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Anach Cooperative planting its roots

Chrisa Herman, left, and Janet Emmis check out the flowers in the Anach garden. Duane Hastad of Heather Nursery of Montevideo and Dawson is working with the cooperative to help it raise cut flowers for sale at his stores. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MILAN — If there is a reason to believe a community of Pacific Island residents now making their home in the heart of Chippewa County can create their own homegrown business, it was to be seen last week.

While outside temperatures soared into the 90s, the temperature inside the kitchen of the Milan Community School popped the mercury at 105 degrees.

And yet, volunteers with the Anach Cooperative continued to slice, dice, boil and process their garden-grown peppers and tomatoes to make salsa and other home-canned products.

"When they talk about it, it seems like they're having fun,'' laughed Chrisa Herman, a high school junior, when asked what her parents think about the venture known as the Anach Cooperative.

Earlier this year, the United States Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, provided funding to allow the 185 Micronesian residents to form the cooperative. Anach, which means "Our Food, Our Path'' in the islanders' native tongue, aims to develop into a viable economic enterprise for the community.

The island residents make up about one-half of the population of Milan.

The community members planted an approximate 3-acre garden on the edge of Milan, and are now selling some of the fresh produce at a roadside stand along Minnesota Highway 7/U.S. Highway 59 in Milan.

They are also further processing a portion of their harvest, with a goal of opening a retail stand this autumn at the Kandi Mall in Willmar.

It's way too early to measure the economic viability of the plans, according to Robert Ryan, of Bird Island, who is working with the community to develop the cooperative.

"I think that our canned goods stand at the mall will be a good indicator,'' said Ryan of the cooperative's economic prospects.

The longer-term goal is to expand the further processing to produce salsas, soups and other goods that would be sold at retail outlets. The first of the goods for retail sale arrived last week at Bergen's Market in Milan.

All of this is part of a learning curve that has plenty of challenges. All of the cooperative members are from the island of Romanum in the Micronesian state of Chuuk.

Their traditional diet consists of tropical fare and seafood. None had any prior experience growing the vegetables familiar to Minnesotans.

From sweet corn to pumpkins, they are learning. The garden has had its setbacks, including a "burn out'' period when a shortage of garden volunteers made it difficult to keep up with the weeding.

Yet the garden, served by a drip irrigation system, is producing bumper crops of sweet corn and vegetables, not to mention color. Two long rows are devoted to a wide variety of flowers being raised with help from Duane Hastad of Heather Nursery in Montevideo and Dawson. He's made known his interest in purchasing cut flowers for retail sale.

Janet Emmis, a community resident serving as coordinator, nods in agreement when asked if community members are supportive of the venture. While no one expects a profit out of this year's venture, the garden has served to introduce the community residents to fresh foods that were otherwise unfamiliar to many, noted Ryan.

The real measure of success will be whether the cooperative ultimately serves to create paying jobs for the community residents, said Ryan. All of the Micronesian residents living in Milan are employed outside of the community, mainly at meat processing industries in Montevideo and elsewhere.

The close-knit community is very family-oriented, and its residents want to create more employment opportunities in Milan, he explained.

"As soon as we start producing jobs, that will make all the difference,'' he said.

Tom Cherveny

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

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