Developing a Community Sponsored Vegetable Operation in Rural Northeast Michigan

Final Report for FNC05-579

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


My farm operation, Centurion Farms, LLC, is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation, community service and education. The small farm is situated on 8.5 acres in Alpena Co, Michigan and the parcel was initially part of a 320-acre farm producing wheat, corn, and dry beans. I established Centurion Farms, LLC in 2005 and began our CSA in 2007 as a hands-on learning tool focused on using private investment and my experience in military logistics to gain personal knowledge in agricultural supply chain management and as an impetus to increase citizen involvement in local food issues. Centurion Farms grows a variety of fresh vegetables and pumpkins following sustainable practices including crop rotation, cover cropping, green manures, and composting to minimize outside production inputs, but uses organic fertilizers and composted manure from nearby farms.

As a new farm operation, we started using sustainable practices including raised beds, crop rotation, cover cropping, and hand weeding from the start.

This project was based on demonstrating the feasibility of using a CSA operation for vegetable production to feed local people in a rural area. The objective of the demonstration project was twofold: first, to see if the local community would support a private farm to grow fresh, healthy produce for the needy in our community; second, to determine if there was interest in developing a larger Fresh Food Program through a non-profit initiative in Northeast Michigan to promote local food and farm products and increase the quantity of fresh produce provided to people receiving support through the emergency food system. Problems being addressed in this project included: limited availability and consumption of fresh, local produce, especially for those with limited incomes; challenges farmers in small, rural communities face, including marketing and distribution and the ability to make a living solely from farming; and understanding barriers to entry for new small farm operations and the steps required to operate successfully.

Specific goals for the project focused on providing fresh produce to the needy through a new CSA operation. Rather then selling shares to private individuals, we provided shares at no cost to service organizations providing emergency food support to the needy in local communities.

Specific goals included:
• Quantity of produce delivered to pantries, shelters and meal programs
• Number of CSA shares sponsored or purchased
• Number of adults and children that receive support from the community garden
• Number of volunteers that participate in the farm operation and hours volunteered
• Hours of community service performed by juveniles in adjudication

As a new farm operation, grant funds were used to cover initial operating costs to establish a 1-acre vegetable market garden and provide fresh, local produce to low-income people in the area. Based on a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, we grew 21 different types of vegetables and provided 20 weekly vegetable shares to local group homes and organizations providing emergency food support to the needy. We grew vegetables on a half acre of raised beds and another half acre field using local composted manure and Poultry Plus, an organic, chicken manure based fertilizer produced by Morgan Farms in Central Michigan. Using succession sowing, multiple varieties of vegetables, and a comprehensive planting schedule, we harvested a decent variety of vegetables each week from the beginning of June through September. We provided shares at no cost to recipients for 16 weeks and have continued to harvest vegetables for selling at farm markets through the end of October.

While grant funds were used specifically to establish a market garden operation and deliver fresh produce to the needy, the project was focused on the larger goal of initiating a community food initiative in Northeast Michigan. To accomplish this, we planned to collaborate with the newly forming non-profit Sunrise Food Coalition. This group, comprised of individuals from various community service agencies and the community, was established to address food and hunger issues in the community and provide a forum for emergency food organizations to collaborate and improve overall food support to the needy. We planned to involve youth from the Juvenile Enhanced Accountability Program (JEAP), an intensive probation program run by my brother in Oscoda and Iosco Counties, to help harvest, prepare, and deliver CSA shares. We also planned to involve a local cookbook author who was participating in Sunrise Food Coalition meetings to provide information and training on how to prepare produce for meals and process fresh foods for storage.

We identified eight organizations interested in receiving fresh produce for their residents or customers. In Alpena, these organizations included Hope House, a group home for teen girls; Huron House, a group home for teen boys; The Salvation Army food pantry; Shelter, Inc, a shelter for battered women and their children; the Trinity Episcopal Sunday meal program; and the Sunrise Mission homeless shelter. We also delivered shares to a Shelter, Inc house and the Emmanuel Mission homeless shelter in Oscoda (Iosco County) and the Oscoda County Senior Center in my hometown of Mio.

Using CSA crop planning spreadsheets adopted from Brookfield Farm in Amherst, MA, ATTRA documents, and Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm, we developed a field planting plan and schedule (Attachments 1 and 2). We planned to grow for 30 shares while only providing 20 shares to recipients. During the season, with a small number of volunteers we harvested and prepared the 20 CSA shares on Thursdays and delivered the shares on Friday mornings. We then took left over produce to farm markets.

