By Marci Narum
Photography: Photos by Jacy
Life experience has made Carmen Hoffner a nurturer. She was a nanny during college and spent her first career teaching and coaching, but Carmen’s caring nature goes back to her life as a farmer’s daughter. She grew up near Esmond, North Dakota, where her roots run deep and her brother still farms the land. It’s where Carmen helped her dad with farming and learned what it takes to yield good results.
Her way of farming is on a smaller scale now; she lives in Bismarck and has a garden that hosts strawberries, asparagus (just planted), elderberry bushes, peas, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
“I love gardening,” Carmen says smiling. “I have lilacs, chokecherries, elderberries in my backyard. A house I lived in for nine years, had apple trees and grapevines and raspberries and rhubarb and cherry trees. I’ve always loved growing things. I tried growing peanuts one year. We don’t have a long enough growing season, but the plant did come up!”
Carmen has even grown banana and lemon trees in her home; they were among the 25 houseplants that occupied her trove until recently. Now, she has only three houseplants. But, no matter the number, and whether the object is a plant or something else, with hope for life and sustainability, Carmen encourages growth and will do what she can to see it flourish.
The nurturing side of Carmen has been a key to reviving the BisMan Community Food Co-op, a member-owned grocery store that provides fresh, organic produce provided by local farmers and ranchers, regional producers, and a national supplier. She became the general manager in October of 2017, a year-and-a-half after the store opened (it celebrated its third anniversary in May). She stepped into the leadership role amidst turmoil and financial instability.
“I walked into quite a big mess,” Carmen shares. “Spending out of control, labor out of control, waste out of control. People weren’t getting paid. We had no money to pay them.”
Then, the rumors and bad press started: “The food co-op is closing.” But, Carmen says she had already begun caring for the co-op, its members, and employees when news of the financial situation became public. The culture was shifting from one that harbored turmoil to one where trust and teamwork were the norm.
“I’m glad it came to light,” Carmen admits. “People needed to know what was happening, especially being a member-owned business; our members should know what our financials look like. I’m not hiding anything. Everyone has been paid, we’re current on all of our accounts, we’re paying back our loans, we have money in the bank. Things are good!”
Carmen says now she’s able to focus on other things — educating the community about the food co-op, connecting with local producers, and supporting other businesses.
“People will come in looking for a specific supplement and I’ll send them to Terry’s Health Products. We have a wellness section, but we certainly don’t have the amount they do. And, I know they send people over here for food items they don’t carry. Let’s work together, cooperate. We can all survive,” Carmen says.
The BisMan Community Food Co-op is doing more than surviving now; it’s growing. Carmen says she initially had to make cuts but is slowly able to bring back some of those products and services that were shaved off in 2017.
“My two managers Tjacob and Casey have been here since day one and I just said to them the other day, ‘Can you guys feel it? It’s like this well-oiled machine. It has finally happened.’ But, it took such a long time to clean things up and get things organized, find the right people, put the right people in place, train people. Right now we’re doing well. The seed had been planted but it wasn’t getting enough water or sunlight and needed to be nurtured back to health. I think we’re going to be OK,” Carmen says.
Carmen thinks about her life experiences and the path that led her to the food co-op and the job she now loves. She credits the family she nannied for during college.
“The family ate all organic — they had food allergies — so I was really turned on to this way of eating. I always felt I was healthy,” Carmen explains, “but then I started eating foods without all the chemicals and pesticides and I felt just amazing that first summer with them.”
Carmen says her years of coaching and teaching help her bring out the best in people and lead by example as general manager, but it’s the values she learned growing up on a farm that have helped her the most as she nurtured the food co-op back to a healthy place. She says her dad’s influence has been the most significant.
“The lessons and community and helpfulness that I learned from my dad were very important. My dad is no longer here. I’m so thankful for him and my upbringing on the farm, that hard work ethic and knowing that you have to weather the storm sometimes to get through it to reap the harvest.”