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AnnMarie O'Malley of Co-op Partners keeps it organic

For AnnMarie O'Malley, her position as a buyer for Co-op Partners, a wholesale warehouse in St. Paul, MN, that deals mostly in organics, is in itself organic -- an integral part of the whole.

Ms. O'Malley, 26, graduated from the University of Wisconsin- Superior in 2003 with degrees in art and social work. While acknowledging her studies might appear unrelated to her chosen career path, that isn't really the case, she said, "because the business I work for is organics, and its practices are very ethically responsible."

Having previously worked and volunteered in both produce and social action, Ms. O'Malley said, "Now I feel like I am melding the two. We strive to support the small sustainable farmer."

Her parents, Terese and Vincent O'Malley, played a big role in her interest in agriculture and organics in particular. The O'Malleys are Community Supported Agriculture farmers -- alternative farmers who sell shares in the organic fruits and vegetables they raise. "They were a really big influence," Ms. O'Malley said of her parents.

The O'Malleys have been farming in Wrenshaw, MN, for the past five years. In addition to produce, they raise organic turkeys and breed golden retrievers. Before moving to Minnesota, they farmed in the La Crosse, WI, area where Ms. O'Malley grew up along with three younger brothers and two younger sisters.

"There were a lot of organic farmers in that area," she said, noting that the region had been "missed by the glaciers," leaving it hilly and therefore not as desirable to big agriculture but ideal for smaller growers working smaller plots of land.

"A lot of it was hard work; we were outdoors a lot," she said. "I was really able to develop an appreciation for sustainable agriculture and being responsible for the environment -- and that it was possible to have a sustainable farm and be ethically responsible."

She started out feeding the turkeys at age 7, a chore that was rewarded with money in a childhood savings account. The experience of working on the family farm fostered an appreciation for gardening and flowers and vegetables and horticulture. One of her early jobs outside the family was working for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, planting flowers on the school grounds. Other career influences include a stint at a People's Co-op store in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, where she attended college for a year before returning to Wisconsin. After graduating, she worked as a case manager for victims of domestic violence. She has been actively involved in environmental activism in both Washington and Minnesota, with such groups as WashPIRG and Minnesota Clean Water Action.

She wasn't raised strictly organic. "My parents were laid back about what I chose to eat. They let me make my own choices. As a young adult, I realized I preferred organic."

Ms. O'Malley said that it isn't difficult for her to maintain an organic lifestyle "because there are so many great co-ops in the Twin Cities area."

She joined Co-op Partners in May as the company, owned by the Wedge Community Co-op, began expanding into more grocery items. She handles the frozen line as well as dates, apples, pears, herbs, sprouts and soy products.

Co-op Partners sources from local farmers in season, with much of its product in winter coming from California growers. The company makes a practice of traveling to its growers, and Ms. O'Malley said that she is eager to visit suppliers both close to home and farther afield.

"For example, we buy goat cheese from a small operation in Montana," she said. "I'd love to be able to travel to the farms we buy from."

Travel is a leisure pursuit as well, one that was nurtured by family trips as a youngster. "I did a lot of camping trips as a kid, backpacking, hiking down through the Grand Canyon," she said. Ms. O'Malley has been to 45 states, some of them as a child, with just Hawaii, Florida, Kentucky, Maine and New Hampshire left to cross off her list. "I'd love to go to all five," she said.

She also has traveled extensively in Latin America, with trips to Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico under her belt. She said that she is not particularly fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, but has never found language to be a barrier. "I travel pretty low maintenance. I just try to experience the local culture."

If her workload permits when things slow down next winter, she would like to take several weeks to explore China or Laos. Why Laos? "I'm curious about that region, and I have friends who have been there and have really enjoyed the experience," she said.

Ms. O'Malley continues to create art. A painter in oils and mixed media, she also makes collages using "lots of fabrics and textiles" and does embroidery. She is a writer, the author of both a humor column called "My Life As a Book" published in Transistor, a Duluth, MN, magazine and a series of children's stories about pirate Grace O'Malley - a true-life figure during the reign of Elizabeth I with a likely family connection to the contemporary O'Malleys -- in New Moon, a children's magazine.

Ms. O'Malley rides her bike to work most days (another environmentally integrated practice) from her home in the nearby neighborhood of St. Anthony Park in St. Paul. She is embracing her role at Co-op Partners wholeheartedly.

"I work with people who have been in the produce business for decades, and they have so much experience - they really know the business," she said. "My advantage is plain old youthful enthusiasm. I think it's great that I'm in this new position and doing product development and things like that."