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Indoor farmers’ market to bring local farm products to the table
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Area residents will have a place to go to support small businesses as they sell their locally produced foods and farm-derived products beginning Saturday.

The Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market, formerly known as Faribault Winter Farmers’ Market, begins this Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Faribo West Mall. The mall’s large space will allow for social distancing, according to market founder, farmer and co-manager Tiffany Tripp.

Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market will run every Saturday through Dec. 19 on the north side of the mall. From January through March, the market will be held every third Saturday of the month. Weather permitting, the market will move to the Rice County Fairgrounds for April 17 and May 15, 2021.

For some vendors the market is a welcome chance to make some money after other streams of revenue have become less dependable due to the pandemic. While some venues for vendors were canceled this year, farmers’ markets have still been allowed to continue.

“(The Minnesota Department of Agriculture) made sure that farmers’ markets were exempt under any rules, so essentially farmers markets are held to the same rules as grocery stores,” Tripp said.

Twenty vendors are currently registered to participate, with both returning vendors and new vendors from Medford, Faribault, Northfield, Dundas and other locations across the Cannon Valley area. The market was renamed this year as a way to be more inclusive to the vendors within the market, which sees vendors within the region up to 50 miles away, Tripp said. Vendors will be selling baked goods, eggs, sauces, pickles, honey, pasture-raised pork, grass-fed lamb and beef, cheese, pesto, goat milk soap, wool yarn, wool bedding, jams and cheese, among other items.

This will be Julie Johnson’s second time as a vendor, bringing products from her Cannon River Fiber Farms to sell. After participating in the Northfield market for a couple of years, Johnson decided to give the Faribault market a go. She and her husband have a 60-acre piece of land north of Northfield where they raise angora goats for mohair and alpha for fiber products.

With the pandemic, Johnson said selling her wool products has been tough, adding that the pandemic has stifled her opportunities to get out and sell in the community.

“We do sell products online, but people want to feel their yarn before they buy it, so it’s pretty tough to sell if you’re not selling face to face,” Johnson said.

Soon the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market will be up and running and Johnson is looking forward to selling in the market once again.

Besides contributing to the local economy, buying local products can be an environmentally friendly alternative to grocery shopping. Not only do consumers know exactly where their products are coming from, but buying local also cuts down on transportation costs, energy, fuel consumption and air pollution.

“It feels like, at this time in our lives, people are understanding more and caring more about where their products come from, whether they’re food or fiber or wood or ceramics,” Johnson said.

Other reasons why someone might prefer to buy local foods and products include the freshness factor. Local foods don’t have to travel as far to get to the dinner plate, so they tend to be more fresh. Other consumers might choose to eat more locally and sustainably because they feel it’s beneficial to their own health, Tripp said.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why people buy local and why I think that it’s important to buy local and all of those are important to me and to the people who do seek out local food,” Tripp said.

The market’s origins

Wanting to partner with a nonprofit to create a more stable future for the market, Tripp reached out to the Cannon River Chapter of Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) for management assistance. With more hands on deck to help manage the market, the market’s future looks bright, Tripp said. The market is now run by a committee of five, including vendors and nonvendors. SFA is a 501c3, which means that the market can now apply for grants and get sponsorships to fund special events and activities.

To maintain visitor safety, COVID-19 guidelines will be in place at the market. Since it’s indoors, masks are required per the governor’s mandate and social distancing will be enforced. Additionally, product samples will not be allowed this year and food and beverages are to be consumed off the market premises.

This will be the first year the market is held at the mall, which will allow good traffic flow, room for social distancing and space for vendors to spread out. The building’s high ceilings, large aisles and several entrances and exits worked well for the committee’s needs.

“We sought out a larger space, the previous location was a great location downtown at the Paradise Center for the Arts, but it was very crammed,” Tripp said. “Even without COVID we were looking for a larger space because we didn’t have room to grow.”

Tripp put out the call for vendors a while ago, adding that many vendors were happy to return after the uncertainty the pandemic has caused. Many of the market’s vendors are smaller businesses that don’t have many opportunities to sell in larger markets.

