Pastures A Plenty: Building a local foods economy by pioneering the path to the world
Gruff truck drivers, road-weary travelers from the Twin Cities and South Dakota, moms and dads from town, and lots of Clara City natives home for a visit, all arriving with big smiles.
It doesn’t matter.
When they open either of two freezer doors at the Cenex C-Store on Minnesota Highway 7 in Clara City, Laurie Woodring instantly knows what they have in common.
They all love the flavorful pork raised on the Pastures A Plenty farm north of town by two generations of the VanDerPol family.
“It’s really a mix,’’ said Woodring in reference to the diversity of customers who make a steady beeline to the two freezer doors in the C-Store.
Woodring, manager of the C-Store, said it has dedicated freezer space to Pastures A Plenty meats for more than a decade. Demand for the meats has only grown, she said.
Yes, it owes greatly to what Jim and LeeAnn, their son Josh and daughter-in-law Cindy do on the Pastures A Plenty farm. They raise breeds of hogs that produce the tastiest pork, while they offer the animals the best of environments, with fresh air, forage feeds and lots of room indoors too.
Yet as the VanDerPols knew from the start of their meat business in 1999, the world won’t beat a path to your door just because you raise the best. The growth of the Pastures A Plenty meat business has a lot to do with beating a path to the world, putting their meat in nearly two dozen different locations.
The most important path runs east to the Twin Cities, Duluth and Stillwater, where in total, roughly 70 percent of the Pastures A Plenty products still go today, according to the family. Outlets range from popular food cooperatives and restaurants to a one-person cart hawking Pastures A Plenty brats around the state capitol.
The local network is growing too. The Clara City C-Store leads the way, but Bill’s Supermarket in Montevideo, and local food outlets such as Kadejan in Glenwood and Pomme De Terre Foods in Morris provide good sales too.
And since 2007, more people have started to beat a path right to the farm. The VanDerPols erected their own, on-site retail store to replace the trailer they once hauled to farmer’s markets.
It’s a long way from where things were in 1998, when the bottom fell out on the hog market. Jim and LeeAnn had been farming for more than two decades, selling their hogs on the market like everyone else. They made the difficult decision of bringing their animals to slaughter just to end the feed bill. The owners of the slaughter house told Jim he ought to consider selling his own products.
“I thought, that will never work to any size,’’ said Jim. “But then I thought, ‘well geeze, nothing I’ve done so far farming has worked. I mean, really, I’m not on easy street, that’s for sure.’ I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘let’s give it a try.’’’
Josh and Cindy were enthusiastic proponents, but being pioneers in local foods as a business venture was not easy.
What today are some of their most popular products — bacon and ham — were the most difficult to sell at first, leaving them with lots of inventory to hold.
“You hear how a business will usually fail in the first five years,’’ said LeeAnn. “Those first five years were pretty stressful.’’
An opportunity to sell meats through another up and coming local foods market — Kadejan in Glenwood — proved to be the big break they needed, said the VanDerPols.
They credit much of the success to fortunate timing, too. The demand for local foods was just starting to grow as they ventured into it, and so was another phenomenon. “We landed right at the beginning of people discovering their kitchen stove again,’’ said Jim.
The Land Stewardship Project and its work to promote local foods through the Pride of the Prairie network played a big role too. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Minnesota Grown directory and the family’s own website are also important marketing venues.
Yet make no mistake, marketing local foods requires something more than mass marketing and developing a network of customers and retail outlets.
It depends greatly on building direct relationships with customers, said the VanDerPols.
They personally answer emails and the telephone calls from customers who contact them weekly with questions ranging from what’s in their spice mixes to what are they feeding their animals.
People want to know the farmer producing their food, said Cindy. Many are the times when she has delivered meat to outlets in the Twin Cities only to be greeted by a customer with a friend in tow. “Here, I have to have you meet our farmer,’’ they tell her.
The VanDerPols keep their customers informed through a newsletter and emails about happenings on the farm, and it matters.
“People are really hungry for that. People really want to hear about it,’’ said Jim.
The meat business continues to grow and the VanDerPols are in the process of expanding a barn.
They are also looking at the possibility of reaching out to other farmers to raise hogs for them. They have developed a protocol to assure that the ultra-lean genetics favored in large, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations do not taint their stock.
In an era when farms around them grow larger and the rural population gets smaller, the VanDerPols are supporting two families on a 320-acre site. Josh and Cindy are parents to three children, and the third generation is expressing interest in life on the farm too.
“I know what we are doing is kind of small in the big view of things, but maybe it will spark a few things,’’ said Jim. “It’s a big market out there and we are just interested in selling to a very small minority of it.’’
If you can’t make it to the farm, here’s where you can find Pastures A Plenty meat:
Barbette, 1600 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis
Bryant Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis
Café Mn –History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd W. St. Paul
Eastside Food Coo-op, 2551 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Linden Hills Co-op, 2813 W. 43rd Street, Minneapolis
Mississippi Market-Selby, 622 Selby Ave., St. Paul
Red Stag, 509 1st Ave., NE, Minneapolis
River Market Community Co-op, 221 N. Main St. Stillwater
Seward Café, 2129 E. Franklin Ave. Minneapolis
Seward Community Co-op, 2111 E. Franklin Ave. Minneapolis
The Strip Club Meat & Fish, 378 Maria Ave. St. Paul
Chester Creek Café, 1902 E. 8th St. Duluth
Whole Foods Community Co-op, 610 E. 4th St. Duluth
Other Minnesota locations
Bill’s Supermarket, 132 W. Nichols Ave. Montevideo
Bootlegger’s Supper Club, 1940 11th Ave. Granite Falls
Dan & Becky’s Market, 5636 Oliver Ave. SW, Cokato
Farmers Co-op Oil Co. Convenience Store, Highway 7, Clara City
Farmers Co-op Oil Co. Convenience Store, Sacred Heart
Hope Market, 331 2nd Avenue. W. Echo
Kadejan, Box 311, Glenwood
Natural Foods Market, 230 N. Sibley Ave. Litchfield
Pomme De Terre Foods, 613 Atlantic Ave. Morris
To learn more, visit the Pasture A Plenty website: http://www.pasturesaplenty.com/