20 Years at Wheatsfield

June 2024 Produce Parable

By Adam Calder, Produce Manager

This year is the 50th anniversary of Wheatsfield cooperative, and it is also my third time celebrating a Wheatsfield milestone birthday. I was hired the year of Wheatsfield’s 30th anniversary, I was here for the 40th, and I am here now for the 50th.

If you do the math, that makes this my 20th year working at the cooperative. It certainly doesn’t seem like it, but the numbers are right there. I started as a 24-year-old weekend cashier while I worked my way towards a degree at Iowa State University. After my graduation, Wheatsfield was on the cusp of moving and expanding from our old location on Douglas Street, a block south of the library. The former produce manager had just quit, and Wheatsfield needed someone to step up and take responsibility for the produce department. There were not any other takers, and I was not entirely sure I could do the job, but I threw my hat into the ring anyway.

It has not been an easy job. There are many moving parts to a produce department and were many bumps in the road along the way. Keeping all the pieces working together often seems like trying to hold back the tide with your hands. I am lucky to have the opportunity to work with a great produce crew, which has only gotten better over time. Not everyone has been a good fit in the produce team through the years, and I have certainly had my share of difficult characters to manage. Each of them has taught me something valuable about the kind of manager I want to be, and the kind of team I want to work with. I haven’t always made the right decisions, but I also try hard to admit my mistakes so I can grow from the experience.

There have been so many trials and challenges over the years, and I have done my best to help the cooperative rise above them all. When the covid virus brought the rest of society to a screeching halt; when the derecho ripped across Iowa and we lost power for a week; when times were tough and we had to tighten spending; all of the blizzards and sub-zero days we were open through; labor and supply shortages; raising money for our expansion; paying back member loans; the personal losses of grandmothers, grandfathers, husbands, fathers, mothers, sons, partners, co-op staff… I could go on and on about the pain we have all endured and shared. Through hard work and sacrifice, the staff at Wheatsfield have risen together above all these forces pushing us down.

The rewards have been great as well. You can’t go through what many of us at the co-op have been through together without forming lasting bonds. I’ve formed relationships with some of my co-workers, customers and farmers that will last a lifetime. Deep, meaningful, poignant friendships that have touched my heart, and left a mark there. I have met so many fascinating farmers, students, merchants, community members, visitors and others who have shared their insight and perspective with me, and left me a little bit wiser, with a mind more open. I have learned and honed many skills that help me create a beautiful, successful department that contributes to the overall success of Wheatsfield. These experiences have shaped me into the man I am today, and I like who I’ve become.

I have accumulated so many good memories over the years here at the co-op. I was privileged to watch two women get married to each other in our deli seating area, since one of the brides had a sick mother who could not travel, and being in a co-op was so important to them that they picked us as a substitute for their home-town cooperative. In their haste to wed in front of their ailing mother, they hadn’t had a chance to get any flowers, so I made them an edible wedding bouquet out of broccoli and nasturtiums. I felt like crying when they, and their family, applauded me as I handed over the bouquet. I went on a business trip to Chicago with a couple of co-workers, and even though we got lost and snarled in rush hour traffic for three hours, we had an absolute blast goofing off and hanging out in our hotel room. I’ve gotten to see a variety of unique and beautiful parts of this state as I’ve traveled to different Iowa farms. I’ve heard so many incredible stories from these farmers, and I have shared those stories with all of you. Iowa Public Television came and interviewed me once about local food, and to this day, when they re-air that episode, I get people coming up to me in the aisles telling me they saw me on tv and learned a lot about local food from me. Each time it happens, I am absolutely delighted.

I’m so often humbled by the grace and kindness I see all around me. Sure, we have dealt with plenty of customers over the years who were challenging. Fortunately, the vast majority of our shoppers are patient, thoughtful, appreciative and understanding. They are the ones that give me resolve, and this resolve helps me live up to our cooperative value that everyone is welcome at Wheatsfield. This community we have strived so hard to create, it really is special.

Of all the places I have worked in my life, Wheatsfield has been the most accepting and understanding of people who are often pushed to the fringes of society. You won’t be judged for your sexuality, race, heritage, name, education, income, gender, age, weight, clothes, hair color, tattoos, piercings, faith or lack thereof. You will be judged on how earnestly you work and try to do a good job, and that is how it should be. No one knows what challenges the future holds for the cooperative, but Wheatsfield will face those challenges with the support of our community and come out stronger on the other side.