The concept for this project was to provide fresh vegetable shares at no cost to recipients. To do this, we planned to solicit religious groups, non-profit agencies, area businesses and individuals to sponsor shares using flyers, letter mailings, direct contact with organizations, and a power point briefing at meetings.

Yvette King, who has a horticulture degree from Michigan State University, provided the primary labor for this project. Yvette previously worked on the contracted grounds crew at our local Air National Guard facility until this year when a new contract was let and a new contractor was hired. Yvette volunteered over 40 hours a week and was critical to the success of this project. She took over management of bed prep, planting, weeding, and harvesting and essentially acted as the full time farmer for the CSA. We experienced near drought conditions with no rain for over six weeks in July and August, and without the availability of a full irrigation system, Yvette kept all the plants watered and alive throughout the season. Yvette also delivered shares to recipients in Alpena each Friday.

Raymond Botkin, my father, drove 60 miles from Mio each Thursday to help with the harvest and delivered four shares to the Oscoda County Senior Center.

Chip Botkin, my brother, runs an intensive juvenile program in Oscoda and Iosco Counties. Each Friday throughout the season, he delivered shares to Shelter, Inc and Emmanuel Mission in the city of Oscoda. Chip would pick up kids in his program from Iosco County on the way to Oscoda and have them help deliver shares.

I contracted Ben Worth, who graduated from Alpena High School in 2007, to work on the farm. Ben helped maintain and harvest vegetables and also helped prepare shares each week. I paid Ben using revenue generated from farm market sales.

The following volunteers also helped harvest vegetables and prepare shares on various Thursdays throughout the season: Pat Ahrens, Randy MacAulay, Donna MacAulay, Ian Riper, and Ken Robb.

Doug and Lee Kirkpatrick, from Briar Hill Farm: Doug and Lee run a pastured beef, poultry, and pork operation in Herron, Michigan. They let me use a Country Pride Cooperative trailer equipped with chest freezers to haul our products to farm markets in Elk Rapids and Traverse City. We jointly marketed and sold our products at the farm markets and used the trailer, which had been sitting idle for over two years, to help identify our products as chemical free. Country Pride Cooperative was initially started by a group of meat producers to market their organic and natural/pastured products, but the cooperative has not been active in several years.

Finally, I dragged my three children, ages 10, 8, and 6 to farm markets in Elk Rapids and Traverse City with the hope they would help out a little bit and experience some of the fruits of our labor. They did help a little bit (appropriate to their ages) and also on occasion helped pick up rocks and pull weeds from the garden.

What results did you achieve and how were they measured? Include yields, field analysis, and related data. How do these compare with conventional systems used previously? Were these results what you expected? If not, why not? What would you do differently next time?

Results for the specific project measures included:

• Quantity of produce delivered to pantries, shelters and meal programs
o Over 16 weeks we harvested 3,435 lbs of fresh vegetables grown on .52 acres (total bed acreage)
o Approximately 60%, or 2,000 lbs, went to shares or was donated after farm market

• Number of CSA shares sponsored or purchased
o 1.5

• Number of adults and children that received support from the community garden
Measures of support differ depending on the type of organization supported; we did not receive a breakout of adults versus children in our end of season surveys
o Group homes provided support to residents, so for the most part, the same people received support each week
o Hope House (18), Huron House (14), Shelter, Inc (12), Sunrise Mission (20), Emmanuel Mission (2) = 66 people per week
o Meal programs provided support on an individual per meal basis; many of the people supported could be repeat customers, but are counted separately
o Oscoda County Senior Center (187 people/week), Trinity Episcopal Sunday Meal program (50 people/week estimated), = 237 people per week
o The Salvation Army food pantry reported numbers of families supported per month (18) and over entire season (85)

• Number of volunteers that participated in the farm operation and hours volunteered
o Eight volunteers participated in the CSA and provided 1,102 hours of labor

• Hours of community service performed by juveniles in adjudication
o Essentially no community service was performed by juveniles in the JEAP program due to liability concerns and the senior probation officer in Iosco County decided she did not want juveniles traveling to Alpena County to help with the CSA
o While some kids did help my brother deliver shares in Iosco County, they were not directly involved in the operation of the CSA

What did you learn from this grant? How has this affected your farm or ranch operation? Did you overcome your identified barrier, and if so, how? What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a project such as yours? If asked for more information or a recommendation concerning what you examined in this project, what would you tell other producers?

What went well
• As a new operation starting a CSA, I believe we accomplished a lot in our first year. Despite limited equipment, especially irrigation, and limited availability of labor, we consistently provided 20 shares each week to eight different locations.

