It started as a Palm Sunday experiment. A Minnesota forestry professor tested the idea of offering environmentally friendly palms to churches to protect the forests in Central America and to support the palm laborers' communities. This past week — a dozen years later — nearly 1 million "Eco-Palms" were delivered to churches across the nation.

It's still a small fraction of the estimated 45 million palms that will be waved in U.S. churches this weekend. But Eco-Palm branches will be swaying in nearly 5,000 churches in 49 states.

And it's all orchestrated through a low-budget operation based in a small office on the University of Minnesota campus and the homes of a former St. Paul florist and several temporary staff.

The Minnesota-grown enterprise, tapping the thriving environmental movement among religious groups, may be unique in the nation.

"As far as I know, we're the only ones doing this," said Dean Current, director of the U's Center for Integrated Natural Resource and Agricultural Management, who launched the project. "We've got kind of unique partnerships that makes this work, and that would make it hard to replicate."

The partnerships start with four communities in Guatemala and Mexico where workers tend palm forests using "sustainable" practices.

An environmental group in each country trains workers and coordinates with a U.S. palm importer. A Minnesota businessman oversees sales and distribution.

Meanwhile religious partners such as Lutheran World Service and the Presbyterian Church USA emerged as de facto product marketers, sparking an initial blitz of publicity.

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul was one of the first to sign on. When its members march around the block Sunday, they'll be waving pesticide-free palms harvested by workers getting a cut of the profits.

"On Palm Sunday we celebrate a world in which we take care of each other and take care of the earth," said the Rev. Bradley Schmeling, whose church boasts a rain garden, bee-friendly plants, only LED light bulbs and fair trade coffee. "For us, Eco-Palms are a way to bring caring for creation into the worship service."

Moving a million

Few Christians even consider how palms land in their pews. But swiftly transporting nearly 1 million fragile palm branches to 5,000 churches can be a challenge, Current said.

Deliveries must be prompt. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is a major Christian holy day marking Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem as supporters waved palm branches before him. There is no Palm Monday for late deliveries.

Unlike fair-trade coffee, with a long shelf life, palm leaves dry out. There's roughly a two-week window to swiftly move fresh branches from Mexico and Guatemala through church doors, Current said.

A key player on the Minnesota end is Don Hermes, a former St. Paul florist who has been coordinating sales and delivery since early on. Last weekend, his crew was sorting through hundreds of boxes of palms at a local warehouse. On Wednesday, he was still rushing to the warehouse for final orders.

"My job is to get everyone their products, on time, and in good condition," said Hermes, who considers his work a labor of love.

Minnesota is an unlikely hub for a product rooted in tropical sunshine. The project came about after Current, an expert in Central American forestry, was contacted in 2000 by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Staff asked if he'd study the feasibility of marketing fair-trade palms.

Five years later, the first batch of branches landed in the Twin Cities. Current — who had taken the churches' orders on his office phone — loaded up his van and personally delivered 5,000 palm branches to North Dakota and Minnesota. It took four days.

"We quickly realized this was not sustainable," he quipped. That's when FedEx came to the rescue.

A typical order today is about 250 to 300 palm fronds, which costs $78 plus $22 shipping, said Current. That's how many were delivered to Central Presbyterian Church in St. Paul this week.

On Friday, the green branches were laid out across the front row pews, drying. Office manager Anna Sanchez created a couple palm arrangements in vases near the altar.

"Social justice is important to people in this church, and the palms are one more way to show it," said church music director Jennifer Anderson, eyeing the blanket of leaves. "And having this be local is a neat connection."

While Protestant congregations have embraced the new palms, Catholics are not signing up in droves. Curious about that, Current discovered that Catholics prefer a palm variety with a longer stem they can braid, not the shorter, multi-leaf branches of the Eco-Palms.

$50,000 raised

In recent years, about $50,000 from palm sales is sent annually to host communities, Current said.

In Guatemala, the money has paid for student scholarships, teachers and a community kitchen. In Mexico, projects included a retirement fund for palm cutters and a palm cold storage unit, he said.

"The people decide what to do with the money," he said.

But the arrangement has also hit some snags. Some villagers believe they should be getting paid more, since their palms are sold at a much higher price than they are paid in wages, acknowledged Current, who said the costs of processing and distributing drives up the U.S. sale price.

Meanwhile one of the accountants in Guatemala stole some cash, he said. And a change in leadership at the U.S. palm importer has created slower payments to the villages, which have limited financial safety nets.

To give more financial stability down the road, Eco-Palm partners are considering creating an endowment fund for them, said Current.

Eco-Palms also wants to crank up its marketing to religious groups, he said, as it hasn't done any significant outreach in years. The goal is to put the project on solid footing for the future so that the communities in Mexico and Guatemala can independently "pick this up and run with it."

Current said Eco-Palms has been a successful beyond his dreams, adding, "I wish we could repeat this 100 times, in other locations."