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The Owatonna Country Club opened on April 22 beneath blue skies and low-70 temperatures. Since the beginning of the current quarantine, memberships have increased at the city’s only private course as golf is one of the few recreational activities that has not been shut down. (Photo courtesy Dan Jacott)

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While Community Pathways reduces services, fundraiser will help feed the hungry

Leadership at Community Pathways made some difficult decisions last month in relation to how the Marketplace customers will be served, but, according to Executive Director Nancy Ness, it was the only option.

“It has been very difficult, but we know it has been the right thing to do,” she said.

In April, the Marketplace inside Community Pathways, which serves as the food shelf for Steele County, stopped using volunteers in order to limit any potential exposure to COVID-19. As of Monday, Steele County had 24 confirmed cases of the virus according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“If the virus came into our facility, we would be facing some dramatic consequences,” Ness said. “All staff would be on a mandatory 14-day quarantine, which means we would have to shut down for a minimum of two weeks. If we inadvertently gave a product that contained the virus and passed it on to one of our customers, many of whom are extremely vulnerable, we would be devastated.”

Ness explained that Community Pathways relies on about 100 volunteers to provide services to its customers. At this point, only the handful of staff members are filling all the orders through the Marketplace. Unique Finds – formally the Clothesline – has been closed since the stay-at-home order was implemented.

To further ensure safety of both the staff and clients, Ness said that it’s temporarily stopped accepting food donations from local grocers. The primary reason: Community Pathways staff doesn’t know “who all has touched the product” and therefore would have to quarantine the food in accordance with safety guidelines.

“Oftentimes the items we get from local grocers is produce that is at its expiration or breads that are at the end of their shelf life, so we try to hand those out and encourage that they are consumed right away,” Ness said. “It just didn’t make sense from that perspective as they would go bad while in quarantine.”

By limiting the food donations the Marketplace’s inventory quickly dwindled. Ness says that it’s now receiving food from the Channel One food bank only. That food is pre-packaged, but the packages do not meet the SuperShelf standards implemented at Community Pathways a year ago. In turn, the staff has had to supplement the packages with its already waning food inventory to round the boxes out.

While difficult, Ness says that these tough decisions were the right one for the organization that provides such a crucial public service.

“Limiting who and what comes into our building has a definite impact by lessening our exposure and ensuring we can remain open for the most important service we provide, which is monthly food shopping,” Ness said. “Our dailies program usually consisted of the items we received from the local stores, and since we weren’t getting that stock any longer it made sense to stop the daily program.”

Community Pathways is now exclusively serving its monthly subscribers.

Ness said that’s made the workload easier on its now smaller staff. As it runs low on certain items — such as fruit and vegetables — Ness said she plans to order canned items in those categories from local grocers to put money back into the community, and support those who have supported the Marketplace. When fresh produce does come in through Channel One, which typically would go out to the daily program, Ness said that the staff makes sure to put it in a monthly box that is going out that day.

“We feel bad that we had to stop the daily program, but we just can’t risk it,” Ness said holding back emotions. “The monthly food is so important that we had to weigh our options on what we thought was the best thing to do in order to continue our programs.”

While the times continue to prove difficult for the crew at Community Pathways, Ness was stunned to learn of a local effort currently underway that will directly benefit the local food shelf. On April 28, the Astrup Family Foundation launched its Sterling Community Food Fundraiser, offering to match the money raised throughout all of the Sterling Pharmacy communities.

“The impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented. People are sick, scared, out of work, out of school and in need of support from their communities,” said a spokesperson from Astrup Cos., parent company of Sterling. “Our Sterling Pharmacy family works hard every day to provide support for one basic need — health — but right now, we need to go a step further. We want to help fill the food shelves in all Sterling Pharmacy communities to make sure our patients and communities have what they need to weather this storm.”

The Owatonna Sterling staff, which operated both at the Sterling Pharmacy attached to Kwik Trip on Hoffman Drive and the new Sterling Home gift shop on Cedar Avenue, set a goal to raise $1,500 for Community Pathways. The Astrup Family Foundation will match dollars raised up to $25,000.

“This community has been amazing, that’s why we just know that we have to keep doing what is right for our customers,” said an overwhelmed Ness as she learned of the fundraiser. “People out there are so generous and it’s our responsibility to make sure that our people can eat and be healthy, we can’t let anything get in our way.”

Ness said that she plans to use whatever money is raised through the fundraiser to purchase food which can be quarantined from local providers.

“It’s all about the sustainability for communities that is so important,” Ness said as to why she wants to put local dollars raised back into the community. “This keeps our hearts full.”

Area resident, Miss US Ag MN, using her reign to erase mental health stigma in ag industry (copy)

Breannca Bussert was stunned when she learned about the high rate of suicide rate among famers, ranchers and farm managers.

According to the notes she saved a February SafeTalk training session, which certified her as a go-to person for those in need of mental health resources in the agriculture industry, the suicide rate for farmers, ranchers and farm managers is 2 to 3.5 times higher than the national rate of 14.5 per 100,000 people.

“I wasn’t aware of how many farmers are actually affected by [mental illness],” said Bussert, a Faribault High School graduate who grew up on an area farm. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t realize how many farmers had actually taken their lives.”

In September 2019, Bussert was named the 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota. The program, which started in the southern region of the country, is fairly new to Minnesota and involves promotion of the agriculture industry during community events, such as county fairs. Many of Bussert’s duties have shifted to an online format due to COVID-19, but she plans to represent Minnesota at the National Miss United States Agriculture Pageant in Florida this June, or a later date if it’s postponed.

Inspired by her research and her personal connections, Bussert is now using her title as 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota as a platform to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues in the agriculture industry.

