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Renewing the Countryside celebrates two decades of connecting farmers – InForum

Renewing the Countryside celebrates two decades of connecting farmers – InForum

ST. PAUL – What began as a book in the early 2000s is now a library of connections that is renewing the landscape.

Renewing the Countryside is known for its annual events, including the Minnesota State Fair exposition, FEAST! Local Foods Fair and Marketplace, and the Farmland Summit. The organization is also known for its farmland access and farmers markets, Farm to School, Farm to Early Care, on-farm events, farm transitions, conservation connections, urban agriculture microgrants, and more.

Patrice Bailey, deputy director of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, called “Renewing the Countryside” a win for the entire agricultural industry.

“Renewing the Countryside is an amazing organization,” Bailey said. “It’s an aggregator with a lot of partnerships with so many other agricultural groups.”

Jan Joannides, executive director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, said her master’s thesis was the impetus for founding the organisation.

“I visited farms and other interesting sustainable projects all over Minnesota and was then introduced to a book in the Netherlands called ‘Renewing the Landscape,'” Joannides said. “That was my inspiration.”

What began as a book describing only Minnesota farms later expanded to include surrounding states.

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Renewal of Countryside books at the nonprofit’s celebratory fundraiser at Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul on June 27, 2024.

Noah Fish / Agweek

“We would basically help them collect stories and put together books for their states to really show that there is a critical mass of these innovative things happening in the country,” she said.

The response to the books prompted Joannides to co-found Renewing the Countryside with her husband, Brett Olson, as a nonprofit organization.

Joannides said they realized there were people throughout the Midwest who were interested in starting their own sustainable projects but lacked the resources or motivation to do so. Renewing the Countryside filled that gap.

“Whether it’s connecting people or finding places where farmers can connect with school lunch directors or with chefs, or where farmers need access to some of the USDA services that are available but have never done so before,” Joannides said.

This has led Renewing the Countryside to be active in so many areas of agriculture and the local food industry in Minnesota and surrounding states that Joannides says it’s difficult to summarize the organization’s mission in one succinct description.

“Twenty years later, I still don’t have a good short presentation,” she said. “We see everything, in the food and agriculture systems and also in rural communities, and see the connections between the systems.”

“Renewing the Countryside” has succeeded in uncovering layers of systems that would otherwise be difficult for producers to detect.

“Sometimes we see things that people who are really focused on one part and doing great work in one part don’t see that there’s something else going on and maybe we could connect that,” she said. “We try not to stay in silos – we try to move between the silos.”

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Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen speaks with Jan Joannides, executive director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside, at the FEAST! Local Foods Marketplace on November 5, 2022 in Rochester, Minnesota.

Noah Fish / Agweek

Joannides said they are particularly proud of a recent Renewing the Countryside project, the Farmers’ Market Hubs, which now operate in nine communities. It started when Sara George, a farmer in Wabasha, saw a way to get agricultural products to market faster.

“She said that seems like a good thing. If we can collect food at the market, that would be a way in smaller towns to get it to schools and hospitals and a way to start a CSA in communities where there aren’t farmers running CSAs,” Joannides said. “It’s not huge amounts of money that are being transferred, but it’s important money for the farmers and communities that wouldn’t have many markets otherwise.”

Renewing the Countryside currently employs 16 people and works with around 60 contractors, most of whom are farmers.

“I can’t even count the number of our partners,” Joannides said. “We work with so many different partner organizations.”

After about seven or eight years with the nonprofit, Joannides was fired by her board as executive director because the organization did not have the necessary funds. She continued as a volunteer, but wondered at the time if the funds would be sufficient to continue productively.

“There’s always been work, but can you find the funding to get it done and keep it going?” she said. “We used to hire people and I’d say, ‘Okay, I just have to tell you we can promise you a job for six months, because I don’t know if we have any money beyond that. Now I’m confident it’s two years.'”

But Joannides never believed there was more fulfilling work than Renewing the Countryside.

“There have been ups and downs, but I just really love this job and I love the people we work with,” she said. “I think that’s one of the best things, whether it’s the people in the community, the staff or our partner organizations – they’re just really good people.”

Noah Fish

I’m a general assignment agricultural reporter covering everything from food to land, farm emergencies and co-op mergers to fairs and 4-H fundraisers, using multiple media elements. I favor stories that highlight the power of people.

As an agricultural reporter, I have covered the opioid crisis, sheepdogs, trade wars, collapsed barns, the COVID-19 pandemic, migrant farmers, regenerative poultry farming, farmland transition, milking robots, world-record pumpkins, cannabis pasteurization, cranberry country, and horseradish kings.

I report from northeast Rochester, Minnesota, where I live with my wife, Kara, and our polite cat, Zena. Email me at [email protected]