“So it really becomes a main income source for a lot of them,” Tripp said, adding that many of the businesses build up a clientele through their interactions at the local market.

Johnson is looking forward to interacting with her customers safely again. Having already participated in one farmers’ market in Northfield during the pandemic, Johnson said customers have been very respectful and careful in maintaining a safe environment. She says she is grateful for the opportunity to sell once again.

“I think the silver lining is this will help us be sustainable next year and the year after and the year after,” Johnson said of the various obstacles the pandemic has posed.

Holiday Train moves to virtual concert, donates to local food shelves

Communities could have lost a good time and funding for crucial services with the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train’s cancellation this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the annual event will go virtual this year.

Since it first launched in 1999, the Holiday Train has traveled across Canada and the northern United States raising money, collecting food and drawing attention to the important work of local food banks. In its first 21 years, the train has raised $17.8 million and collected 4.8 million pounds of food for local food banks in communities along CP’s network.

“We cannot responsibly bring the train over and on the route it normally goes that brings those big community gatherings together,” said Andy Cummings, a CP spokesperson. “So we are bringing our concert live and airing it over our Facebook.”

The Holiday Train At Home concert will take place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 12, on the Canadian Pacific Facebook page. Bringing live music into the homes of the people who normally would attend the Holiday Train events is only step one of the process. In addition, Cummings said CP will be making donations to all 201 local food banks the Holiday Train has benefited in the last two years.

“The need is significant out there at this time of year, so we made the determination to make all of those donations again,” Cummings said, noting that while there are some stops that alternate years on the regular schedule, every food bank will be included in 2020.

The Marketplace inside Community Pathways in Owatonna has been one of the food shelves to reap the benefits from the program. For Community Pathways, that means the Marketplace will receive a $5,000 donation.

“Our average cost per meal right now is about 14 cents, so this $5,000 will be huge as it will help so many households in Steele County,” said Jess Stromley, the marketing coordinator for Community Pathways. “We saw a small decline in our services when COVID first hit, and I think that may have been because people were scared, but now we’re back on the uptick again – our numbers in the last two months have jumped.”

While the Holiday Train events typically encourage those who attend to bring a donation to the food shelf, whether it be monetary or a nonperishable item, Stromley said monetary donations are currently going a lot further at the Marketplace. Because there is limited space to quarantine donated food items for the mandatory three days, Stromley said they have been unable to promote food drives.

“We still allow other people to do them and of course we will graciously accept them and find the room for it,” Stromley said. “But with our prepackaged boxes, that has doubled the cost in food for us. Our food bank has now allowed us to order food like usual again, but now we’re doing our own prepackaging. It’s a little cheaper, but we’re also giving them a lot more food than what the normal package would be.”

With the need still great in the Steele County community, and with the winter months inevitably increasing that need, Stromley said the decision by CP to make the same donation they made in 2019 is a sigh of relief as they embark on what could be a very long winter. Cummings said all donations made to the 201 food shelves will match their most recent donation from CP Corporate.

“During our virtual event, we will talk about the important work local food banks are doing and hope people will consider making an additional donation to them,” Cummings said. He said CP will also be providing a link to Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger relief organization with a nationwide network of food banks, as an option for a place to make donations.

CP anticipates bringing the Holiday Train back on the circuit in 2021.

Medford council moving to bigger venue, but the public still can't attend

The Medford City Council will vote on the much debated Main Street reconstruction project, a plan that provoked clashes between residents and officials over the details and perceived lack of transparency, but there will be one thing missing from the council’s special meeting Tuesday: the public.

For the first time during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Medford City Council will move to a larger venue for its special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, but area residents will still be required to attend virtually.

While the council has continued to use the council chambers throughout the last eight months for in-person meetings, they have closed the meetings to the public to meet social distancing requirements set forth by Gov. Tim Walz.

“This day and age, we’ve taken every opportunity to provide a safe environment,” Mayor Lois Nelson said. “Our number one goal is the safety of the council who have made the commitment to continue to physically come and meet in person.”

