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Maggie Sullivan: Director of Bloomington's Local Growers Guild

Today on the podcast, Maggie Sullivan, the director of our Local Growers Guild, talks about her journey, how she got involved with the local growers market and helped it become a jewel in the crown of Bloomington's Green movement. Â A truly Green Goddess of Hoosierland!

Complete Interview With Maggie Sullivan

Listen to our complete interview (MP3) with Maggie Sullivan, or read the transcript below:

Daniel Orr: Today I'm here with Maggie Sullivan, from the local growers guild, at Green Drinks at Upland Brewery in Bloomington Indiana. So, Maggie, will you please tell me what you're going to be speaking about here today?

Maggie Sullivan: Well, I'm going to be talking about local food and why local food is an important component of sustainability. So, talking about how it affects our carbon footprint what we eat depending on how it was produced, where it was produced, how it was transported to us and some of the advantages of buying locally grown food.

Bloomington Born and Raised

DO: Bloomington seems to be a very special place. It does have a lot of people who are very interested in the green movement and sustainability. Did you look for a community like this for those reasons or how did end up here?

MS: I'm actually a Bloomington native. I grew up here, and then left for about ten years. I went to Purdue University to study engineering and then lived in France for a year, worked in Indianapolis for a few years working as an environmental consultant, and when I moved back to Bloomington, I was very excited about getting involved with sustainability and at the time I was also really interested in food production. My degree is actually in agricultural engineering, so I've always been interested in how do we grow our food and how can we do it in a sustainable way.

A Year Abroad

DO: How did that year in France change your life?

MS: It was great. It was an amazing culture shock at first, but I really loved being in a different country and getting to travel all around Europe and meeting all kinds of different people, so it was a great experience.

DO: Where were you in France?

MS: I was in Toulouse, in southern France.

DO: I worked in Osse for a little while, which is very near Toulouse and has some of the same interest in cassoulet and foie gras and all of those dishes from the southwest of France (MS: nice, absolutely).

DO: So, do you think that experience had some influence on you getting interested in the food movement by experiencing the European way of living and buying food in little markets and things like that?

MS: I think it did. I was actually working at an agricultural university over there and a woman came who was the ambassador from the United States agricultural department gave a talk about how people have this concept of France being very advanced and having all of these small farms and she said it's not true, France is not any better than the United States; most of the food is mass produced and there are only a small number of artisans things just like in the United States.

I was very offended and I said no way!, French food is so much better than what I have at home, but coming back it's true we have different levels of food production going on in both countries: big mega farms in some areas and a lot of small artisanal producers as well, but I think France really has a much, much stronger food culture than we have here in the United States.

DO: But I tell you what it's harder and harder to find a good croissant in France because now they are mass-produced, and they aren't using butter and they're not using fresh ingredients. It has become much more Americanized, and in that way I think that she probably is right.

When I lived and worked in France, 15, almost 20 years ago, it hadn't gotten quite as bad as it is now, but they are losing a lot of their culture and that's why we need to scratch and hold on to every bit of it we can here in Southern Indiana.

MS: I agree.

The Local Growers Guild

DO: What is your day to day job with the growers guild and what do the local farms and farmers have to offer that you've found to be really intriguing and positive?

MS: Well, Bloomington has a great local food culture already and part of that is the farmers market that we have for the last thirty years and has been very successful and people are very excited about it. Lots of people go there every week and it's been able to support a lot of small local farms that have sprung up. Either people who are already farming changing over to do more food production instead of your more traditional corn, soybeans, and hogs, or the back to the land movement of people who just really want to grow food.

As all these farms have developed it's become clear that these small farms are not really well served by the traditional farm support systems that are more geared to commodity agriculture.

These local farmers need some help in terms of networking and strengthening one another and finding new markets and that was how the growers guild was formed, as a way that small food producers could come together and support each other, whether it's exchanging information, or sharing equipment, or sharing marketing tips, doing some joint marketing efforts, and that's a lot of what we try and do.

