• Develop a community garden.
• Create a cooperative farmers market.
• Educate people on the importance of sustainable agriculture.
• Establish a model other producers can emulate.
Given the price advantage of national food markets and the growing fierce competition among organic farmers, several organic growers in Carbondale, Colo., decided to pool efforts to develop a community garden and create a farmers market. In the process, they hoped to educate people about sustainable agriculture and provide a model for others to follow.
“The mission of the Carbondale Community Garden Cooperative,” say the SARE grant recipients, “is to create a viable alternative to the dominant food production system by developing a forum of local people to grow, trade or sell their own food.”
In 2000, the cooperative established a communal growing space with five producers on land belonging to a local school. The land was rented at a minimal rate with the understanding that the students could work in the garden and grow some produce. The five growers saved resources by pooling equipment and labor.
The Carbondale Community Garden Cooperative garden was established in the fall of 2000 when the Carbondale Town Council dedicated a plot of town land. The public works department built a fence, installed an irrigation system and delivered topsoil. A public meeting determined the growers, who, along with volunteers, made pathways and designed plots. As of 2001, 20 people were growing produce at the garden, and the town agreed more space would be made available depending on the garden’s success.
Local businesses donated money, and the garden participants attended classes on organic gardening. Technical advisor Lulu Volkhausen served as head gardener and consultant.
While the Town Council agreed to set aside the community garden plot, produce from it was not allowed to be sold at the farmers market. The solution: Home gardeners used the town land, and market gardeners rented the private ground. The increased supply of organic produce from the cooperatively developed rented land enabled the farmers market to double in size in 2000, requiring the cooperative to expand in production and add a second market day.
“As a result,” says the group’s report, “more organic food was available to serve a growing population of consumers, allowing more growers to make more money at the market.”
Education from the SARE project included the distribution from the market stall of material encouraging home gardeners to apply organic methods along with a list of resources and articles ranging from biodiversity to genetically modified organisms. The group also succeeded in persuading the town council to support an organic community garden despite strong opposition from several council members.
The Carbondale SARE-grant recipients cite several benefits from their project. They have set an example in the community that food production is a viable business and community asset. They have developed a market that allows individuals to make part-time income. And they are serving the town and consumers by allowing them to shop locally. The garden group has also shown the value of cooperation.
“By pooling our resources and our labor, both in the growing and marketing arenas, we have developed techniques that not only affect our bottom line by sharing resources and eliminating wastes, but also helped to add to the momentum of our efforts,” says the group’s report. “We feel the cooperative has attempted to address the risks associated with farming, and we have created a community network that honors the efforts of the farmer.”
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
The cooperative process has allowed participants to be part-time growers, which lends itself to flexibility and other income sources.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
For others interested in setting up a cooperative market, the group underscores that there is much to be learned from working together. A cooperative is a radical approach to business that requires communication and respect.
“Take time in the beginning to set up your infrastructure,” they say. “It will serve you well in the future. Don’t get too big too soon because you will need a strong core group to lay the foundation.”
In addition, they recommend laying a groundwork of education among council members. If necessary, they suggest sidestepping town laws by soliciting private landowners to donate land for community gardens.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
The community garden cooperative, planning to disseminate information over the Internet, is building a Web site that it hoped to have operating by the end of 2001. The group is also producing a short talk and slide show to present at local schools, the idea being to demonstrate the viability and value of sustainable agriculture.
Farmer Wendy Anderson, the project coordinator and treasurer who developed and distributed educational materials, says the collective transformed her relationship with agriculture, making it 100% easier and more enjoyable.
“It has been more economical and efficient, not to mention emotionally empowering, to work with others with the same vision,” she says. “It has been encouraging to see both consumers and participants in the market embracing the importance and value of local micro-enterprising.”
Carol Weis, a flower and vegetable grower, echoes Anderson’s enthusiasm.
“The most positive aspect of the farmers collective is allowing me more free time while maintaining my own business,” says Weis. “Working with other growers allows the responsibilities of harvesting, watering and marketing to be shared.”
Local baker Pam Goldman says the farmers market increased her business 30%, and the feedback from consumers at the market has allowed her to fine-tune her products and try new ones.
And Katharine Rushton has used the cooperative venue to enter farming. She plans to expand her produce lines and says the experience has built confidence in her future in sustainable agriculture.