But Medford Mayor-elect Danny Thomas says he plans to bring the public into the meetings again if he can find a way.

“I’ve pleaded with them to move to a bigger venue. Everybody has,” Thomas said. “Everybody knows it, but it’s just fallen on deaf ears.”

The meetings have been recorded and posted online, sometimes with a live feed and others waiting up to two days for video to be posted. They have also allowed for a phone-in option for residents to listen to the proceedings. Throughout the months, however, residents have said what is being provided is simply not enough.

In meeting after meetings since the pandemic began, specifically those related to the Main Street project, Medford residents have called in to the public comment portion of the meetings and asked the council to move to a large venue. Suggestions have included everything from moving to the park to utilizing Ritchie Bros. Auction House off Interstate 35. But the suggestions have seemed to stop there.

“When it was presented at the council’s meetings as far as how future meetings would be conducted, the council moved forward with the way it was presented,” said City Administrator Andy Welti, noting the public comments over the past months calling for a larger venue. “If the council had feedback to change venues, we could have talked about that. The council briefly discussed meeting logistics, but there was never official action to make changes.”

Tuesday special meeting, initially set for October, was to be when a final decision on the Main Street project was made. Welti said the council will move into the fire hall, which shares the municipal building with City Hall. The move is to accommodate for the inclusion of Thomas and councilors-elect Chad Merritt and Mandy Mueller and maintain social distancing. When the decision was made in October, it was at the request of outgoing Councilor Marie Sexton that new council members attend.

The alternate venue will still not be open for members of the public to attend in person, something Thomas has promised to put an end to when he steps into the role of mayor in January.

“I have all intentions of getting the public involved in any way that it is possible to do it,” Thomas said, adding there is always a chance the state will have harsher restrictions on government meetings if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. “It’s big to me. It’s important that we hear from the public if they want to be heard, and that’s a step we’ve missed for the last eight months.”

While the city is legally allowed to restrict the public from attending open meetings in-person, so long as they are provided a virtual monitoring option, the state’s foremost expert on public records and open meetings laws says he is not sure it aligns with the spirit of the law.

“Even if the law doesn’t require it, you would think public officials would make an effort to accommodate their constituents more,” said Mark Anfinson, Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney. “Maybe the council feels the risk of COVID is too great to do things publicly, and who is going to fight that? Even if it’s not the real reason, limiting public attendance prevents exposure to the public.”

Mayor Nelson said the risk of COVID-19 is precisely the reason for the not allowing the public to attend the meetings, doubling down on the safety of the council and the city staff as the priority for keeping attendance limited.

“If it ticks some people off, I’m sorry, but it’s for the health and wellbeing of our current council and employees,” Nelson said. “There really isn’t any physical place available.”

While the city has used the Medford Public Schools in the past for bigger meetings, Welti said the city was told early on in the pandemic that the school would no longer be an option for the meetings because of limiting people coming in and out of the building and reducing the risk of COVID-19. Welti said their first public hearing regarding Main Street during the pandemic was originally scheduled to be held at the school, but had to readjust following the school’s decision.

Despite the option to phone in to monitor city council meetings, Thomas said the audio quality has been poor throughout the pandemic. Nelson acknowledged this problem had been brought to the city’s attention on several occasions, leading the city to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to purchase a special microphone that is meant to pick up sound in the room more efficiently. Thomas, however, says that is still not enough.

“We’ve told them the sound is an issue time after time, and that is well known from anyone in the public,” Thomas said. “I want to get a system similar to Claremont, where the purchased microphones and speakers for each council member and a camera that allows them to go live for anyone to watch from home.”

Thomas said he has also been in contact with the Fire Department to arrange a potential ongoing use of the fire hall for meetings at the start of the new year, adding that while improved sound quality for at-home viewers is important, his priority remains to bring the public back to the council meetings. John Anhorn, a commander with the Fire Department, confirmed its willingness to work with city officials to provide a public space for their upcoming meetings.

“There are other options out there and we will be looking into all of them,” Thomas said. “If there is any way possible to get the public there and let them be heard, I’m going to make it happen.”