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Rural co-op keeping it local

Shop is like an indoor farmers market

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Casey Guenther (left) and Kate Smith-Eivemark are volunteers and board members of Rural Roots Food Co-operative in Boissevain.

BILL REDEKOP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Casey Guenther (left) and Kate Smith-Eivemark are volunteers and board members of Rural Roots Food Co-operative in Boissevain. Photo Store

BOISSEVAIN -- There's a scene in the TV comedy series Portlandia, where a couple in an eco-friendly diner, after being shown a photo of the chicken (when still alive) that they are about to order, and told its name, ask whether it got along with the other chickens.

Rural Roots Food Co-operative isn't quite like that, but everyone here puts their names behind their product. From the farmer who grows your parsnips, to the rancher who raises the beef, to the baker who kneads the bread dough, they all get a byline.

Rural Roots is Manitoba's first grocery store that features only locally-grown produce and product. The grocery, which opened in Boissevain Oct. 26, is an extension of the farmers market concept -- but indoors and open year-round.

"We were blown away with all the product that's actually available in Manitoba," said Casey Guenther, a board member of the new co-op and one of the handful of young people who came up with the idea at a party one night. "There is so much creativity out there."

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The goal is to promote local production and "to make food personal and transparent," he said.

So, if you're looking for a steak for supper, you can go to Rural Roots' freezer and buy "local beef from Vicky Neufeld," as it says on one side of the freezer. If you want fresh bread, you might pick out the flax loaf "baked by Christine Fehr." There are photos and bios of all its small-scale farmer-suppliers.

What store there is, is pretty small. It's about the size of a master bedroom. But it's much like walking through Toad Hall, except looking for food instead of toys. You have to walk slowly or you miss a lot.

There's Blazing Saddles Hot Sauce from Fresh Roots Farm in Cartwright; quick-cooking barley from Progressive Foods in MacGregor; Artisan Wild Rice from Shoal Lake Wild Rice; Cornell Creme ice cream from Anola; Heidi 'N' Sheep Acres lamb from Boissevain and rolled naked oats from Adagio Acres in the Interlake.

There is Trappist monk cheese, Fromage de la Trappe, from Our Lady of the Prairies Abbey in Holland; goat cheese from Oak Island Acres in Minto; sunflower-seed oil by Grass Roots Prairie Kitchen (a division of Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co.); Organic Meadows milk and dairy products (there are four organic dairies in Manitoba); and organic flour from DeRuyck's Top of the Hill Farm in Treherne.

The gala opening last week also featured wine tasting with Rigby Orchards of Killarney and beer courtesy of The Farmery in Neepawa.

It's the end of the growing season, so only root vegetables are left in the store. In the colour green, there is kale, Swiss chard and leaf lettuce. In orange, there are carrots and pumpkins. In yellow, there are gourds, squash and parsnips. There are also potatoes, beets, onions and garlic.

You won't have tomatoes trucked in from Mexico in winter here. Your choices are dictated by the season.

"I think it's a fabulous idea," said Barb Damer, who has shopped at the store twice already in its first week. "You have more confidence and more trust in the food because it's people you know and who are part of your day-to-day world. It's not coming from some factory in China."

Sue Black, who started the first organic dairy in Manitoba at Lake Metigoshe with husband Larry, said it's "thrilling" to see their products in a local store. They don't normally see their food for sale unless they go to Brandon or Winnipeg.

Rural Roots would be filled to the rafters if it was early summer, when garden produce begins to ripen. Why open at the start of winter? It's just worked out that way. All the legal issues and other paperwork was completed. Co-op members felt they would lose momentum if they waited six months.

The prices are reasonable, and many items are priced on par with supermarkets, said Guenther. "By cutting out the middlemen, it lets you be more competitive."

Some products are organic and some are not. "If it was only organic, you'd be isolating yourself from a huge community," Guenther said. It has received no government support but not from lack of trying. However, local business sponsors have helped it buy equipment such as fridges and freezers.

The store is entirely volunteer-run. It's in the same building as the Sawmill Tea & Coffee Company, a café that is part of a community-run program for people with intellectual disabilities called Prairie Partners. Staff of Sawmill run the grocery during the day, for small payment. Rural Roots is run by its own volunteers in evenings, and there is a group of about 20 people signed up to volunteer.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 4, 2013 A4

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