Building a Buzz
Polk Burnett Farmers Union President Kristy Allen has been keeping busy beekeeping and building community in her neck of the Northwoods.
By Danielle Endvick
WFU Communications Director
GRANTSBURG — Akin to the queen bees she values in her hives, beekeeper Kristy Allen has become a pivotal part of her community.
"When I first got into beekeeping, I was so captured by the way that bees function as a society — and how they are woman-run by the queen bee,” Allen said. “I have a global studies degree and I was connecting all the dots.”
Likewise, Allen has realized how many rural issues are interconnected in ways that affect the climate, economy, and fabric of our communities. As president of the Polk-Burnett Farmers Union, she has helped the group emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever and launch into a new project that could revitalize the local food scene in the St. Croix River Valley.
Allen grew up in rural Minnesota, not far from St. Cloud. Though her parents didn’t farm, they were avid gardeners, and her grandpa worked for an ag consulting company in Iowa. Wanderlust set in after high school, and Allen spent some time traveling abroad. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2008 and took an internship in Arkansas through Heifer International, a development organization working to end hunger and poverty around the world by providing livestock and training to struggling farmers.
“It was there that I really caught the spark of wanting to be involved in agriculture,” she recalls. Allen spent a year in the AmeriCorps program, serving as the livestock coordinator in a program that worked to connect inner-city youth with the origins of their food, hunger, and poverty.
Through that experience, Allen met a man from Ecuador who was seeking help to start a CSA farm. Allen made the leap from Arkansas to Ecuador, but not before returning to the Midwest to work on her uncle and aunt’s bee farm during honey production season.
“I was really hooked on the honey bees and was flirting with the idea of becoming a vegetable farmer,” she said.
In Ecuador, Allen's experience was sweetened by the opportunity to manage hives on the farm and plug in with a local beekeeping club.
“I was managing the farm in Spanish and English and working with these beekeepers who talked about their bees so romantically,” she said. “They were building these colmenas [hives] and working on rainwater capture with tanks. It was very formational for me and my view of farming to see this community of farmers working together.”
Around that time, a number of natives had been kicked off their land as sharecropping took hold in the region.
“They were manipulated into signing contracts that were little more than indentured servitude,” Allen said. “The mountains of Ecuador were not meant for growing corn and soy; the farms I was working with were focused on rebuilding the soil and being self sustainable.”
As her time in Ecuador came to a close, Allen felt the pull back to Minnesota — and into the growing buzz of the beekeeping world. She joined her aunt and uncle, who are migratory beekeepers, on their farm near Deer River in northern Minnesota. While helping with honey harvest, Allen’s aunt asked if she would consider marketing honey in Minneapolis, where she was now residing.
A business was born — and it started with a bee costume.
In that summer of 2010, Allen was pulling double duty, working at restaurants and at Foxtail Farm near Osceola, WI. She had landed in a wonderful community in Minneapolis, where she was building partnerships and excitement around her love for bees. Around Halloween, Allen decided she would paint her bike like a bee, toss on a bee costume and hand out honey samples.
“From there on it was like a train, one thing after another pushed me in this entrepreneurial direction,” she said.
The bee-themed bike stuck around and inspired the invention of a pedal-powered honey extractor. Allen organized a kickstarter and raised $40,000 to support the project. The honey house was open to hobby beekeepers to come and rent out the Beez Kneez honey cycle.
Meanwhile, growing relationships with Twin Cities chefs led to fun antics like the “Annual Dandelion Honey Pastry Challenge,” where the only sweetener allowed is honey.
Twelve years later, the business has weathered a pandemic, an uprising, and a move from Minneapolis to a quieter setting at Trade Lake Ranch, on the border of Polk and Burnett Counties in western Wisconsin.
“I got married in 2017 and moved out here,” Allen notes. “I settled into a business model where I teach intensive beekeeping courses.”
In 2021, she built a new honey house on the property (with the help from fellow WFU member James Dodge of Black Brook Farm). She sells bees and value-added products like mustard, rents out the Beez Kneez bike, and offers classes at her picturesque spot along the Trade River.
Finding Farmers Union
Like many Farmers Union members, Allen’s was a meandering path that eventually led to the organization. She met Farmers Union members in her early years of beekeeping, putting hives on some of their farms.
“Many I met in a farming capacity — getting stuck, getting pulled out, working and volunteering together,” Allen noted. “Over the years, I made a lot of connections to Farmers Union members because I was focused on putting my bees in places that were safe.”
After suffering two pesticide kills in hives, Allen gained some notoriety lobbying at the Minnesota capitol for bees.
“It taught me a lot about our government, and the connection to industrial agriculture and bees is something I'm still passionate about,” Allen said, noting she has appreciated connecting with farmers of all types and gaining new insights through Farmers Union.
