February 2012 Archives

Everyday Heroes: Behind the Scenes Business Bring Food to Small Towns

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Many of us take for granted the invisible food system that keeps the shelves stocked in our local grocery stores. In fact, many small towns take for granted that they will have a local grocery store until that store is in jeopardy or disappears off of Main Street altogether. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture released a map of "food deserts" in the United States. A rural place is labeled as a food desert when it is more than 10 miles to the largest "supermarket or large grocery." All of Big Stone County, with the exception of the City of Ortonville, is labeled a food desert. Here we are in the heart of farm country and yet considered a food desert.

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Don W, active community member, and Holly K, employee at Bonnie's Hometown Grocery in Clinton, MN


A person could argue with being labeled a "food desert" since there are three grocery stores that serve this particular area-- Bonnie's Home Town Grocery in Clinton, Beardsley Country Market, and Graceville Country Market. I began my quest to find out how food comes to a rural food desert by asking Bonnie, owner of Bonnie's Hometown Grocery, where her groceries come from--the answer: Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocers of Wadena, Minnesota.


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Mason Brothers delivery to Bonnie's Hometown Grocery, Clinton, MN February 24


That led to a recent trip to Wadena, MN (population 4,000) where Mason Brothers Wholesale Grocery is headquartered to get a first hand view of the business behind our rural food distribution system. This family owned business has been supplying food to rural communities since 1920. I met with Muryln Kreklau, Mason Brothers Sales Manager, who gave me a tour and an education about bringing food to rural communities. Muryln has been with Mason Bros. for 39 years. He started working there as a teenager instead of going into his families dairy operation. Murlyn moved up the ranks to his current position and along the way developed a great deal of knowledge about the economics and viability of small town stores.


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Bonnie's Hometown Grocery, Clinton, MN

Mason Brothers: Serving Small Place
Mason Brothers is a full service grocery wholesaler that delivers to approximately 260 grocery stores throughout rural Minnesota, eastern North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Mason Bros. is very unique in that the majority of stores they service have populations of less than 1,000. Anecdotally, they have observed that it is economically feasible for nearly any wholesale grocer to supply towns with population of 3,200 and above. SuperValu, a national chain with a strong regional presence, commonly provides wholesale groceries to towns with populations of 1,800 and greater and occasionally to communities with populations as low as 1,200.

Because of their routes to the smallest of small towns, Murlyn and the drivers have a front row seat and an important back door function in keeping food on the shelves of rural towns. After a couple hours touring the Mason Bros. facilities, I realized what an asset they are to our rural food system--getting meat, fresh bakery products, dairy, and fresh produce to some of the smallest and more isolated stores out here in our so-called "food desert."


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Dave Bernstetter, new driver for Mason Brothers, unloading food for Bonnie's Hometown Grocery of Clinton, MN


Actually delivering the groceries to Bonnie's Hometown Grocery is no small feat. Bonnie's has no loading dock and it took a great deal of skill to maneuver that large semi-truck through the alley to the back door of the store. Bob Warner and Dave Bernstetter, 14 years and 1 week with the company, respectively, are the Mason Brothers drivers who delivered to Bonnie's Hometown Grocery this week. They start their day around 4:30am at Mason Brother headquarters in Wadena, Minnesota. By 6pm tonight they will have delivered groceries to 8 towns in Minnesota and South Dakota, unloading by hand a semi full of pallets of food. There's a great deal of physical labor involved in delivering and stocking the shelves with food. The people of Clinton, Graceville, Ashby, Evansville and Wilmot South Dakota- to name a few- will have fresh produce, meat, frozen and canned fruits and veggies, and baked goods thanks to these gentlemen.


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Dave Warner, Bonnie, and Holly K in the back of Bonnie's Homegrown Grocery.