• The overall quality of what we grew was outstanding, especially our lettuces, green onions and leeks. We received the ultimate complement on the quality of our produce when a long-established CSA purchased items from us at our farm market booth on a regular basis to supplement her shares during a down year due to health issues.

• Our raised beds worked very well. Initially, the soil in our field had a soil matter content of less then 3%. We added over 20 yards of composted manure from a local farm to build the raised beds. The beds helped with water drainage and warming the soil in the spring, made it easier to control weeds, and allowed focused application of organic fertilizer and irrigation throughout the season.

• The volunteers involved in the CSA were absolutely amazing. Their help harvesting, preparing and delivering shares was critical to the success of the project. Yvette King in particular stepped in and ensured the quality and consistency of our produce by essentially working full time at the CSA on a volunteer basis.

What didn’t work so well

• I have a full time job in the Michigan Air National Guard and at times, it keeps me much busier than expected. A change in personnel took a lot of unexpected time and caused numerous long work days during 2006. I also deployed overseas from November 2006 through March 2007 so I wasn’t able to coordinate and market the CSA project during the off season before the 2007 growing season.

• Actually securing sponsors for our shares. Our concept was to find sponsors for each share to provide shares at no cost to recipients. But our approach to gaining sponsors once I returned from my deployment was limited. We immediately began building and prepping raised beds and planting and transitioned directly into weeding, watering, harvesting, delivering and selling produce at farm markets. Balancing marketing and production at the same time was practically impossible, especially when I have another full time job.

• With limited resources available (to purchase additional equipment or hire more help), lack of weed control and irrigation in the back field significantly reduced our planned yield. Our sweet corn, broom corn and winter squash did not grow. I planted a quarter acre of pumpkins but we couldn’t keep the weeds out as well as we would like, they were attacked by squash bugs, and most of the plants died after the extended hot, dry weather with no rain in July and August. We also lost arugula, rubicon Chinese cabbage, and some spinach to pests such as flea beetles and a very heavy earwig infestation.

• Concerns over liability kept us from pursuing more volunteers to help on the farm. When I obtained insurance for the farm property and barn, I talked to a local insurance agency about my interest in involving youth on the farm to perform community service by helping provide fresh, local vegetables to the needy. They advised me insurance brokers would not provide coverage if I had volunteers helping in the farm operation.

• Our record keeping was not as thorough as I would have liked. We weighed everything harvested during the CSA season, so we know the quantity of vegetables produced (Attachment 3). But we did not keep track of exactly what went in to each share and overall share weights until late in the season. We also didn’t keep track of quantities of various vegetables sold at farm markets, so we can’t readily identify how profitable different types of vegetables really were. This was more from a shortage of time, labor and energy, then from a lack of understanding the importance of record keeping.

• Involving juveniles in the program. Because of the concerns over liability and the Iosco County probation officer not wanting juveniles traveling outside their county, we did not involve Juvenile Enhanced Accountability Program participants directly in the CSA as planned.

Lessons learned

• For small-scale sustainable farm operations, production and marketing at the same time is very difficult if not impossible. This is a critical issue for new farming enterprises and new folks need help with both.

• In rural Northeast Michigan, where the population is very dispersed in relatively small towns, the farm markets are not large enough to consistently support full time farm jobs. The revenue I generated from farm market sales in our first year of operation essentially covered my contracted part-time farm help and gas.

• Growing production and sales to a point where you can cover your fixed costs is a huge barrier to entry for new farm operations. It is obviously a lot easier for sustainable farm operations if your family already has a large farm with facilities and equipment. Starting from scratch is not a great idea. I’m able to do this because of my full time job and my specific situation where I’m separated from my family during the week. But I was only successful (production wise) this year because Yvette King volunteered full time throughout the season. With a horticulture degree from Michigan State and experience working in nurseries, Yvette was critical to the success of the CSA this year. But even with her full-time volunteer help, shortage of labor kept us from producing and harvesting as much as we could have. But lack of capital and revenues kept us from hiring more help or purchasing more time saving equipment. While we understand you need to grow new businesses slowly, the challenge is to grow fast enough to generate enough revenue to make it economically feasible in the short run.

• Most people in Northeast Michigan we encountered during this project have not heard of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) approach to farming. Many residents are focused on the cheapest price and don’t necessarily see the social benefits of directly supporting a local sustainable farm operation. There are pockets of interest and we have received a few inquiries about CSA shares for next year, but as of yet no firm commitments.

