genetic engineering is also a hot topic. "More and more customers are becoming concerned about the genetic modification of their food," Winne says.
"Local is the new organic," Winne says, pointing to one of the hottest political food topics. "The dialogue now is not just about organic food, but about where that food is coming from and who is producing it, stretching people to think not just about how it's produced but where. 'Local' is playing out a lot more in consumers' heads today."
"The connection to local farmers is what consumers are looking for," says Glenda Yoder, associate director of Farm Aid.
Whether your store is promoting a particular local crop or a piece of national legislation, by being politically active you are cementing customer loyalty, Cummins says. "It's a vicious marketplace," he says. "Involving customers and connecting with them in this way in participatory campaigns keeps them coming back."
Choose your battles wisely, however, warns Barth Anderson, research and development coordinator at The Wedge Co-op. "When you activate your base, it better be for a good reason," he says. "You can't run around sending alerts over every issue, like the sky is falling. For us, we've chosen issues like the USDA organic standards, something that cuts to the core of why people buy organic."
Because there are so many issues, he recommends having two or three people on staff who are responsible for "keeping a finger in the wind, keeping ahead of what's out there," he says. "You want your store to be on the edge of change, people want to feel like part of something bigger than themselves, and they won't if they feel like you're just jumping on the bandwagon. Only the stores that are ahead of the political curve are viewed as authentic."
On a poster, there's a picture of farmer Martin Diffley staring out from under the brim of his hat, among rows of cornstalks, holding up an ear of his farm's juicy-looking sweet corn. The poster reads: "Stand Up for Gardens of Eagan Farm." The posters appeared throughout The Wedge, including next to the corn. "Having that poster right in front of customers really tied it all together—the threat of the pipeline, the farmer, the potential loss of their corn," Anderson says. "Customers went 'What?!' They were outraged." The posters directed people to the store's Web site, which offered templates for letters to the judge in charge of the case. Customers sent thousands of them.
"The Web site (www.wedge.coop) has been a great educational and motivational tool," Anderson says. "We get over 1,000 hits a day."
Setting up a computer in the customer service/information area of the store, where customers can log in and send e-mails to congressional representatives or regulatory agencies, "is something that works really well," Cummins says. "Having a phone there for the same purpose can be an even more powerful tool," he says. And even low-tech options such as petitions on clipboards, still are very effective, he says. It's critical, however, to have signs throughout the store, particularly in the checkout line, directing customers to the customer information area, he says. "You have to make it easy for them to find it."
Space along the checkout line is optimal real estate for motivation. Messages can be printed on receipts, bags and on fliers to be packed in bags for people to read later, suggests Farm Aid's Smith. He also suggests utilizing the store's public address systems to broadcast brief announcements. "At our concerts, Neil Young opens the shows saying 'Attention shoppers, attention shoppers: Buy with a conscience, save the family farm.' It would be great if messages like that could be heard in stores," he says. "Maybe a 30-second announcement that stops people in their tracks and connects the Farm Bill to what they're buying at the moment." Farm Aid is willing to work with store owners to create such announcements. "We're always happy to partner with stores," Yoder says. The group also publishes a booklet called "10 Ways to Ensure Healthy Food for You and Your Family," which is also available in poster form. Go to www.farmaid.org for more information.
Putting a face on local products helps customers feel connected, Anderson says. "The posters of Martin were great. In this industry we talk a big game about buying locally and our neighborhood farms, but until people really identify with a farm, with a face, then it's all just marketing," he says.
People identified with Martin and his wife Atina. They created such an uproar that the pipeline company decided to reroute their pipe around Gardens of Eagan even before the case reached the judge. All is well—and organic—in the Gardens of Eagan, thanks, in part, to customer activism.
Shara Rutberg is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 4/p. 16, 20