My job has been focused a lot on consumer education and on putting together some basic infrastructure for the guild. I've been here for three years. I was there when they first hired a director.

So, It's been a lot of really basic things like setting up a database, setting up a website, putting out a newsletter to allow people to share information with one another, having some events, doing some promotion. Our goal is really to educate, support, connect and I feel that we are doing a good job of it.

The Bloomington Kitchen Incubator

DO: Tell me about the incubator kitchen that you're working on.

MS: This was a project that got some initial funding for the local growers guild and the idea is to start a business incubator that specializes in food businesses. And one of the biggest challenges for starting a specialty food business is getting access to a licensed commercial kitchen.

As you know, it can be very expensive to build one and if you want to make cheesecakes, or you're a small farmer who wants to take their tomatoes and turn them into salsa, it doesn't really make sense to build a whole facility.

So, the local growers guild, Middle Way house, and a number of other agencies came together to get a grant from the US Department of Agricultural to help create a kitchen facility that people can rent that are starting small food businesses. Also, to setup the Bloomington kitchen incubator which provides support for, how do you write a business plan, how do you navigate all the health code requirements, how do you get your marketing plan in line, and all of those sorts of things.

DO: In a small town, you always need someone to help you and one hand kind of washes the other. Tell me how you, the farmers, and some of these other groups work together to come up with one product and market it-which would be the local growers guild?

MS: When the Growers Guild originally formed it was just farmers getting together and supporting each other. We realize that farmers are only part of the equation, if you really want to have a strong local food economy, you have to involve community members, you have to involve businesses, especially food businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores in addition to the local government and other agencies that are working on food issues.

We've been doing a variety of collaborations and partnerships. The Bloomington kitchen incubator, a part of that grant involved Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, the Center for Sustainable Living, Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

The City of Bloomington runs a great community gardening program, so part of what we talk about too is helping people grow their own food. You know, the ultimate local food comes from your backyard.

And then we work with a lot of businesses, retailers, FARM has been great restaurant to work with, Upland Brewery, Nick's; we have a lot of retailers interested in supporting local growers because they think the quality of food is better and they are really dedicated to supporting local farmers and the local food economy.

DO: I would like, as a small business owner, restaurant owner, to have kind of a central warehouse that we could buy wholesale ingredients from and then also some of these small businesses could, let's say, buy a bunch of strawberries and make strawberry jam and sell that to the public.

It's difficult for restauranteurs and small businesspeople to go around to a lot of different farms and pick up different ingredients, and if there warehouse where you could go and say buy a full case of swiss chard where maybe one farmers didn't have enough to fill that case, combine it all together and package it, I think that would be a great help for restauranteurs and other people who want to use the incubator.

MS: Distribution is something we talk about a lot, and we're actually finishing up a grant, a project funded by the Indiana State Department of Agricultural doing a feasibility study of how can we really improve local food distribution, and part of the issue that we're dealing with is sort of a chicken and egg scenario that a lot of our growers grow for the farmers market and they want more markets, but they're hesitant to grow a lot more if they don't know that they can sell it. So, coming up with increased production and making sure that everything is sold is one challenge that we're trying to deal with.

And in terms of setting up a warehouse, a lot of that, I think we're lacking expertise. I've talked with several groups. There's a group called Grasshoppers in Louisville where a group of farmers came together to do exactly what you're describing. They've really struggled to make it work financially because there's a lot of logistics involved. You know, what happens if a farmer grows all of these tomatoes and then the distributor can't sell all of them, who takes the loss: the farmer or the distributor? Who's going to pay for all of the trucks and all of the warehouses? But it's definitely something we're looking at.

And we're kind of looking at, should we start with some baby steps. One of the things we've talked about is setting up a website where farmers every week would post what they have available and chefs could post their orders. The farmers would still make their own deliveries and then as it developed, they could start sharing deliveries with each other and then maybe we could start to get to the point where it really made sense to have that centralized warehouse. And part of it is bringing in some people who know a little bit more about the business, so we've been talking with distributors in town, trying to get a feel for what would it take to run something like that? [laughs] I'm not ready to take it on, but I think it would be great to have one.