Bussert said she knows quite a few farmers who struggle mentally, especially as many deal with financial burdens during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus and supply chain issues have forced hog farmers to put down the animals they’ve raised, dairy farmers have needed to dump milk, and apart from that, social distancing has taken a toll on their mental health.

Even before coronavirus hit, a poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which surveyed rural adults in May 2019, revealed that financial issues (91%), farm or business problems (88%) and fear of losing the farm (87%) also impact farmers’ and farmworkers’ mental health.

Rural Health Information Hub cites other common stressors for farmers as falling commodity prices, natural disasters that have harmed crop yields, and increasing levels of farm debt.

“It’s hard for [farmers] to see the bright light at the end and to keep moving on, because a lot of them are struggling to deal with [these issues] on their own,” said Bussert.

During her reign as Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota, Bussert wants to erase the stigma that has particularly impacted older generations of farmers, who grew up during a time when talking openly about mental illness was less common. Shame, embarrassment and a lack of awareness can prevent farmers from seeking help.

The SafeTalk training Bussert attended in Mankato made her aware of the multitude of mental health resources available specifically to those employed in agriculture, and she’s on a mission to bring awareness to these resources. One podcast she recommends is Red River Farm Network, in which farmers share their personal experiences of dealing with mental health conditions.

Meg Moynihan, ag marketing and development coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said MDA and the Minnesota Department of Health partnered with the SafeTalk company, LivingWorks, to make the mental health safety training more applicable to those living in rural areas. They’ve offered training throughout the state, including in Faribault last year. She’s gratified that people like Bussert want to use their platform to promote mental wellness for ag workers.

“We really have a culture where we all like to help each other, but we have a hard time accepting help for ourselves,” said Moynihan, also a farmer. “… It’s important to keep everything in ship shape on the farm, but we don’t think the same about our own personal wellness. We need to do what the farm needs, but the farm is only as strong as we are.”

Bussert said she’d like to complete more training beyond SafeTalk and possibly work with mental health professionals, particularly counselors that focus on farming in Minnesota. With them, she’d like to figure out ways to implement further programming.

For those who aren’t in the ag industry, Bussert encourages supporting local farmers not only on a mental health level but on an economic level, since the two can go hand in hand. One of the best ways to support farmers, she said, is to shop local, buy from vendors at farmers markets and research products.

But farmers’ mental health doesn’t solely depend on how well their business is doing. During COVID-19 especially, they could be dealing with unmet social needs.

“If you know a farmer and notice they might not be acting quite like themselves, reach out and say, ‘Hey, I notice this is different about you,’” said Bussert. “… And don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re struggling with mental health (issues), and don’t be afraid to give them the resources that can help them.”

Council wants residents' input on proposed RC track

Ahead of a May 11 public hearing, the Blooming Prairie City Council is seeking feedback from residents on a proposed radio-controlled car track along Mill Avenue.

Property owner Jim O’Connor submitted a finalized application April 20 for a conditional use permit that would allow him to transform a vacant lot at 124 Mill Ave. S., just east of the railroad tracks and zoned for industrial use. If granted, the permit would be valid for six months, at which time it would go back to the council for review before a potential extension.

Elected officials first discussed the track at its April 13 meeting. While Council member Bill Newman said he would like to see another all-ages activity in town, Council member Brad Clark said he had already heard concerns from neighbors regarding the noise. Located directly across Highway 218 from City Hall, the open-air track would border on a residential neighborhood to the north and east.

According to a letter sent by City Administrator Andrew Langholz to adjacent property owners, the track would likely be open seven days a week, from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.

Blooming Prairie resident Nathan Schumacher, who has been working with O’Connor to plan and oversee the project, said the track would operate on a membership basis. Anyone interested in using the facility could join, and then have access to the track during its hours of operation.

In April, Langholz reported that the track would likely host both electric and nitro-powered cars. In his letter to residents, he compared the noise from an electric car to that of a bicycle. He added that nitro-powered cars can be heard at about 83 decibels from a distance of 15 feet, which he approximated to be slightly quieter than a lawnmower.

Conditions placed on the permit’s approval by the Planning Commission and City Council include a 6-foot tall fence along the north and east property lines, as well as a minimum of seven on-site parking spots and signage indicating the track is for private use.

The fence was recommended to help mitigate the noise carrying over to nearby homes — a concern raised by both the Planning Commission and City Council.

“I’ve got a friend that lives over there,” said Clark, adding that he’d heard some concern from area homeowners. “He works nights, and I understand where he’s coming from.”

After a separate discussion at the April meeting of possibly closing down the Pine Springs Pool for the summer due to COVID-19, Newman added that the track could be a good alternative for families. As a former race car driver, Schumacher said he initially began remote-control racing last summer as a more affordable activity for him to do with his family.

“That’s how we spent our summer last year, my son and I,” said Schumacher. “[O’Connor] asked if it would be something good for the community, if we could put one up in Blooming Prairie, because he thought there’s not much for youth to do around town … he already had the property but wasn’t doing anything with it.”

Schumacher added that he’s willing to work with the city’s conditions, trying to balance noise concerns with giving members enough time to use the track. City Attorney Jason Iacovino said at the April meeting that, in the event the track gets approved and then doesn’t meet the attached conditions, the city would also have the authority to shut it down.

Although the May 11 council meeting will be held virtually due to the pandemic, Langholz will share any written comments submitted beforehand with officials and residents will be able to tune into the council chambers from home.

Following the public hearing, Langholz added that approval of the conditional use permit would also be an item on the night’s agenda, meaning council members will likely make a final decision on the fate of the track next week. After receiving the application late last month, Langholz added that the city has 60 days to either make a decision on the permit or submit a request for more time.