Progress report for FNC21-1293
MARSH is operating two farm lots. One is focused on permaculture systems and the other uses more conventional row crop techniques. Both produce vegetables made available to the community through a sliding scale cooperative grocery store. The permaculture plot was established three years before the grant and uses only organic farming-based production strategies. The other plot was established with funds from this grant, using sheet mulching techniques to establish growing beds on what was formerly a grassy lot and only organic methods for weed and pest control. The manager of this project has been an organic fruit and vegetable farmer for 30 years.
Low income families and people of color have been systemically excluded from land-ownership and food production while suffering the worst consequences of food insecurity, nutritional constraints, and lack of agency. Beth Neff, director/farmer of the MARSH Food Cooperative, and Mitchell Pearson, St. Louis farmer, seek to address these inequities through an integrated “ecosystem” of consumers and farmer worker-owners. By developing urban neighborhood food production capacity, we hope to improve access to high quality, locally grown organic vegetables while providing fair wage labor opportunities, promoting sustainable land use, building social capital, modeling democratic cooperative enterprise, generating innovation, and improving quality of life.
Our project will expand MARSH’s existing urban farm by developing a large neighborhood lot into a market garden that will be farmed by paid worker-owners and will supply food through our cooperative grocery at sliding scale prices to members of the co-op and the community. Participating farmers will make group crop, production, and marketing decisions and may also develop value-added products through our licensed commercial kitchen space. By pooling resources to increase economic access and providing agricultural professionalization opportunities in an urban setting, we believe cooperative farming can be a viable strategy for food justice and sustainability.
Our primary objective is to create a worker-owned urban farming cooperative that grows food for a consumer co-op and the broader community. The first step will be to engage the neighborhood in the project through meetings that share the vision for community food production, food equity, fair employment, and democratic governance. The second step will be to organize labor teams, select leadership, define the tasks, and identify necessary resources for their accomplishment. Next, teams will be charged with transforming a grassy lot into a viable food production environment, planting, maintaining, harvesting, preparing, and marketing the resulting produce cooperatively.
- - Producer
The local neighborhood association has made a vacant double lot available to MARSH for use as a cooperative market garden. In order to carry out the project, we will engage members of the immediate community who are interested in earning a fair wage to produce fresh produce for their neighbors, convert a grassy lot into a productive vegetable plot, and explore the benefits and limitations of a worker-owned cooperative model for urban food production. Our methodology stems from a combination of permaculture-informed agricultural strategies and collaborative learning theory which emphasizes the evidence-based value of embodied practices, shared investment, social commitment, and personal agency. As a group, project participants will sheet mulch 18 thirty-foot rows with cardboard and soil/compost mix and lay landscaping fabric and chips between the rows. The group will determine crops and spacing through existing knowledge, reading, discussion, internet research, and shared experience, along with guidance from project coordinators and the MARSH gardening library. Responsibility for planting and maintenance will be shared by the group and/or delegated to teams which will shift throughout the season so all participants have an opportunity to engage in every aspect of the garden. As crops become available for harvest, the group will determine the best strategies for preparing and marketing the produce, and perform the tasks necessary for maintaining freshness and quality of the product while ensuring that it is physically and economically accessible.
Throughout the season, interested worker-owners will have the option to participate in field days at other urban farms. In addition, guest farmers will be invited monthly to share knowledge, answer questions, and work side-by-side. Finally, co-op consumers will be able to visit the garden at any time, see where the produce available through the co-op is coming from, talk with the growers, and engage as volunteers.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The project supported by this grant has attracted a lot of attention in the community. We established the new grant-supported plot with a series of workdays that attracted high attendance and helped us locate possible candidates for the job openings we were offering. Much of the attention has also focused on the connection between the farm plots and the use of the food to supply our new sliding scale cooperative grocery store. Several events that focused on the grocery opening brought persons interested in the farm lots and multiple tours, both scheduled and spur-of-the-moment, resulted. We have also been contacted by several ag professionals for conversations regarding local ag support, produce marketing, grant processes, technical assistance, etc. and have developed relationships with other farmers seeking markets, and new and innovative approaches to both urban agriculture practices and labor equity. Our organization also has a weekly newsletter that we send out to over 300 recipients.