In addition to Dave and Bob, there are around 260 people employed by Mason Brothers, making them the largest employer in Wadena, Minnesota. In walking through the front offices and touring the warehouse, the staff seemed relaxed and happy. The "campus" includes a gym and a pool that is available to all of the employees and their families. The warehouse facilities are state of the art, organized, and clean. They provide a USDA inspected meat cutting facility for those small town groceries that don't have their own meat cutting equipment. Their bakery, Abby's, prepares custom ordered breads, cakes, cookies, buns and rolls that are baked overnight and on the shelf in grocery stores the same day.


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Abby's Bakery products same day delivery to Clinton, Minnesota


Community Matters! Challenges for Small Town Grocery Stores
"Unless something is done, small town groceries are going away" say the Mason Brothers Sales Manager after a tour of their facilities. "It's a problem there's not an answer to-yet." "Somehow, community is a part of the solution. Like investing in a community center and gathering place."

Murlyn gets many calls from people with questions about starting small town grocery stores. As a result, he's developed his own set of spreadsheets to do projections that help people determine the feasibility (profit and loss) of these small town stores. In the past few years high energy costs hurt small, rural groceries and as a result a number of small town grocery stores were shuttered and closed down. In fact, Mason Brothers has seen the turnover of around 60 of their 260 stores since 2007 alone. Murlyn is eager to discuss factors that contribute to the health and sustainability of rural groceries.

One of the key factors in having a small town grocery is to have a building that the grocery can afford. Very low building/rent costs are important to making the balance sheets balance. It's really difficult to buy an existing old store, make the payments for that business, and generate profits. The grocery business runs on thin margins of between 1-3%, as does Mason Brothers. Murlyn has seen some very inspiring examples of how small towns overcome the barriers associated with housing their rural grocery. For example, in Hope, North Dakota (population 258) the roof of Mick's Grocery was caving in. Mick had decided that it didn't pay to repair it and so was planning to close his store. The community realized they needed to rally around their town's grocery and so the city built a community center that includes a restaurant and space for the family owned grocery store. This is a great example of a public-private partnership that works to the benefit of a rural community and perhaps a needed model to overcoming rural food deserts.

In response to my questions about cooperative and community own grocery stores, Murlyn was quick to point out that in his 30 year experience the "mom and pop" owned stores fare better and stay open longer than other ownership forms. Mason Brothers supplies groceries to any store, regardless of ownership structure and have seen some community owned stores that work, but sadly more do not. It's hard to run a grocery store by committee and the amount of time and energy (to quote the "long, hard hours") that a family owned stores invests goes beyond that of most volunteers and employees.

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Larry Anderson, president of the Big Stone County Farmers' Union, in front of the food order for the Big Stone County Emergency Food Shelf.


There is much more that can be said about providing safe, healthy food for rural area in America. A lot of effort, organization, and business acumen plays out every day in keeping Main Street small town grocery stores open. Mason Brothers is a welcomed part of that food system for which small town grocers, like Bonnie Carlson, are grateful. Maybe you'll look differently at the circular that came with today's Northern Star Newspaper and notice the Mason Brothers name and logo on the lower right hand side. I know that I will.

Dexter meet Angus-- Angus, Dexter

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Introducing new cattle to our herd-- a family affair

We've had some excitement around the farm in the past few weeks. Mike went to the cattle auction in Benson, Minnesota knowing there'd be some great Angus stock-- bred for grassfed production-- on the block. The Lowline Angus heifers were coming from Prairie Horizons Farm- near Starbuck, and having toured their operation, we were excited to be building a herd based on Luverne Forbord's expertise, genetic selection, and care.

It was a great event opening the cattle trailer and letting the baby Angus jump out and run into our pasture. All five us, the two dogs, and our dozen Dexter cattle hopping around with excitement.

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We'd put our 'guard mule' in the barn as dear old Rusty was never happy when any new creature came into his pasture. On the plus side, we've never lost a single calf to a predator, whereas our neighbor has. Also, last spring when the skunks were coming out of hibernation, Rusty would stomp to death any skunk that wandered into the pasture. He killed three of them that we saw or found.

