A Workers Cooperative Food System Approach to Climate Resilience

Progress report for FNC22-1344

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,120.00
Projected End Date: 01/15/2024
Grant Recipient: MARSH
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

We operate a network of four local urban agriculture plots. The first is a one-acre food forest that was established in 2019 in partnership with Gateway Greening, the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation (CCBF), and a group of neighborhood farmers and volunteers. The second is a ½-acre patch attached to the MARSH Grocery location and was established in the spring of 2018. The third garden was a grassy double lot until spring of 2021 when MARSH developed it into a food production and is loaned to us for our use by CCBF. The fourth was a long narrow double lot that had been maintained by a former school teacher in the neighborhood and established with a wide variety of vegetables, flowers, perennial plants, and fruit trees. The gentleman donated the lot to MARSH in the spring of 2022 after a number of years of neglect.
MARSH attempts to grow any vegetables that can be produced in the St. Louis climate. We have no power equipment and all farm tasks are performed by hand and back. Two of the four sites are permaculture-based designs and the Quincy lot (the newest patch) will be developed in that direction as well though no agricultural chemicals have ever been used there. While not certified at this time, organic growing techniqueshave always been practiced 100% of the time. We use home-produced and city-produced compost to develop and enhance beds, and city water hydrants for irrigation.


The most pressing issue for the food system is impacts from climate change. It is incumbent upon this farming generation to work at the grassroots of food production among those populations that are most precarious and thus most vulnerable to climate effects. Beth Neff of the MARSH Cooperative seeks to develop strategies for climate resilience in a low-income neighborhood through a cooperative approach that supports the community economically and socially while exploring innovations in climate-responsive sustainable urban agriculture methods.

MARSH’s program model is based on the integration of food system components – a network of urban agriculture plots, a licensed kitchen, and sliding scale grocery cooperative – managed by the participants. This integrative approach localizes food resources, improves both economic and logistical access, advances positive health outcomes, promotes human agency, reduces ecological impact, virtually eliminates food waste, and builds community and social value through a relational economy. In partnership with Laura Belarbi and Laura Gatlin of the Food Patch, Beth Neff proposes to establish an expanded workers cooperative to farm four varied locations that will make more food available, test climate response strategies, and build a foundation for resiliency in a neighborhood that is most vulnerable to climate impacts.

Project Objectives:

Our project seeks to strengthen an existing integrated food system using principles of climate resilience. We plan to accomplish this objective by:

  1. Hiring and training a locally-sourced worker cooperative team to collaboratively farm four neighborhood plots in order to make a reliable and accessible supply of fresh produce available at a sliding scale cooperative grocery.
  2. Comparing the four locations to apply and evaluate methodologies for responding to climate pressures (heat, insects, weeds, moisture levels) while also attending to social pressures of climate change and appropriate responses.
  3. Building a climate resiliency template to initiate discussion at a workshop hosted by MARSH.


Materials and methods:

row coverfood patchminnesotaquincyGrocery

Our two-year project was designed to strengthen an existing integrated food system using principles of climate resilience. We planned to accomplish this objective by:

  1. Hiring and training a locally-sourced workers cooperative team to collaboratively farm four neighborhood plots in order to make a reliable and accessible supply of fresh produce available at a sliding scale cooperative grocery.
  2. Comparing the four locations to apply and evaluate methodologies for responding to climate pressures (heat, insects, weeds, moisture levels) while also attending to social pressures and appropriate responses.
  3. Building a climate resiliency template to initiate discussion at a workshop hosted by MARSH.

The first step for the project was to hire the members of the cooperative team. We ended up rehiring several workers from the previous gardening season whose experience made them excellent candidates to help with planning for the new season. We hired three garden workers and also used funds from another grant to hire additional assistance at the Food Patch food forest where two of our collaborators focused their energies.

All members of our team reported:

  1. improved diets based on access to fresh produce
  2. increased interest in cooking at home
  3. desire to gain more knowledge about gardening and cooking
  4. higher quality of life due to decent wages and access to lower cost (or free) fruits and vegetables
  5. appreciation for group decision-making processes
  6. a sense of accomplishment

Everyone also expressed high levels of fatigue with the physical demands of farming, especially in extreme heat, and ambivalence about farming in general due to these stresses.

We selected a number of seed varieties based on their stated insect and disease resistance, heat tolerance, adaptation to low moisture levels, pollinator potential, and capacity as companions to other crops. We then added a new compost layer to all planting beds, aiming for a depth of no less than 12 inches of friable soil and nutrient access. We laid out a garden plan that would allow us to test the health of plants in a variety of environments, and noted any specifics of growth habit, production, insect or weed pressure in each of the environments. Due to recent experience with certain problematic insects (harlequin bugs, squash beetles, aphids), we installed a combination of row covers and insect screens to susceptible crops and also tested some mulching strategies (leaves, black plastic, landscape fabric, decayed chips, etc.)