“I’ve been passionate about improving the food system for a long time,” she said. “I like Farmers Union because they have the effort put toward the grassroots chapters but also are reaching the political sphere — people don’t understand how much work that takes and how difficult it is to have the issues we care about brought to the stage. Having a say in those issues as a Farmers Union member is huge.”
She also values the connections and leadership development that come from opportunities like annual convention and the Farmers Union Emerging Leadership program.
“A good leader empowers people, and that’s just what Farmers Union does,” she said.
Connecting within the WFU community also staves off the effects of isolation, she added, noting, “Sometimes you feel kind of alone, especially if you live in a rural area,” Allen said. “Having those opportunities to discuss the issues and talk with people from different parts of the state has been wonderful.”
'Chewing the Cud'
For members in the Polk-Burnett Farmers Union, such opportunities have come via cleverly named “Chewing the Cud” monthly meetings.
When Allen took the reins as president of the chapter in 2021, her team was looking to create an opportunity for members to connect more. “All that people were talking about was COVID, and we wanted to create a space to talk about farming and what we love.”
The first Chewing the Cud event kicked off at Allen’s Trade River Ranch. Held on the last Tuesday of every month, the informal gathering moves around to other area member farms.
“There’s always good food and good conversations," Allen said. “It’s been a nice way to keep our chapter strong.”
The group has had plenty to talk about — over the past year the chapter has played a leading role in development of the St. Croix Local Food Alliance, which is set to launch soon.
The alliance recently received a Local Initiatives Grant from the Wisconsin Farmers Union Foundation to support the project, which aims to create a brand for the region and create a more vibrant local food economy.
A challenge in the local food economy is that “it’s more economically advantageous to go to the city and sell to people from Minneapolis," Allen said. "But that creates supply chain issues and also the area is changing. The people who are living here want access to good food, so we're looking at, 'how can we serve both markets?' ”
Twenty-six farmers have already signed on to be a part of the alliance. The group recently submitted a grant proposal for the USDA Local Food Promotion Program. The planning committee pulled the grant together in a flurry of activity this spring but needed to find a 25 percent funding match.
“We raised over $60,000 in two weeks —— this is something people really want,” Allen said.
The grant would allow the group to hire a full-time coordinator to connect the local food community with consumers, libraries, schools, etc. They’ll find out this fall if the application was successful.
“Our goal is to make it easier for farmers to start out here and work on issues like climate change, supply chains, and connecting people to the food system,” Allen said.
The group plans to build a website, creating promotional videos, and host a launch party over the coming months.
“Our hope is to become known as a marketing cooperative where you can go to one place and trust the food alliance is representing farmers who are doing right by the environment and growing healthy food. There is a market out here but people aren’t getting connected with the farmers.”
Allen said there will be clear criteria, guided by farmer and consumer input, for how food marketed through the alliance is grown.
“People don’t want to be greenwashed. They want the genuine real deal farming that’s from family farms and not corporations using and exploiting that idea in order to be the largest insurance company in the country.”
As for her vision? “I want to live in a world where the food comes from the farm down the road and the farm producing the food makes a living. And the people on the other end of that know that product was produced in a way that was not extractive and exploitative … it leaves the world in a better place. .”
The Polk-Burnett chapter has had some tough conversations around the future of farming, spurred by a proposal by an out-of-state investor to drop a 26,000-hog CAFO into their watershed, just upriver from Allen’s farm.
The chapter hosted a series of rallies last summer to raise awareness about the potential impacts of an operation of that size on the community.
“The values that I want, I’ve seen are not that different than what most in this community want, and the Local Food Alliance can help bridge the gaps we’re seeing,” Allen said.
Just as the bees she cares for feel the ripple effects of shifts in their hive, Allen recognizes that many of the issues her community is on the brink of could determine the future of the local foodshed.
“The good news is, people seem keen to start digging in on solutions ...," she said. “We would love to grow the membership base with people who want to be involved and have these conversations. We hope the local food alliance can serve as a model for people to build local food connections.”
St. Croix Valley Food Alliance Launch Party
Everyone, farmers and eaters alike are invited to join the official St. Croix Valley Food Alliance launch party on Wednesday August 10, from 6:30 to 9:30 pm at Community Homestead Farm, 501 280th St Osceola, WI.
Activities will include free farm fresh food, a guided honey tasting, a film debut introducing some of the participating farmers, speakers, a farmer round table, and kid’s activities including a live puppet show! Deb Ryun, Executive Director of Wild River Conservancy, will be sharing about how this work is important to keeping watersheds healthy. The event coincides with National Farmers Market Week. Come meet your visionary farmers of the future! A splendid time is guaranteed for all!