Bad part was, Rusty didn't care for having anything new in the pasture-- including the calves. Rusty could count (note I'm using the past tense here) and so 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9 cows did not equate when they started calving and we now had 10-11-12-13. So he harassed the calves nearly from the moment they were born. We'd tie Rusty up until he got over it. But he was never fond of the new additions.

So the day after we got the new Angus calves and everyone was playing nice in the pasture, we let Rusty out to meet the new additions. I'm putting it mildly to say that all hell broke lose. Rusty saw 5 intruders in the pasture and went into kill mode-- chasing, biting, kicking, braying wildly. He mercilessly chased our new Angus calves until in utter self preservation they burst through the fence and headed for the hills.

Now we had our new, and relatively expensive, beautiful Lowline Angus cattle fanning out across the wild prairie landscape-- some went south, the others went northeast. Again, the whole family was out in the fields and spreading out across 100's of acres to try to find the cattle. A couple of them went into the slough grass behind our house-- which is about 6-8 feet high. It was impossible to even hear or see them. We tromped through, but only flushed out a big buck. Some of the cattle had crossed out of our section, so we drove around trying to spot them. Keep in mind-- we've had no snow this winter so there was no tracking we could do. Also, black calves do not stand out on expanses of black soil. The sun set with our cattle out in the wild.

Believe me there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over losing our brand new baby calves. Not the least of which was-- "I hope Luverne doesn't find out what we've done with his lovely little calves!!" All sorts of dangers lurk outside the pasture-- many coyotes, timber wolves sighted close to our farm, and I've seen a cougar. Also, with no snow there is no water for the cattle-- they can't go long without water.

So we called the Sheriff to let him know we had a few 350 pound cattle roaming the back roads (quite the road hazard), sheepishly called all our neighbors, and then reluctantly called it into the local radio station. You know, the local AM station that broadcasts all the local birthdays, deaths, and fool farmers who lost their cattle.

Two days later, two cattle were standing about 1/4 mile outside our dining room window-- thirsty, tired, and happy to be led home. That left three missing.

Our neighbors seemed rather endeared to us for losing our cattle. I guess our public radio humiliation made them remember all the mess ups they'd been in. A surprising number of farmers called with their own tales of losing cattle and chasing them through tall corn for weeks on end.

Mike (with a little help from me) spent the next 8 days walking through all the tall slough grass within a couple miles of our farm-- believe me that's a lot of slough grass (remember- we live in a USGS map section officially named "The Dismal Swamp"). On day 10, we got a call that our cattle were in a field 3 miles east of us. With the help of neighbor Russ, his wife and kids, we got our cattle into their fenced farmstead and brought them back home. These three were big and healthy-- having had their fill of all the grass and leftover corn between our farm and Russ'.

If only that were the end of the story. Rusy took up permanent residence in the barn- away from the cattle. Even so, a couple days later, the Sheriff called us and said there were cattle on the blacktop road to the west. Some other poor schmuck had his cattle get out. Mike, now owing the neighbors a helping hand in return, got in our minivan and headed out to help. Yup, you guessed it. They were our cattle again.

With the help of the Kellen boys-- the kind of young men you want to populate an agricultural county- these kids handle animals, vehicles, tractors, and more-- we corralled the 5 Angus and got them back home.

Rusty was a good mule and now he's in a better place. We sold him for $.50 to a nice grandfather in South Dakota who has grandkids, but no livestock.

We should have gotten rid of Rusty months ago. He may have protected the cattle, but overall didn't help our operation. For example, we find ourselves calving in January because Rusty wouldn't let the Dexter bull anywhere near the Dexter cows. And until Rusty was gone, I didn't realize what a menace he was to the young stock. Once he was off the farm-- all the babies ran around chasing each other, tails up in the air. I am seeing now how happy little pasture calves frolic, when free from the tyranny of oppression. And hopefully-- they'll now stay in the pasture.

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