RSDP Happenings - Spotlight: Connie Carlson
RSDP New Crop Market Integration Specialist Connie Carlson.
Author: Caryn Mohr
To Connie Carlson, relationships are everything. Whether she’s traveling the state for the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) or serving on a community board at home in Buffalo, she builds connections between people.
Carlson recently brought her relationship-building skills to RSDP. As the New Crop Market Integration Specialist, Carlson was hired to support ongoing projects that needed extra attention in what can broadly be called “supply chain connections for Minnesota’s sustainable, locally grown products.”
Local supply chains
According to Carlson, it’s an exciting time to work on supply chains for local foods and products. Carlson strives to build the distribution channels that will get products from researchers to individual farmers and into the hands of consumers. University faculty, such as Dr. Don Wyse and the Forever Green Initiative, are improving and developing crops that have multiple benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment. These new and improved crops need to have the systems of researcher, seed producer, farmer, processor, and distributors in line in order for them to be successful. Carlson’s work is supported by a University of Minnesota MnDrive grant that focuses on Minnesota hazelnuts and their market outlets.
In her role at RSDP, Carlson works to identify supply chain models for specialty crops, as well other Minnesota agricultural products such as local fiber and edible dry beans. It’s a time of innovation and experimentation, with everything from food hubs to online channels being explored as ways to make it easier for small, local, sustainable producers to find markets.
Beans, fiber, and hazelnuts
Carlson’s work came to the attention of RSDP through regional project partners working with hazelnuts and local fiber and through University researchers working on organic and heirloom bean varieties for Minnesota farmers. “I spend a lot of my time connecting the dots between U of M researchers, growers, producers, entrepreneurs, chefs, and other food/ag businesses interested in adopting these crops (or encouraging them to get interested!),” Carlson said.
In April, Carlson traveled to the Bemidji and Fosston area to explore the 1st Annual Pine to Prairie Fiber Arts Trail and meet the industrious people behind the efforts in Northeastern Minnesota to build the wool fiber community. “I was especially interested in touring the Northern Woolen Mills because I wanted to see, firsthand, the steps it takes to get raw wool to finished yarn. I visited a few weaving, art, and fiber exhibits along the way, but I ended up spending most of my time at the woolen mill, learning, talking, connecting, and advising. I walked away from the whole experience with a greater understanding of how I can serve the Northern Minnesota Fibershed in my current role and a deep appreciation for the work that is already underway.”
According to Carlson, each product has its own unique supply chain challenges – whether it’s crop consistency and time to maturity for hazelnuts or price expectations for inexpensive clothing in the case of fiber – but a unifying aspect of the work is the need for consumer education to build product awareness.
RSDP’s role in facilitating supply chains for Minnesota’s sustainable agriculture products comes from projects that originated in the Regions, such as the fiber project’s roots in the Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest Partnerships. “I certainly will not solve all these problems, but my job is to continue to host the conversations, to find the funding, connect people who possibly have this same vision but don’t even know they exist,” Carlson said.
Supporting these connections requires a deep understanding of the work and interests that are already in place. “What’s great is that there are already people in these areas who have their ear to the ground. They understand the special dynamics of their Region. They know the key players. People know about them as a resource. It’s a wonderful network, an established network that doesn’t have to be reinvented.”
Connie Carlson shares her supply chain work with RSDP's Statewide Coordinating Committee in May 2016.
Carlson’s concern for the needs of local growers goes back to her roots. She grew up on a 350-acre diversified organic farm in Madison, Minnesota. Carlson’s dad, state organic farming legend Carmen Fernholz, contributed to development of Minnesota’s organic farming standards in the 1980s and was the first Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. He also served as the Organic Research Coordinator at Lamberton and continues to work closely with University researchers. Fernholz helped found the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) and serves on the board of directors of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). Carlson’s sister, agroforester Kathryn Fernholz, is the executive director of Dovetail Partners, a sustainable agroforestry company based in Minneapolis.
Growing up on the family farm in Madison, Minnesota. Connie Carlson with dad Carmen Fernholz.
“[Working on behalf of sustainable farming issues is] a part of my DNA,” Carlson said.
When she’s not building connections on behalf of RSDP, Carlson keeps busy in her local community of Buffalo. She serves as Executive Director of a regional food council as well as a community liaison for the Crow River Chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association. She also co-founded an online co-op, the Local Roots Food Co-op, and has provided marketing assistance to farmers and community organizations. Carlson and her husband have three children ages 8, 11, and 14.
Asked about her personal goals, Carlson said the past several years have been about finding ways to give back to the community. Whether it’s through her hometown connections or RSDP, I think we’d all agree she is more than finding a way.