DO: I've just heard some quote that farmers only make something like 3 or 10 cents for every dollar of goods they sell in the supermarket. Have you heard that?

MS: I have and I'm trying to remember the number, but it was pretty pathetically low.

DO: It seems that they do all the hard labor, but the people who market it make all the money. So, it would be nice to be able to turn the equation around.

MS: Absolutely.

DO: So, if there is anything I can do to help, let me know.

MS: Great, definitely.

Annie Corrigan: You know we have that on tape.

ALL: [laugh]

You're So Young!

AC: I'm sorry I have to jump in. you are so young! And that was one of the first things I noticed about you and that you're in this amazing position. Where do you see your career going in like five or ten years and how did you get here at such a young age?

MS: First of all, I'm older than I look, I'll be turning 31 this year;

AC: [laughing] that's still young...

MS: Some people think, oh you're 18 how are you doing this? Well, I'm not 18. My career has already been pretty interesting. I studied agricultural engineering and I really wanted to do environmental consulting work. I did that for about five years until I burnt out, feeling like I wasn't making a difference, a lot of what I was doing was the bare minimum of cleaning up these environmental issues, and it's hard. There's a lot of good work to be done but it's hard to stay enthusiastic about everything.

So, I'm a professional engineer by training but I got a little frustrated with that world and actually left and went to Oregon for about six months and studied permaculture. If you're not familiar with permaculture, it's a form of sustainable agricultural that's sort of systems approach to working with the land and working with the resources available. I sum it up with a phrase: "Waste is a verb. In nature there is no waste, it's just a question of whether you can find a place to put that resource or not. Animal manure is not a waste, it's fertilizer, but it has to be integrated back into the system." Permaculture has a lot of techniques for how to do that effectively.

DO: And it's a very low carbon footprint type of farming, and very low till.

MS: Generally yeah, so a lot emphasis on perennials, a lot of emphasis on low till or no till, on human labor, animal labor, instead of tractors, but still producing a lot of food on a small area.

So I came back to Bloomington, and I played the game I like to call "Hi, my name is Maggie and I'm interested in sustainability. You tell me what you do and three people you know who are also interested in sustainability," and it was actually really effective, I met a lot of people who are really passionate about different aspects. I started hanging around with the Local Growers Guild and was interested in what they were doing. The timing worked that they were hiring a director and I was the only one who wasn't a farmer coming to the meetings. So, I got on board.

DO: [laughs]

AC: That's a great story.

MS: I'm actually stepping down at the end of July.

ALL: [laugh]

So What's Next?

AC: It's a good thing we got you right now. So, what's next for you then?

MS: I'm actually going to go work for an organic seed company that is starting up in Bloomington. The idea is, you know, it used to be farmers would save their own seed and then replant from year to year, a gardeners would do the same, but over the last 50 years that's really changed, and people generally buy their own seed every year. Some of that has to do with hybrids being set up where they don't come true to seed, and part of it is just a cultural shift, but it's really hard to find local organic seed. This business aims to get some farmers in the area growing vegetable seeds. So, if you want to buy some Indiana organic heirloom tomato seeds or some Indiana organic heirloom lettuce that will be the place to go.

DO: So, I'll have to come back and visit you then and learn about seeds.

MS: Oh yeah, I'll be around, no worries there. And I'll still be involved in local food.

AC: So, it's more of a lifestyle/life choice for you.

MS: Well, my job now is 15 hours a week, which is nice, but it means I have to have another job. I do environmental education for my other job, which I'm also very excited about, but having two, sometimes three jobs and running between them all gets a little overwhelming at times. So, I'm looking forward to having one job.

AC: [joking] Lazy, I call that lazy.

ALL: [laughing]

MS: Yeah, yeah, I know.

DO: So, we've been speaking with Maggie Sullivan, from the Local Growers Guild and learning all about green drinks and green living and enjoying a beautiful sunny day in a parking lot in Bloomington Indiana.

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