Creating a Farmer-youth Sustainable Production and Marketing Cooperative for a Group of Black Farmers in Van Buren County, Michigan

Final Report for FNC99-251

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1999: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
LeRoi Ray
Farm School Cooperative
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Project Information


This project is a reaction to a chronic American problem, the few number of black and minority growers in Southwest Michigan counties of Kalamazoo, Van Buren and Cass. The main thrust is to increase the number of growers practicing sustainable agriculture in vegetable crops for home table consumption. We designed and tested a demonstration Youth Hands on Science Farmers Market Cooperative model in our area based upon a model used by Lead Researcher Ray retired Professor, at Western Michigan University. This group of experienced black farmers in the Farmers Cooperative included Doc Anderson, Barbara James Norman, and Leroy Ray Jr. Anderson has vegetable crop space of 5 acres, Norman 5 and Ray 6 acres. Growers Ben Brown decided not to participate. Janet Walker, Cass County, was selected and replaced him with 8 acres in two garden spaces. Anderson, Norman, Walker, and Ray served as project coordinators and formed the Black Farmers Cooperative.

Ray’s the Farm Research Cooperative includes more than 20 acres of tillable soil with another 10 acres of woods, a museum, science laboratory building, bunk-house, barn theater, a small fishpond, walnut trees, apple trees, cherry trees, three large vegetable gardens and registered quarter horses. The major crop are table vegetables, corn, beans, greens, watermelons, blueberries, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, and okra. Horses are show and riding for children who participate in the garden projects. Grazing is rotated.

The Farm Research Cooperative joins with Doc Anderson and Barbara Norman, blueberry growers and gardeners. Anderson has one hundred sixty acres in blueberries, a large farm house, a storage barn, a large green house, well equipped tool shop, assorted heavy equipment, three ponds, several wells, two mechanical berry pickers, and two garden spots. Anderson has chickens, birds and dogs. Norman has fifty three acres of blueberries, a large farm house, two small farm houses, tool barn, pond, wells, two tractors, spray tanks, and two large vegetable plots. The large garden spots are located adjacent to the farmhouse and small tool shed. Norman has horses with a small hayfield. Walker has 160 acres, a large farmhouse, a small farmhouse, small tool shed, with more then 20 acres tillable, and two acres of garden.

Before this grant Ray, Anderson, Norman and Walker had only a loose coalition of youth who occasionally had small gardens on one Bloomingdale spot. We had not engaged the USDA & NRCS agency technical support staffs in sustainable vegetable crop production with a local youth oriented Farmers Market Cooperative. We did hold a winter EVN camp on environmental issues.

Since the grant, we have recruited and trained more than 35 young growers to work with local governments, university and USDA & NRCS technical staff to learn and test the latest in sustainable crop growing practices. These sustainable crops practices taught composting, soil testing and erosion practices, vegetable crops production, chemical usage, and pest control. Since the grant we have conducted two new environmental (EVN) camps, in addition to our normal winter camp. We have conducted our research on garden sites in four separate communities. These seasonal EVN camps study how the USDA & NRCS, along with local growers, are working to save soils, water, reduce toxic chemical usage and protect natural resources. George Heffner, District Conservationist, Kalamazoo, Bruce Green, Resource Specialist, Van Buren County, Julie Pioch, District Conservationist, Van Buren County, Leslie Hainey, District Conservationist, Berrien Springs, all work with us in developing the Farmers Market Cooperative. The sustainable crop production and farmers market cooperative is new and a result of this grant FNC99-251. We have formed a composting committee, collected documents on certified composting, and have held several grower recruiting programs such as a young scientists talent show, a science paper reading contest, and a gospel music festival. Students preformed and won prizes for reading on Black scientists. These youth are our target for growers’ research next year.

We added two new groups: Dan Lee, Youth Recreation Director, Cassopolis, 12 students and Ruby Standfill, Head Youth Group of her Church, Pullman and students.

This SARE grant was concerned with teaching youth sustainable agriculture crop production and farmer cooperative implementation. We had youth from four communities involved in vegetable crop production and farmer market cooperative designs. Technical support staff from USDA & NRCS conducted sessions in crop production. Professional experts from the Michigan Alliance for Cooperatives assisted with cooperative organizing and formation.

In addition to sustainable crop production and marketing, the project addressed a serious problem of supply of black and young candidates for science training and careers in agriculture.

The project goals: to create a youth farmer marketing cooperative that would:
- Grow vegetables via sustainable agricultural techniques
- Develop a vegetable crop farmer market cooperative
- Market vegetable crops produced locally
- Connect our farmer market cooperative with USDA &NRCS technical staff
- Contribute to the education of the local community about sustainable agriculture
- Learn how to produce healthy foods for the table
- Spread the word on sustainable crop production

The project plans: The project plans called for us to organize a working core of coordinators to organize, set specific objectives, and carry out the operation scheme. We planned three garden sites in three communities. We created a talent organization to gather families to hear about what we plan. The plans called for our annual writer EVN camp with technical staff from USDA & NRCS conducting workshops. Our plans to recruit committed people, select and order seeds, select garden sites, put in the crop, care and harvest resulted in better outreach publicity. Our plans called for parent involvement in transportation, recruiting programs, and outreach. The plan was to organize, set tasks, produce vegetable crops, harvest and sell the produce locally.

