GRANTSBURG – Like the queen bee she treasures in her hives, beekeeper Kristy Allen has become a vital part of her community.
“When I first got into beekeeping, I was so captivated by the way bees function as a society — and how they are female-led by the queen bee,” Allen said. “I have a global study and I connected all the dots.”
Likewise, Allen has realized how many problems in rural areas are interconnected in ways that affect the climate, the economy and the fabric of our communities. As president of the Polk-Burnett Farmers Union, she has helped the group emerge stronger than ever from the pandemic and launch 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. Although her parents were not farmers, they were avid gardeners, and her grandfather worked for an agricultural consultancy in Iowa. Wanderlust started after high school and Allen spent some time traveling abroad. She graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2008 and did an internship in Arkansas through Heifer International, a development organization committed to ending hunger and poverty around the world by providing livestock and training to struggling farmers.
“That’s where I really caught the spark of wanting to be involved in farming,” she recalls. Allen spent a year in the AmeriCorps program and served as a livestock coordinator in a program that worked to connect inner-city youth to 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 jump from Arkansas to Ecuador, but not before returning to the Midwest to work on her aunt and uncle’s bee farm during honey production season.
“I was really addicted to the honeybees and flirted with the idea of becoming a greengrocer,” she said.
In Ecuador, Allen’s experience was sweetened by the opportunity to manage beehives on the farm and join a local beekeeping club.
“I ran the farm in Spanish and English and worked with these beekeepers who talked so romantically about their bees,” she said. “They were building these colmenas” [hives] and working on rainwater harvesting with tanks. It was very formal for me and my view of agriculture to see this community of farmers working together.”
Around that time, a number of natives had been kicked off their land when sharecroppers got a foothold in the region.
“They were manipulated into signing contracts that were little more than contractual servitude,” Allen said. “Ecuador’s mountains were not intended to grow corn and soy; the farms I worked with were focused on rebuilding the soil and being self-sufficient.”
As her time in Ecuador drew to a close, Allen felt the pull back to Minnesota—and to the growing buzz of the beekeeping world. She joined her aunt and uncle, who are migrant beekeepers, on their farm near Deer River in northern Minnesota. While helping out with the honey harvest, Allen’s aunt asked if she would consider marketing honey in Minneapolis, where she now lived.
A company was born – and it started with a bee costume.
In that summer of 2010, Allen was doing double duty, working in restaurants and on Foxtail Farm near Osceola, WI. She had found herself in a beautiful community in Minneapolis, building partnerships and excitement around her love of bees. Around Halloween, Allen decided she would paint her bicycle as a bee, don a bee costume, and hand out honey samples.
“From that moment on it was like a train, one after the other pushed me in this entrepreneurial direction,” she said.
The bee-themed bike stuck and inspired the invention of a pedal-powered honey extractor. Allen hosted a kickstarter and raised $40,000 to support the project. The honey house was open to hobby beekeepers to rent out the Beez Kneez honey cycle.
Meanwhile, growing relationships with Twin Cities chefs led to funny antics like the “Annual Dandelion Honey Pastry Challenge,” where honey is the only sweetener allowed.
Twelve years later, the company has weathered a pandemic, an uprising, and a move from Minneapolis to a quieter area on Trade Lake Ranch, on the border of Polk and Burnett Counties in western Wisconsin.
“I got married in 2017 and moved here,” notes Allen. “I ended up in a business model where I give intensive beekeeping courses.”
In 2021, she built a new honey house on the property (with 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 teaches classes in her picturesque spot along the Trade River.
Find a farmer’s union
Like many Farmers Union members, Allen’s was a winding path that eventually led to the organization. She met members of the Farmers Union in her early years of beekeeping and set up beehives on some of their farms.
“Many I met in a farming capacity — getting stuck, being pulled out, working together and volunteering,” Allen noted. “Over the years, I made a lot of connections with Farmers Union members because I focused on placing my bees in safe places.”
After suffering two pesticide deaths in hives, Allen gained some notoriety by lobbying in Minnesota’s capital for bees.
“It taught me a lot about our government, and the connection to industrial farming and bees is something I’m still passionate about,” Allen said, noting that she appreciated connecting with farmers of all kinds. and gain 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’ve made the effort to reach the grassroots departments, but also reach the political sphere – people don’t understand how much work that takes and how hard it is to get the issues we care about on stage. Having a say in those issues as a member of the Farmers Union is huge.”
She also appreciates the connections and leadership development that come from opportunities like the annual convention and the Farmers Union Emerging Leadership program.
“A good leader empowers people, and that’s exactly what Farmers Union does,” she said.
Connecting within the WFU community also prevents the effects of isolation, she added, noting, “Sometimes you feel a little lonely, especially if you live in a rural area,” Allen said. “It was great to have those opportunities to discuss the issues and talk to people from different parts of the state.”
‘chew the cud’
For members of the Polk-Burnett Farmers Union, such opportunities have arisen through cleverly named “Chewing the Cud” monthly gatherings.
When Allen took charge as department chair in 2021, her team wanted to create an opportunity for members to connect more with each other. “All 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 started at Allen’s Trade River Ranch. The informal gathering, held every last Tuesday of the month, will move to other affiliated farms in the region.
“There’s always good food and good conversations,” Allen said. “It was a nice way to keep our chapter strong.”
The group had plenty to talk about – over the past year, the chapter has been instrumental in developing the St. Croix Local Food Alliance, which is set to launch soon.
The alliance recently received a local initiative 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.
One challenge in the local food economy is that “it’s more economically beneficial to go into town and sell to people from Minneapolis,” Allen said. “But that creates supply chain problems and the area is also changing. The people who live here want access to good food, so we’re looking at ‘how can we serve both markets?’ ”
Twenty-six farmers have already signed up to be part of the alliance. The group recently submitted a grant proposal for the USDA Local Food Promotion Program. The planning committee brought the grant together this spring in a flurry of activity, but had to find a 25 percent funding agreement.
“We’ve raised over $60,000 in two weeks — this is something people really want,” Allen said.
The grant will allow the group to hire a full-time coordinator to connect the local food community with consumers, libraries, schools, etc. They will find out this fall if the application was successful.
“Our goal is to make it easier for farmers to start here and work on things like climate change, supply chains and connecting people to the food system,” Allen said.
The group plans to build a website, create promotional videos and host a launch party in the coming months.
“Our hope is to become known as a marketing cooperative where you can go to one place and trust that the food alliance represents farmers who take good care of the environment and grow healthy food. There is a market here, but the people do not come into contact with the farmers.”
Allen said there will be clear criteria, guided by input from farmers and consumers, for how food marketed through the alliance is grown.
“People don’t want to be greenwashed. They want the real real farming that comes from family farms and not from companies that use and exploit that idea 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 that produces the food makes a living. And the people on the other side know that the 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 about the future of farming, spurred on by a proposal from a foreign investor to drop a CAFO of 26,000 pigs in their watershed just upstream from Allen’s farm.
The department organized a series of meetings last summer to raise awareness about the potential impact of an operation of that magnitude on the community.
“The values I want, that I’ve seen, aren’t that different from what most in this community want, and the Local Food Alliance can help bridge the gap we see,” Allen said.
Just as the bees she cares for feel the ripple effects of shifts in their hive, Allen acknowledges that many of the issues facing her community are about to shape the future of the local food barn.
“The good news is that people are eager to start digging into solutions…,” she said. “We would like to expand the membership base to include people who want to get involved and have these conversations. We hope the local food alliance can serve as a model for people to build local food connections.”