The Farm That Doesnt Exist

At the Mill City Market, Targets signature red bulls-eye is drawing complaints from some local farmers

At the Mill City Market, Targets signature red bulls-eye is drawing complaints from some local farmers

Buy organic. Buy local. Know your farmer. It's a sort of trinitarian doctrine for Mill City Market farmers and the foodies they sell to each Saturday.

It's right there on Mill City's website: "Buying directly from local and small family farmers and entrepreneurs keeps them in business and produces more jobs in our own community."

Coming upon the Archer Farms booth at the market, then, you might naturally expect to find farmers from a familiar locale. Winona? Lino Lakes? Just across the border in Menomonie?

No, no, and no. The farms of Archer do not exist. It's a brand, not a patchwork of local acreage. And the people doling out free veggie burgers? They're caterers hired by Target Corporation, the owner of the Archer Farms brand.

Target is the chief sponsor of the Mill City Market. A recent visit found 56 local vendors and 65 visible Target logos. Visitors are greeted by a huge banner that features a red flower, a red tomato, a red cherry, and a red target.

Target's hyper-branding of the Mill City Market is part of a larger effort by the corporation to secure a hometown advantage against Wal-Mart, which last year added hundreds of organic items to its grocery stores.

Ron Huff, who represents Slow Food International and the 200 members of Slow Food Minnesota, says he hears from customers every week who say, "Yuck, what is this all about?"

"What it's about is money," says Huff, who is ecstatic about every other aspect of the market, now in its second year. "I'm sure that Target's heart is in the right place, but given the mission of that market, it's not right."

Target did not invent industrial organics—it's a newcomer. Search the shelves of any co-op or Whole Foods and you'll find products from industrial-scale organic farms. A single corporate organic grower, Earthbound Farm, grows 80 percent of the organic lettuce sold in America, according to food journalist Michael Pollan.

"What you're looking at is 'share of stomach,'" says Stan Pohmer, a Minnetonka-based retail consultant and former Target executive. "For a superstore, 'share of stomach' equates to more shopping visits. And those people who come to shop for food aren't just leaving with food."

But some vendors whose business practices are antithetical to that of super-grocers are uncomfortable with Target's omnipresence at the Mill City Market. They complain that Archer Farms' occasional food giveaways hurt vendors and that Target's branding has saturated the Mill City Market with a symbol of cheap, mass-produced goods.

Though several of the farmers agreed to discuss their complaints off the record, they were leery of being openly critical. "I really count on this money," said one, who asked that his name not be used. "How far do I want to stick my neck out?"

Other vendors are warmer to the relationship, if only as a matter of pragmatics. "If you walk through the market, they are all small people," says John Bennett of Bennett's Farm. "I don't care who it is that promotes them. They need help."

Alex Hoag, the director and primary fundraiser for the Mill City Market, makes no apologies for recruiting Target as a sponsor, and argues that the corporation should be commended for its support. In contrast, Whole Foods offered a much smaller contribution and wanted the market held in its parking lot.

"I'd wear a red target on my forehead if I could, because nobody has done more for this city than they have," Hoag says. "Target has virtually paid for the market to operate."

It's not just locals who are raising questions about Target's entry into organic foods. Mark Kastel, the senior farm policy analyst for the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based corporate watchdog, has his sights set on the company as well.

"There are very, very large corporations who are doing the responsible thing," he says. "I can't say that about Target."

Recently, the Cornucopia Institute began investigating the corporation's practices. Kastel's research team took a look at the organic milk being sold under the Archer Farms label and found that it had been produced by Aurora Dairy, an industrial farm currently under investigation by the USDA for confining thousands of heads of cattle to feedlots instead of letting them roam freely in healthy pastures.

"Target chose that vendor at a time when the organic farming community was up in arms," Kastel says. "After personally inspecting some of Aurora's dairies in Texas and Colorado, we found 98 percent of their cattle in feedlots instead of grazing on pasture as the law requires."

Another issue is the marathon journey the milk takes from cow to consumer. Aurora Dairy has three industrial-scale dairies in Texas and two in Colorado. At a Colorado facility, Kastel observed migrant laborers and their families living in trailers onsite, squeezed between a feedlot and a highway. The milk is then trucked to states like Minnesota, where Target and other sellers—including Wal-Mart, Costco, and Trader Joe's—undercut local dairies with steep discounts.

Those discounts may come at a price. Earlier this year, just months after the launch of the Archer Farms line, Target recalled the company's prepackaged four-cheese risotto after the FDA detected salmonella contamination, an increasingly familiar menace to industrial food producers.

A spokesperson for Target says the corporation maintains a network of suppliers to ensure flexibility when quality is compromised. A request for a list of those suppliers was denied on the grounds that such information "provides us a critical advantage in the marketplace."

These issues concern Hoag. Still, she argues that the opportunity her market provides for small farmers may not be sustainable without a sponsor like Target.

"We have a lot of wonderful dreams for this market, and we needed a Target," she says. "All of us had that same dream: a clean, organic place where people could come and have some sense of community. And we get up on that microphone every single Saturday and give our spiel: Support your local organic farmer."