• Potentially, a lack of marketing skills impacted our ability to get our message across and secure support for our program. A prevalent attitude we encountered among many community service agency employees was “why would we pay for fresh produce when we can ask farmers and gardeners to give it to us for free?” Also, when presenting project information to the local Rotary Club and other potential non-profit funders, their initial impression was I was only trying to get money from them for my own personal benefit and to help pay for my farm operation. This may have been because I put too much emphasis during the presentations on gaining experience with starting a new farm operation to eventually help other new farmers rather then focusing on providing food support to the needy. It was also difficult to explain our longer-term emphasis on creating opportunities by opening up markets for fresh local produce to create new jobs in the community.

• In 2007, there generally was not support for an individual private farm to grow fresh produce for the needy in Northeast Michigan. With only 1.5 shares sponsored (we received $737 in donations), financially, this approach was unsuccessful. Due to the circumstances, however, this question was not fully answered. Being deployed for five months during the off-season, when I should have been marketing the program and pursuing sponsors, was a huge detriment. During the season, we received a lot of anecdotal support for our approach including letters and thank you cards. We also received strong support from our recipients to continue the program and requests to provide classes on nutrition, preparing fresh produce for meals and processing for storage.

• There are a lot of great programs in Michigan to help develop ideas and business plans, but hands-on help for new farmers is still limited. While mentorship and farm transition programs will help some new farmers establish their farm operations, older farmers often are not open to new methods and don’t provide a very dynamic learning environment. As the State strives to strengthen and grow the market for locally produced foods across Michigan, there will be a huge need for more farmers and younger farmers to help meet this demand. The Student Organic Farm at Michigan State, which is training students on the operation of CSAs, is an awesome program that will help immensely. But graduates of the CSA certificate program still need to find jobs or land to begin their own operations. I believe establishing new farmer programs at working farms, where entrepreneurs can grow new businesses in a fun supportive environment with cheap land, facilities, and equipment readily available, will greatly help in developing successful new farmers.

Further Discussion
A major personal lesson from this project was on how difficult it is to get consensus and move forward when trying to use an open, inclusive forum to address community issues, especially when bringing a new perspective. The focus of my project and my personal interest is to work in a way that adds value to the community. Because of this, I put a lot of effort over the past two and a half year on working with community members to develop an integrated approach to addressing community food security issues within our region. As part of the overarching initiative, I started bringing people together in January 2005 to see if there was interest in establishing a Fresh Food Partnership in Northeast Michigan. The Fresh Food Partnership is a coalition of six non-profit agencies in Northwest Michigan which raises money locally to purchase fresh produce from area farmers and distribute the fresh, healthy foods over a five county area to shelters, pantries and meal programs that are part of the Northwest Food Coalition. The program has consistently grown, from providing 7,600 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to pantries in a six-county region in 2003, to over 35,000 pounds during the 2007 growing season.

In Alpena, there was interest in bringing fresh produce to the emergency food system, but also clearly a need to improve coordination among organizations that provide emergency food assistance to fully address the food needs of the community. In response to this and at the recommendation of participating non-profits and the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency (NEMSCA), we began to develop plans to establish a separate non-profit organization, the Sunrise Food Coalition, to work on food security issues. This included establishing an initial board of directors and draft by-laws.

As part of this process, I coordinated a memorandum of agreement (Attachment 4) among five non-profit agencies to support establishing a fresh food initiative in Northeast Michigan based on the Fresh Food Partnership agreement in Northwest Michigan. Signers of this agreement included the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce, the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, The Salvation Army of Alpena, Randy MacAulay for the Sunrise Food Coalition, the Land Information Access Association, and Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS).

Unfortunately, there were a number of setbacks that kept us from moving forward. First, the biggest supporter of my project was the Corp Commander at the local Salvation Army. Capt Sells was a stalwart in the community and The Salvation Army programs provide critical social and community food support to Alpena County. As the initial Chairman of the Sunrise Food Coalition, he was very interested in helping establish a fresh food initiative, including supporting my project, and offered staff time to act as an initial coordinator for the project. Unfortunately, he was transferred out of the area last year, so we lost a huge benefactor. The remaining people involved in the food coalition effort were more interested in focusing on a food rescue program for the city of Alpena. They did not understand why anyone should pay for fresh produce when they can just ask for donations from area gardeners or farmers who have unsold produce. We could not reach consensus on the focus of the coalition and after I departed for Germany in November, 2006, the effort to establish the Sunrise Food Coalition ended. When I returned in April, 2007, my focus turned to our CSA project and preparing beds and planting vegetables.

