Final Report for CNE12-096
The Farm Alliance of Baltimore City is a producer-driven membership organization. We have grown from five founding members to a network of twelve urban producers (and growing!) who are committed to increasing the viability of urban farming and increasing access to urban-grown foods. In our first season we focused on: joint branding and marketing, monthly data collections, membership standards including soil testing and inputs/amendments, a shared stand at one of Baltimore’s busiest farmers markets, a joint EBT/debit/credit machine to accept food stamps at neighborhood farm stands, shared tools and equipment, a unified voice with City negotiations, and increased training opportunities for new and established growers. In our second season, we added a healthy food incentive program, shared restaurant sales, and we are currently building a cooperative seed-starting greenhouse. While our second season data collection is still underway, our latest numbers indicate that since June 2012, we have collectively: harvested 38,902 pounds of products, coordinated 10,983 volunteer hours, generated $165,756 in sales (including over $61,475 at our shared farmers market stand and $11,147 through our collective online restaurant sales), and hosted 5,334 students and youth on our farms. Our training sessions, online resources, and how-to guides reached new prospective farmers, and we developed by-laws, a membership application process, marketing materials, and contributed to the City’s Urban Agriculture Policy Plan.
The Farm Alliance has been very successful in the overall goal of building a farmer-driven network to increase economic and environmental sustainability among Baltimore’s urban farms. We have accomplished most of our original objectives (although some were delayed until the second season) and some have changed as the group evolves.
Below is a brief summary of our current progress on the original goals:
Organizational Structure – We set out to build an organizational structure and formal platform for a network of urban farmers to work together. In early 2012, we came together to create a name, mission statement, goals for the 2012 season, and a basic membership agreement for producers. We operated somewhat informally as a group throughout the 2012 season and the following winter we developed concrete by-laws, officers, voting procedures, a clear membership application process, a more precise membership agreement, and a fiscal policy for making monetary decisions.
Branding – We worked with the Maryland Institute College of Art’s Center for Design Practice to develop a logo, brand guidelines, and promotional materials including an informational postcard, a banner, business cards, etc. The group’s members participated in design meetings to guide the development of the logo and brand identity. We also contracted a web designer to build the group’s website, including profiles of each member farm. The group’s members participated in creating the sitemap and providing feedback on the overall design. The brand design and website can be seen at http://farmalliancebaltimore.org
Aggregated Sales – We originally planned to sell through a joint farmers market stand as well as joint restaurant and institutional sales. For the 2012 season, we were fortunate enough to be accepted into Baltimore’s only year-round farmers market and the second largest market in the City. We shared the responsibility of staffing the stand and worked out systems for tracking each farm’s sales and paying-out on a weekly basis. Around the same time, a local restaurateur launched a small food hub to do aggregated restaurant sales. Because of this new business and the high volume of our farmers market stand, the group decided not to pursue our own aggregated restaurant sales in our first season. However, by spring 2013 we decided to begin collective restaurant sales through an online platform called Local Orbit as a way of promoting the Farm Alliance brand while preserving the farmer-chef relationship. While we have several loyal customers, we are still looking at ways to increase order size and consistency.
Disseminate Results – We have disseminated our results so far primarily through conference presentations and research meetings, and this winter we will be distributing a printed and electronic case study of lessons learned from our first two seasons. In early 2013, we presented “Urban Farmers Unite: Farm Alliance of Baltimore Story” at the Future Harvest conference in Virginia and the Just Food conference in New York. We focused on successes, challenges, and lessons learned for building networks of small-scale producers in urban and rural areas. We have also met with graduate-level researchers from numerous institutions around the country who are studying urban agriculture movements and farm viability.
The Farm Alliance of Baltimore City grew out of existing informal collaborations between urban farmers who saw a need to pool resources and strengthen our urban agriculture movement. At the time, Baltimore was a city with a growing interest in and enthusiasm for urban agriculture, however it lacked the infrastructure necessary to support productive and profitable urban farms. Some challenges that urban farmers face include a lack of marketing, financing, and sales resources as well as barriers to accessing land, equipment, and affordable supplies. Meanwhile, Baltimore has a demonstrated and documented demand for city-grown produce at both individual and institutional levels. Like many post-industrial cities, Baltimore has significant vacant land and is in need of innovative, localized economic development. Urban agriculture has great potential to address many problems of ailing cities across the United States, but it will be a passing fad if a City’s farms are not working together to improve economic sustainability. Members of the Farm Alliance came together to address barriers to farm viability and food access by building a formal network of urban farms with a host of economic and social programs.
