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  • Kate Egelhof

Community as a Verb:Growing Together in Harmony

Harmony has grown quite a bit since our humble beginnings over forty years ago. We’ve changed locations and expanded several times, from a bulk order group to a full-service grocery store and deli; we’ve also grown in the metaphorical sense, gaining knowledge, experience, and wisdom as a collective whole as we constantly adapt to the ever-changing economy and food trends. Perishables manager Mackenzie Lindahl wrote earlier this spring, “I am incredibly grateful to be a part of this growing, truly diverse, bountiful, generous space. I am so proud to be an owner AND employee in this cooperative business model. To me, community isn't a noun, it's a verb. Let's grow together.” That got us thinking about the various ways that we grow our community together AND grow together as a community; growth in the literal sense of expansion, and growth on both the personal and collective levels.

Summertime is a great time for growing our community on the most literal level; more people in the store. Some of that is, of course, because we live in a tourist destination and we have so many new faces enjoying the beautiful Northwoods lakes, streams, and forests. Whether you’re camping, grilling, hiking, or just chilling, we aim to meet all your needs, and our product selection and promotions vary with the seasons to make sure everyone who comes in our doors has the best summer they can possibly have. We have an outreach table at several local events, including the Loop the Lake bike ride, Bemidji State University’s Community Appreciation Day, and the Beltrami County Fair; since our education program takes a summer break, these are great opportunities for us to bring Harmony to places outside the store walls.

Our annual Summer Family Festival is one of our favorite parts of life here at Harmony, and we look forward to it all year. The whole parking lot gets closed off to traffic so we can set up all the games (like the beanbag toss and everyone’s favorite, the dunking water chair) and the bouncy house, and people line up around the block for the free community meal (this year it’ll be sloppy joes, with vegan and gluten-free options and ice cream for dessert). We collect a free-will donation and will be giving the proceeds this year to the Bemidji Community Theater (recipients in previous years include Headwaters School of Music & the Arts); we also offer a 10% discount at the register all day and a variety of food samples so everyone can celebrate with us.

Another exciting part of Harmony summers is our expanding farm tour program, which gives us a firsthand view of where the food we buy comes from. Merry Gardens Farm in Bagley has generously allowed us to take a group out to their farm and give a guided tour of their crops, animals, and life on the farm, and the response from the community has been so great that we’re doing two tours this summer (one the day after the Summer Family Festival, and one later in August). Merry Gardens supplies us with a large variety of local organic produce and also raises heritage-breed pigs, so guests get the “full farm experience” as well as an in-depth look at organic farming techniques and soil maintenance.

We’re able to take our Co-op Explorers kids’ program on a farm tour field trip again this year—starting at the Boys and Girls’ Club garden and finishing up with a snack and a tour of the Bemidji Community Food Shelf’s farm in Nymore. Not only is this a lot of fun, it’s a great way to inspire interest in gardening and farming. The crops at the BGC are all planted, maintained, and harvested by the kids there, so it’s not only entertaining but empowering; additionally, the BGC kids then prepare a meal for their families at the end of the season. The Bemidji Community Food Shelf’s urban farm, located in the Nymore Industrial Park, provides fresh, locally-grown produce to food shelf customers as well empowering community members by enabling them to grow and maintain their own vegetables and contribute both to their own nutrition and that of their families, friends, and neighbors. (They even have a deep winter greenhouse for growing crops in Bemidji winters!)

With autumn comes the resumption of our evening education class program, which we love because it brings together so many new faces for the joy of learning. Local owners and community members teach the classes—everything from homebrewing to natural skin care and holistic medicine, international foods and specialty diets—and it’s so exciting to bring people together in our community kitchen and learn new things, taste different foods, and make fun projects. Our annual Harvest Fair in September is a fantastic way for our growers and producers to show off directly; we turn our parking lot into a “fair” of local people and products with live music and family activities, as well as a selection of chefs and restaurants sampling their own creations. After that, we get ready for the holidays and all the feasting those bring; our annual “Shop Local, Give Local” event the day after Thanksgiving raises money for local charities (last year we were able to donate both to the Disabled American Veterans and Peacemaker Resources).

As the only downtown grocery store in Bemidji, we always work to remain cognizant of our role here both for the community and within it—we aim to truly embody the principle that “everyone is welcome”. We are always looking to expand our product selection, both for specialty diets and for our Co-op Basics program (making organic healthy food affordable for everyone) and other regular sales. Our department managers attend regular conferences where co-ops across the country can meet and exchange knowledge, information, and tips. Harmony Co-op Explorers is free for all kids 12 and under and meets every month for crafts, activities, tours and more; the instructors in our education program are local chefs, farmers, teachers, and owners who enjoy sharing their knowledge and experiences. As Bemidji has grown from a small northern town into a bustling little city and regional hub, Harmony has grown with it—and as our community marches further into the next century, with all the growth, challenges, and changes it brings, we are proud to be a central part of it—in every sense of the word.

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