Though we will really need the second year to make extensive useful conclusions, we are able to report the following:

  1. Due to a very hot summer, our most successful crops were those that experienced a bit of shade, more than we have come to expect is suitable for vegetable crops. Our best plot was the permaculture design garden where we were able to direct plant fall seed crops (unsuccessful in other locations due to high soil temperature and dryness) and we were able to maintain greens such as lettuce and kale through the summer.
  2. Though normally used to raise temperatures, we discovered that row cover actually provided a bit of shade while helping to protect plants from insects. Unfortunately, the use of row cover in early fall created a serious aphid problem.
  3. Heat stress to young plants at the food forest was somewhat catastrophic. We lost a couple of young trees, all of the blackberries, and a few grape plants. We are aware that a more extensive and frequently scheduled watering system will be critical to the ongoing success of the food forest. The present system, though mostly underground, requires hoses from a city hydrant which have to be taken out at the beginning of watering and brought back in at the end due to a high rate of vandalism in the neighborhood.
  4. Insect screen was highly successful at protecting crops from early insect pests, less so as the season progressed (also, we discovered, no impediment to ground hogs that ripped through the screen!)
  5. We will experiment a lot more next season with companion planting as we noted some early success with marigolds and calendula in combination with greens (provided shade, moisture retention, and a bit of insect protection) and radishes with cucumbers and zucchini.
  6. All mulches were successful at improving moisture retention and reducing weed pressure. None had any noticeable influence on insect populations. Weeds were far less of an issue in the gardens with the most history in exact relationship to the amount of compost over time (5-year garden, virtually no weeds: 2-year garden, some grass invasion and the need for one or two thorough weedings; 1st-year garden for us – this garden had been neglected for a number of years before we took it over for the first time this year – high weed pressure.) We will focus our attention on mulching heavily in the newest garden next year.

Our last objective, building a climate resilience template, will happen in the second year of the grant.

Research results and discussion:

Measurable analysis of project outcomes were mostly focused in this first year of the grant on agriculture and food infrastructure. We wanted to know how the benefits of local urban agriculture would be distributed and at what scale.

Equitable land access was addressed by providing fair-wage positions to members of the community who described themselves as low-income and/or food insecure. With this grant and the addition of a small amount of other funding, we hired four farm workers who would otherwise have likely had no access to land and expressed an interest in farming in the future. We also welcomed volunteers on a weekly basis who inquired about such opportunities at the grocery store or contacted us through the Food Patch. Throughout the season, more than 150 volunteers came out to the gardens one or more times. All food grown at the Food Patch is available to the public free of charge. Our other three gardens provided free food to neighbors on a regular basis, either through word-of-mouth “help yourself” channels or by placing produce on the sidewalk after each day’s harvest (cracked melons, slightly insect-damaged tomatoes, etc.)

Food access was directly measured by sliding scale transactions at the grocery store that included produce grown by MARSH. Over the course of the season, we provided $5106 in subsidies through 355 transactions that included MARSH produce. Total sales of MARSH produce equaled $11,411. This sales figure does not include the produce that was distributed through our CSA program which supported 35 member families over 26 weeks.

We will seek to understand more about strategies for maintaining food supplies under climate pressure and increased climate resilience in the second year of this grant.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The educational and outreach aspects of our project will all occur in the second year of the grant. We intend to develop extensive outreach materials to communicate results, invite participation, and inform the public and the media of our endeavors. 

Learning Outcomes

7 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

The most significant outcome of this project has been the initiation of important conversations throughout the community about climate resilience. The first year has given us innumerable opportunities to explain to neighbors who visit the gardens and patrons at the grocery what this project entails and what our hopes are for the coming year. High points include:

  1. Connecting with an extensive network of local farmers who are interested both in evaluating some climate strategies on their own farms and learning from others about their processes.
  2. Connecting with agricultural and environmental professionals who will be interested in participating in the planning and execution of a Climate Symposium at the end of 2023.
  3. Connecting with MARSH Co-op patrons who are already members of the co-op or who have signed up for our newsletter in order to receive regular updates about programs and events over the coming year.
  4. Connecting with neighbors who are interested in participating in the development of a grassroots climate resilience project.
  5. Connecting with artists, creatives, organizers, and activists who will help build communication networks and develop materials for next year’s symposium.

So often, the work that farmers do is out of the public eye. Food seems to just magically appear on grocery shelves with little thought to how it got there until there is some interruption in the supply or prices go up. Our gardens and grocery store bring food directly into people’s consciousness, especially with the opportunity to discuss ways in which more people can participate in production, supplies can be more secure, access to healthy options can be improved, and growing methods can be more sustainable. This project effectively integrates the production and the consumption of food, creating more agency and awareness for everyone involved, and creates a model for expanding the roles and responsibilities in maintaining a fair and ecologically-sound food system.

Project Outcomes

7 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
15 New working collaborations
Success stories:

We are members of a working group that has applied for partnership grants together and meets monthly to discuss food systems issues in our region under the organizational umbrella of Solidarity Economy STL. An exercise over the summer asked each participant (there were 8 farmers there) to name the top two issues that their respective farms/organizations would like to see the working group focus on. I was the only person who mentioned climate resilience in the initial conversation, but, since then, I have had conversations with almost everyone in the group about this SARE project and what we're hoping to do next year after gathering research results and creating a network of participants. Everyone I spoke to wants to be included in that process, plans to conduct some type of climate-related research on their own farms in the coming year, and is excited about meeting together to discuss and evaluate the results of that research next fall. This feels to us like a great example of both grassroots organizing AND the value of showing rather than just telling. Also, everyone who worked on the project this year is excited to apply some of the strategies we learned to next year's planting. There is really nothing more inspiring than having a solid plan and seeing it come to fruition!

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.