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Milan, Minn.'s, Micronesian community hopes to launch cooperative to expand economic opportunities

Milan's Micronesian community is exploring the possibility of creating a cooperative to expand its economic opportunities in the community. Erika, left, and Josia Raymond and their child, EJ, visit with Robert Ryan, right, about the plans. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MILAN -- More than a century ago, immigrant farmers on the Chippewa County prairie organized some of the state's earliest cooperatives to improve their economic prospects.

It's the same economic model that Milan's present-day Micronesian community is turning to for similar reasons.

Members of the community held the first organizational meeting this week for what they hope will become the Anach Cooperative. In Micronesia, "anach" means "our food.'' One of the goals is for the cooperative to raise, process and market ethnic foods.

But the cooperative is only in the formative stage. Community members are also examining the possibility of developing other products based on the melding of their native culture with that of the U.S. The colorful skirts and clothing favored by women in the community, and unique handcrafts, are possible products.

Community members are looking for more job opportunities in Milan, and hope the cooperative can help provide them, according to Erika Raymond, one of the cooperative's organizers.

Milan's Micronesian community represents about one-half of the 369 people in the western Chippewa County community, according to Robert Ryan of Bird Island. Ryan initially proposed the idea of the cooperative to the community and sought grant funds for it.

This week the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development announced it will award $163,000 to provide technical assistance toward the cooperative's development.

The funding will allow Ryan to tap resources in private industry and the public sector to help the Micronesian community identify possible products and markets, and develop them.

Milan's newest residents are from an island in the Federated States of Micronesia that is no more than one mile square, and shrinking due to rising sea levels. The island of Romanum is among 40 different islands comprising Chuuk (formerly Truk), one of four states making up the island federation in the southwest Pacific.

The islands are part of a U.S. protectorate. A compact between the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia allows its residents to work and stay in the U.S., although they are not U.S. citizens.

The connection to Milan developed in the early 1980s. Milan native and current president of the Prairie Sun Bank, Erik Thompson, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia. In 2000, some of the island residents came to Milan to live and work.

Their numbers have grown steadily since. More people are coming to Milan for jobs, and those that do are mainly young couples. They have created a small baby boom in this area where the demographics show an otherwise aging population.

Opportunities are better here, said Raymond. The community appreciates the education available to their children as much as the opportunity for jobs, she explained.

The Micronesians work mainly in the area's food processing industries. Some commute the 15 or so miles to the Jennie-O Turkey Store plant in Montevideo, but others work at facilities in Willmar, 40 miles away. Others are also working on turkey farms in the Appleton, Benson and Montevideo areas.

Raymond noted that the Micronesian community is very close-knit, and wants to stay together in Milan.

"We do everything together,'' she said.

The families join often for outdoor volleyball, games and picnics during the summer. They move the activities indoors to the Milan school building during the winter.

The building no longer serves as a school. The Greater Milan Initiative acquired it in 2007 and maintains it as a community resource. It holds a fully equipped kitchen, gymnasium, thrift store and exercise center. It also holds looms for the Milan Village Arts School.

The building and its kitchen are among the resources available locally for the cooperative, said Ann Thompson, owner of Billy's Maple Tree store in downtown Milan. Thompson said the Milan area also has a number of local food producers who have succeeded in marketing their products in the region and in the Twin Cities. She sees possible opportunities for partnerships with the cooperative.

Ryan emphasizes that the cooperative's products are yet to be determined, but there is no doubt that much of the early interest is on foods. To be sure, Milan's soils or climate are not suitable for the tropical plants, such as cassava, that are staples of the Micronesian diet.

Raymond pointed out that members of the community in Milan have adapted their traditional diets to the foods available here, and often mix the two. Ryan said the dishes and foods of the community are fantastic, and he believes they have great potential if properly marketed elsewhere.

The success of the Anach Cooperative will depend entirely on the local residents, according to Ryan. If community members support and take ownership of the cooperative, it can succeed. The cooperative will be formed as an "open'' cooperative, the same model relied by the area's first immigrant settlers.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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