The overall approach of this project was to design a farmer-driven network aimed at removing barriers to profitability. Our primary target audience for this SARE grant was the urban growers themselves and by extension the communities they serve. Our methods for gathering farmer input, building trust, and executing programming were to: 1 – Conduct hands-on working sessions with growers to learn about their priorities and needs at the start of the project 2 – After building strong rapport and individual relationships, meet monthly during the winter season to build a collective brand, mission statement, and focus areas for the first season 3 – Hold open discussions on group decisions, with member farmers having the ultimate say 4 – Evaluate end-of-season success and identify areas of growth, unmet goals, and second season priorities through an online survey and group meetings
In our end-of-season survey from the first year (the second season is still currently underway), seven farmers responded, including one first-year grower. All six returning farmers said both their farm’s productivity and profitability increased compared to the previous season and credited the Farm Alliance with providing new marketing outlets, increased brand exposure, advice and experience from fellow growers, and access to food stamp sales from neighborhood customers. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, respondents rated the statement “My farm’s needs were taken into consideration during the development of the Farm Alliance” at an average of 4.7 and rated the statement “My farm received meaningful support from the Farm Alliance” at an average of 4.8. All growers surveyed planned to continue farming in Baltimore City the following season. As a result of the work of the Farm Alliance, several farms developed their first on-farm food safety plans and all farms tested their soil for nutrients and contaminants. Farms also were introduced to new shared tools to increase on-farm efficiency, such as different types of seeders and broadforks. Many new sustainable and efficient practices were the result of growers informally exchanging ideas and advice by email and at in-person meetings. The broader public was able to benefit from this project through urban farmer trainings we offered, online resources made available through our website, and a general increased awareness of urban farms and learning opportunities.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Within Baltimore City, our outreach and education included a spring-time urban farmer training series, an annual Urban Farm & Food Fair, social media and email outreach, web presence, press coverage, and collaborating with many partner organizations. Regionally and nationally, our outreach included presenting at two sustainable agriculture conferences and attending two others for networking and learning. We also developed a case study booklet of successes, challenges, and lessons learned in forming a small farmer-driven network that we will be distributing this winter.
There are several ways that this project influences the status of agriculture in Baltimore City. Urban production farming is a very new idea, and the Farm Alliance has been an important influence on stabilizing urban farms while creating a unified voice and increased awareness. First, increased revenues and sales outlets mean urban farms are closer to financial sustainability. Our shared farmers market stand was one of the most successful components in accomplishing this goal. Second, creating a unified voice helped to attract media attention, build a broader customer base, and give us leverage in policy negotiations with City officials. Third, by building a shared brand and website we were able to make urban agriculture and Baltimore’s young urban farms better known and more accessible to City residents. These are all ways that we not only served our community of growers, but helped to grow the larger urban agriculture movement and improve its long-term sustainability. While none of our project components were totally ineffective, some still need more work. Our membership standards are mostly completed, but we need to document compliance among members and finalize the documents. We successfully piloted our shared restaurant sales in our second season, but need to increase orders to make it work long-term. Our shared tool bank has some great implements, but we need to improve the system for checking out and returning tools to maximize usage. The Farm Alliance is still a very young organization, and we look forward to continuing to streamline our operations to serve growers and the broader community in the best way we can.
The overall concept of building a concentrated network of small-scale growers could be replicated in other urban and rural areas. While there are many other agricultural cooperatives around the country, one of the more unique aspects of the Farm Alliance is the dual focus on economic viability and community access. Our organization melds a strong social and financial mission. Many components of our project – a shared farmers market stand, a tool bank, joint online restaurant sales, etc. – could be replicated by any group of growers located near one another with shared values. The potential contribution to the wider farm community would be increased sales, increased productivity, and a stronger community of sustainable growers.