Women’s Environmental Institute

9 09 2009

By Emily Larson

DSC_8527Smooth, new blacktop on Highway 95 stretched into the countryside in Chisago County. Pristine, rolling farmland punctuated with groves of trees surrounded the road as it twisted and turned farther away from North Branch, MN. On Highway 12, the rough pavement soon dissolved into gravel. The lonely road snaked past trees and large, sunny pastures until a large sign announced: WEI. Women’s Environmental Institute.

The winding, woody driveway opened into an apple orchard in front of a large farmhouse. Inside, the house was completely devoid of people but full of chairs and pamphlets about WEI projects. Throwing my camera on my back, I walked through the orchard to the huge tomato field where people tied back the sprawling plants. I introduced myself to the interns fighting the weeds and they stared at each other for a moment before one said, “Let’s go find Jackie.”

Jacquelyn Zita works as a volunteer Farm Manager at the Women’s Environmental Institute during the DSC_8558summer months. During the summer, she does everything on and off the farm: outreach, research, policy, organizing, planting, weeding, hoeing, and writing – you name it, she does it. In the cool of the house, she removed her large sun hat and comfortably sat in one of the many rocking chairs filling the room. We began our conversation.

WEI was born almost six years ago with a mission to raise awareness of environmental justice in Minnesota, and implement programs that allow communities to actively help themselves: “Our research is about finding information, giving it to people, then letting them take control,” she insisted passionately.

The certified organic CSA farm began five years ago as a means to engage in agriculture consistent environmental justice values, or “walk the talk,” as she said. The farm connects agricultural justice with environmental justice, builds community, connects urban and rural people, creates opportunities for farm-related education and of course, is “a whole lotta fun!” The farm sits on about 16 acres; six are in active production, seven and a half host a beautiful apple orchard and another three are currently unused. The land is stunning: rolling hills, lush green grasses, dense forests and old farm products hiding in overgrown grasses. This season, the CSA farm has 180 shares which they drop off around the Twin Cities. Open Arms Minnesota, a non-profit in Minneapolis serving people with HIV/AIDS and cancer, receives 10 boxes and whatever extra produce the farm has each week.

DSC_8522After moving onto the farm, the goal became the challenge: to connect with the rural community. WEI doesn’t want to be seen as “city folk” who move to the country to impress upon rural communities organic methods of farming, but it has been difficult to connect to their rural North Branch neighbors. WEI makes a concerted effort to employ local people so they can support the community around them. While the Twin Cities communities have been very supportive of each sector of WEI’s work, that’s not enough for Jackie: “I look forward to the day where what we are doing locally is received locally,” she said.

With this in mind, WEI has implemented a rural development project – the North Circle Project – to create a local organic growers collaborative and to increase interest in local, organic, fresh produce and value-added products. A big breakthrough in the North Branch community is that the local County Market Grocery Store wants to sell North Circle produce. Having the Women’s Environmental Institute name on a shelf in the grocery store will greatly help reach the community and raise awareness and understanding about supporting local farmers and the cause of environmental and agricultural justice. North Circle farmers and producers were also present as a group at the Minnesota State Fair this year and will soon be advertising value-added winter products via an e-commerce virtual farmer’s market hosted by WEI.

To see more photos of the Women’s Environmental Institute, see our flickr slideshow.

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