Process: The process included several phases

Phase one: organizing the marketing and production team, constructing an operation plan, selecting vegetable crops and production sites. The stakeholders met and agreed on the goals, objectives, activities, and anticipated results. We agreed upon an evaluation plan that fit our operation.

Phase two: implementation. Putting into operation the project design and testing the cooperative’s ability to produce vegetable crops. Worker’s position descriptions are a must and should be used. We decided who would do specific tasks and how the positions will be evaluated.

Phase three: care of crops, grown to harvest, and marketing the produce. Evaluation and revision phase at project end.

People: the project producers and technical support persons were:
- Doc Anderson, Blueberry grower – instructor, vegetable crop production, land owner
- Barbara James Norman, Blueberry grower
- Janet Walker, Project Coordinator – instructor, vegetable crop production, land owner
- George Heffner, District Conservationist, Kalamazoo County USDA & NCRS technical information
- Leslie Hainey, District Conservationist, USDA & NRCS Berrien Springs technical information
- Dr. Maynard Kaufman, Organic grower, Bangor – instructor, consultant and land owner
- Joel D. Welty, Executive Director – Michigan Alliance of Cooperative, cooperative formation.

The project helped a small farmer market cooperative produce 14 vegetable crops in four communities. Youthful growers were the primary workers and marketers. Most of the growers had not used sustainable practices before this grant. This was the first farmers market cooperative designed and implemented around vegetable crop production in this area. We had the support and assistance of parents, local USDA & NRCS government technicians, and growers. The youth met and took a photograph with Ron Williams, State Conservationist and he promised to put their picture in his office. The young growers raised and sold the 14 different vegetable crops to local consumers. Some crops did better than others. The growers sold their produce door to door and at the farmer’s market.

Student growers made presentations at the Annual Meeting of the Michigan Alliance of Cooperatives in East Lansing, MI and met agency heads and community leaders. The produce sold by youth at Vandalia site made $176. The dollars were divided p among the youth workers, according to a formula of time worked, at the awards ceremony at City Hall, Vandalia.

Some of the produce was distributed to senior citizens, churches and given to homeless people to advertise our youth at work. Produce at other sites were handled in promotional packages too; harvested, distributed to seniors, churches, used as dinners for youth events, schools, and homeless folks.

We made a big thing at community dinners with vegetables produced by youth workers in all four sites. The vegetables were used as promotional items at the community and church dinners to recruit for next year’s growers.

We learned that our program for producing food locally and training youth in hand so science had wide support, was workable, gained wide spread attention, and that our local USDA & NRCS technical staffs were willing to assist. We learned that lots of parents and local growers agreed. We learned to recruit young growers, form a cooperative, produce crops, market produce, and evaluate the results. We learned that a great desire for healthy foods exists in this area; more and more parents want healthy food for their tables; parents want positive learning experiences for their youth; the state of Michigan has an intense interest in sustainable crop production because the consumers are there. Local growers want some of the “bugs” worked out of the “organic” crop production system and welcome our research. We learned how to involve local government agencies and growers in a sustainable agriculture project. Our fourteen vegetable crops grown in four separate communities with eight adults and thirty five children were impressive to the communities. Consumers at the farmers market asked for more.

Project impacts:
The impacts of this project can be determined by several means. A large number of youth were made aware of sustainable crop production; an increasing number of parents were wiling to assist and get involved; local USDA & NRCS staff made a commitment to assist next year. Local consumers wanted the vegetable crops grown by the local youth; additional organizations are now talking about us and wanting to get involved; made new friends and USDA & NRCS agencies are full team members of our technical in kind support staff. Most importantly young folks are excited, telling their friends, awaiting next year, and are recruiting more growers to the project.

We had excellent outreach into the surrounding communities regarding project operations and distribution of information. More importantly, this spread technical information about sustainable agriculture. Parents were excited and wanted to be involved, provide transportation and volunteer support. Local growers asked questions about chemical usage and source.

We made lots of pictures, student handmade fliers, poster signs, and a publicity network was organized. Consumers wanted more vegetables than we could produce.

We made positive impact at the Michigan Alliance of Cooperative Annual Meeting when our young growers met:
- Jeff Moser, Director of Cooperatives and Economic Development, National Farmers Union
- Spencer Norman Jr, President Michigan Alliance Cooperatives
- Janic Pearl Brooks, Dean Muskegon Community college
- Thirty five members of the Alliance who purchased melons from our young growers.
- A group of six young gardeners and their adult leaders from Muskegon Heights.
- State Director, Donald Hare, Michigan Department of Agriculture
- Jason Church, State Head of Rural Development USDA
- Village Mayor, Sandra Mose-Ursery, Vandalia.

We have made impact with local consumers at Farmers Market in two counties. We have impacted the research on sustainable agriculture in the three target counties. We have made impact on consumers who purchased vegetables locally. USDA & NRCS agencies got great publicity out of our working together process.


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.