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BisMan Community Food Cooperative produce and bulk manager Casey Bettenhausen adjusts some of microgreens grown by Forager Farms in Streeter, N.D., at the co-op store in Bismarck, N.D., on April 25, 2018. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

BisMan Community Food Co-op puts focus on the story of food

BISMARCK, N.D. — High on the list of principles that guide the products offered at the BisMan Community Food Cooperative are emphases on local food and transparency about where the food originated and who produced it.

"Since opening, we've tried to let people know exactly where our products are coming from," says Carmen Hoffner, general manager of the co-op.

There have been ups and downs in working with local vendors, as there have been with the co-op itself in its nearly two-year history. But, Hoffner says, things have begun to turn around. And with that turnaround comes a renewed focus on the origin of some of the produce and meats for sale in the store, with programs she calls, "Know Your Produce" and "Meet Your Meat."

Carmen Hoffner, general manager of BisMan Community Food Cooperative in Bismarck, N.D.Knowing information about where their food comes from is important to the co-op's customers, Hoffner says. So is supporting local producers.

"Spending your money here is going to stay here in the local community," she says.

Since the co-op opened, it has used approximately 20 local vendors of produce, says produce and bulk manager Casey Bettenhausen. Bettenhausen says producers with greenhouses and hoop houses have continued to deliver, even in the depths of winter, with microgreens, lettuces, potatoes, carrots and more coming in fresh. The coming weeks will bring local cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash and more, many in varieties not often found in grocery stores, Bettenhausen says.

But it's not just that something is "local" that is important to the co-op's shoppers, he says. Customers like to know where the foods come from and who grew it.

"You can go and get great produce at a lot of places," he says. But at the co-op "you actually know the people who are growing it."

Produce from local producers in prominently labeled at the BisMan Community Food Cooperative.As part of "Know Your Produce," local products are labeled with details of where it originated, and staff can tell them more about the growers.

BisMan Community Food Cooperative Larry Rieker says the co-op has come a long ways in two years.Those details also are important at the meat counter across the store. Meat manager Larry Rieker says offering local meat was difficult because buying hanging meat meant too much waste and too few primal cuts. But the co-op has found ways to find the kinds of meats its customers want and offer some background information on the sourcing.

Displays at the BisMan Community Food Cooperative include information about where the meat for sale comes from.For instance, Rieker says, they can tell customers that products from Nourished By Nature are raised in Bismarck by Gabe and Paul Brown, and they can explain some of the principles used by the Browns on their operation. They can explain that the Niman Ranch has beef and pork from producers in the Dakotas and that they're Certified Humane. And they can point out the in-season, fresh-caught fish delivered by Fortune Fish of Minnesota.

While offering organic meats was a focus early on for the co-op, Rieker says it's difficult to find suppliers of Certified Organic meat. Instead, the co-op now focuses on telling the story of producers and their operations as a way to let people "Meet Your Meat."

"Knowing your farmer is very important," Hoffner says.

Not everything has been smooth for the co-op since it opened in May 2016. Staff and management turnover, as well as flux on the board of directors, has created some difficulties. In fall 2017, several producers spoke publicly about the fact that they were not getting paid in timely manners and that contracts with the co-op had not been fulfilled.

Local foods have been a focus for the BisMan Community Food Cooperative since it began.Hoffner, who didn't start with the co-op until October 2017, says operations have started to turn around. Though the organization still has a tight budget, Hoffner says they've put producers on payment plans.

"We're almost done catching up with local producers," she says.

To avoid such situations going forward, they don't have producers on contract, and they now are paying cash-on-delivery for products.

According to board minutes, the co-op received a $26,208 North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission grant, which it used to pay late bills from local vendors. The minutes also says the co-op's primary lenders have allowed interest-only payments but are hoping to begin receiving payment on principal soon.

Rieker says a common misconception in the community is that the co-op only is open to members. While members receive discounts and special opportunities, anyone can shop at the store. A lifetime membership costs $200.

Locally baked goods now are available at the BisMan Community Food Cooperative.Hoffner says the co-op has big plans for the two-year anniversary of the co-op, as well as for the summer. A four-day celebration will kick off on May 16, in which members will get special discounts and the store will host music, food demonstrations, meet and greets with farmers and more. The co-op also plans to participate in BisMarket, a Bismarck-area farmers market, by selling sandwiches and wraps and getting the word out about the store.

Hoffner says the co-op always is open to offering new products and working with new producers. In addition to produce and meats, the co-op sells local soaps, lotions, deodorants and other wellness goods and recently began selling local baked goods.

"The food co-op, I feel, is just an amazing asset to our community in so many ways for community and producers both," she says.