Despite this delay, there remains a strong core of support for establishing a wider initiative in Northeast Michigan. As a result of our working group dinner and coordination with potential project participants, we received tremendous positive feedback and have established a small working group to continue developing a community food project. This working group includes representatives from Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG’s) Entrepreneurial Communities Initiative, Target Alpena Development Corporation, Presque Isle County Community and Economic Development, Alpena Community College, Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce, The Salvation Army, ACES Academy alternative high school, and area producers. The interest and focus of this group is more on the potential for developing local enterprises and creating employment opportunities rather then solely focusing on providing food support to the needy.

We have begun meeting and working on an action plan for developing an entrepreneurial agriculture program focused on involving youth and young adults in the CSA program. The goal is to increase the quantity of fresh produce delivered to the emergency food system while providing training on work skills and business development. A secondary goal is to establish a marketing campaign for locally produced foods and value-added products.

Outreach efforts for our project included:

• To initially solicit sponsors for CSA shares, we developed a three page description of our CSA project (Attachment 5), a monthly schedule which shows what vegetables are typically available (Attachment 6), a tri-fold hand-out (Attachment 7), and a letter requesting support which we sent to a number of non profit organizations and churches in May 2007. These organizations included the Alpena Rotary Club, Alpena Lions Club, Hunters’ Harvest for Charity, the Knights of Columbus, and six Catholic churches in Alpena and nearby communities. We also joined the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce and sent a letter with sponsorship form (Attachment 8) to over 500 Chamber members.

• On July 16th, I sent a news release based on the sponsorship letter to the Alpena News and also emailed the release to a number of individuals and organizations interested in sustainable agriculture. The Lifestyles editor was interested in my project and wrote an article on the CSA (Attachment 9) published on August 3rd. This article piqued the interest of members of a church in Rogers City and they decided to use a peace offering fund to support my program. They sent me a check to sponsor my first share. I also received a call from St Vincent DePaul in Alpena and they said they were interested in joining the program in 2008.

• At various times through the summer, we briefed our project to an Alpena Rotary Club luncheon with approximately 50 people in attendance, the Alpena Area Ministerial Association, and the Alpena Garden Club.

• We participated in a “Cooking with local foods” class at Alpena Community College, providing five varieties of lettuces for salads and other vegetables. Eighteen people paid to attend the continuing education class and Yvette King and I gave a short presentation on our project.

• We held an open house on September 20th to provide share recipients and other interested community members an opportunity to see the farm. Working with MIFFS’ communication specialist, we developed a one-page flyer (Attachment 10) announcing the open house, which we sent to each of the recipient organizations and distributed to the Northeast Michigan Coalition for the Prevention of Homelessness and Hunger, a coalition of community service agencies and non-profit service providers, which acts as the Human Services continuum of care for a five-county area in Northeast Michigan. We also emailed the open house flyer to MIFFS, NC SARE farmer/rancher grant coordinator, who placed an announcement for our open house on their website, and the National Catholic Rural Life Council, who forwarded the announcement to their contact list of people residing in Michigan. 32 people attended, including representatives from share recipient organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, neighbors, Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) council members, and other farmers interested in sustainable agriculture. We held a ribbon cutting with the Chamber’s Community Ambassadors and the Alpena News printed an announcement in the paper.

• .In conjunction with the open house, we held a working group meeting over a meal of local foods on September 20th at the Michigan Air National Guard’s Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. The purpose of the working group was to present results of our fresh food initiative, discuss local interest in pursuing a wider community food project in Northeast Michigan and to gather inputs and suggestions on the potential focus and scope of such an initiative. Dr Joe VanderMeulen, from the Land Information Access Association (LIAA), also provided a presentation on the Fresh Food Partnership, a current community food program in Northwest Lower Michigan. We invited representatives from CSA share recipient organizations, local government, non-profit funding organizations, community service agencies, the Chamber of Commerce and area businesses. We also coordinated participation of the MIFFS Council, who held their council meeting at Kirkpatrick’s farm in Herron in conjunction with the field day and dinner. The dinner menu included pasture-raised chicken, curried pumpkin soup, fresh Northern Michigan salad, seasonal vegetables and a dessert of ice cream floats featuring the local brewery’s Ripsaw Root Beer. 32 people also attended the dinner. Our results briefing we provided at the dinner is included in Attachment 11.

• Future planned outreach includes writing an article on our experience to be included in the MIFFS Memo newsletter, briefing the results of our project at the Michigan Family Farms Conference, and holding informational meetings in Alpena and Gaylord to provide information on sustainable agriculture and seek members for our CSA program.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.