Building a Stronger local food economy on Minnesota’s Iron Range

The rutabaga, a humble root vegetable that thrives in cool climates and keeps well, is the emblem of a collaborative project nurtured on Minnesota’s Iron Range with two broad aims: to help people with low incomes access healthy fresh food and to create markets for local food producers.

In 2013 the Rutabaga Project was born as a joint effort of the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency (AEOA) and the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS). Its epicenter is Virginia, Minnesota, where a farmer’s market, community gardens, garden-in-a-box kits and other food-related initiatives have taken hold, now spreading to neighboring communities such as Aurora, Cook, and Tower.

About the name: If you’re an old-school Ranger, it’s root-a-baygie. To everyone else that would be root-a-baygah, a key ingredient of pasties, the meat and vegetable filled pocket sandwiches that mine workers ubiquitously took from home for underground meals.

The Rutabaga Project was honored with a St. Louis County Public Health Initiative Award this year.

One reason for that, says Rutabaga Project coordinator Brian Bluhm, may be because they’re listening to needs identified by locals and taking quick action to find solutions. At a series of conversations, Virginia’s lowest-income neighborhoods helped identify key priorities to improve healthy food access; among them, the need for EBT transactions at the farmers market, a desire for community gardens, and addressing the needs of people without reliable transportation.

Jayne Pepelnjak (2017 Farmers Market Assistant) and Emily Caouette (2017-18 Rutabaga Project MPCA GreenCorps Member)

“We wanted the neighborhoods, and those who live there who are food insecure, to tell us the opportunities to improve food access for them,” Bluhm said.

Meanwhile, pilot programs based on early feedback from residents were quickly enacted. One outcome that’s made a big difference is establishing EBT payment at the Virginia Farmers Market, as a result of the Rutabaga Project’s support to certify the market for EBT and purchase equipment, train vendors and promote it in the community.

Some context: In the days of actual printed food stamps, market vendors could easily accept them as cash equivalent. But after food stamps went electronic starting in 2001 there was serious decline in participation of low-income shoppers relying on what is now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Participation is up again as the number of farmers markets participating in SNAP/EBT has quintupled in the last five years.

Marlise Riffel, a retired educator who helped to start the project and continues as a key leadership volunteer, continues to help guide the Rutabaga Project.

“Last summer was our first summer we had EBT acceptance for the entire summer,” she said. “We had 80-some EBT participants, and generated $6,000 for our local vendors.”

Riffel expects participation to grow again this year in Virginia. And with the Rutabaga Project’s help, the Hibbing Farmers Market also began accepting EBT. Now Cook and Tower want in too, she said.  In addition, SNAP customers to the Virginia, Hibbing and Cook Markets (not Tower yet) will be able to increase their buying power by up to $10 through the Market Bucks program ( and possibly other matching programs through local project partners.

Other successes: 202 kids in Virginia participated in the Power of Produce program that offers 2 tokens a week so kids can buy fruits or vegetables at the market.

And 60 plots in five community gardens were made available, with 70 percent rented.

“Building partnerships is key – and that is why we’ve been so successful. The right combination of people and organizations came together at the right time,” Bluhm said. Besides AEOA and IRPS the region’s main health system, Essentia, has been a strategic partner and funder of the Rutabaga Project. Healthy Northland, the regional health board, has also supported the project through funding and staff time. Other partners include SNAP Education, the Minnesota Horticultural Society, and Natural Harvest Food Cooperative.

Organizers are willing to learn from experience – for example, a plan to schedule regular weekly bus rides to grocery stores in Virginia and nearby Aurora fizzled. What sounded good on paper didn’t really match up with the daily juggling act of residents with multiple jobs while caring for aging parents or young children, Riffel said.

But transportation is a gap identified by residents, so it’s back to the drawing board. New options may include pairing volunteer drivers with shoppers who need rides, or promoting the existing bus network to grocery destinations.

Bluhm and Riffel are excited to roll out a retail meal kit soon, something else people asked for. The Natural Harvest Food Coop will offer a reusable bag containing a healthy recipe along with directions for exactly where in the store’s aisles ingredients may be found. Everything will be SNAP eligible, but anyone can buy the kit. A local SNAP educator is pricing recipes now and they hope two versions will be on shelves this summer. They may even create YouTube videos to give cooking instruction.

Helping communities sustain local food economies requires the Rutabaga Project to seek sustainable funding itself to in order to serve more communities, Bluhm said. As start-up funding sources end their commitment, perhaps some kind of social entrepreneurship or tying into a foundation will be a longer-term solution.

Both Bluhm and Riffel are active in the newly organized Northland Food Charter Network, where people with various perspectives on the food system in a wider swath of northern Minnesota hope to build a strong regional food economy that will benefit food consumers and producers and the communities where they live and work.

Within the Northland network, working teams have pledged to take one action this year in areas such as access to capital, the farm-to-school pipeline, legislative activity including the federal Farm Bill that funds SNAP and agriculture-related programs, and resurrecting a regional vision originated a few years back by some University of Minnesota professors and a farmer in Finland to create a sustainable all- (or mostly-) local food economy.

“Our unofficial tagline is ‘30 percent local foods by 2030,’” Bluhm said. “I don’t know exactly how we would measure that, but it’s a goal.”

Be sure to visit The Rutabaga Project’s Facebook page to stay up to date on all their great work. For more information, contact Brian Bluhm at or 218-290-1953.

Featured image: Virginia Market Square