Multi-farm CSA: A Group Marketing Initiative for Rural Northern Michigan

Project Overview

FNC00-292
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2000: $14,890.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $12,097.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: melons, apples, berries (other), berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), lentils, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips, brussel sprouts
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, goats, rabbits, swine, sheep, fish
  • Animal Products: dairy

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture, marketing management

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    The existing CSA is located at Wagbo Peace Center, an experiential education center teaching sustainable agriculture and nonviolence. This farm is a working model of a sustainable, diversified family farm. it includes a 30 share organic CSA garden, permaculture greenhouse heated with laying hens (SARE funded), rotationally grazed draft horses/calves/dairy cows, apiary, 2200 tap maple syrup operation, sustainable woodlot management with WoodMizer band saw mill, direct marketed pastured poultry with mobile processing cooperative (SARE funded), pastured hogs, woodworking shop with sustainable Ag intern housing (W.K. Kellogg funded), and youth at risk farming apprenticeship program. Rick and Tracy Meisterheim have built and operate the farm, as well as administer its programs. Many educational tours happen based on this farm’s diverse nature and sustainable systems.

    John and Cindy Dutcher farm approximately 300 acres in the Eastern U.P. of Michigan. Their operation consists of beef cattle, sheep, goats, swine and poultry all raised in a biologically sound and sustainable manner (farm is transitional to organic certification). They also have an on farm MDA inspected poultry slaughter facility.

    George and Sally Shelter own and operate Shelter Family Dairy in Kalkaska, Michigan. This 40 cow dairy farm uses only sustainable methods including no use of antibiotics, hormones, manmade chemicals or herbicides. They bottle and market their milk in glass bottles.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    The Multi-Farm CSA project in East Jordan, Michigan has ended its second successful season. In September 2000, a coordinator was hired to facilitate this new project. His initial job entailed networking with farmers in the northwest Lower Michigan area, to find other farms interested in producing for the CSA. He found farms already producing their products organically, farms in transition to organic, and farmers who realized that they needed to become organic but did not know where to begin. An organic growers forum was established as a once a month educational series to educate these farmers about transitioning to organic methods. Four sessions, January through April, were attended by an average of ten farmers per class. As this was not originally part of the proposal, we considered this to be highly successful.

    A meeting was held in January 2001 with farmers interested in producing for the CSA. Nine points were covered:
    1) What does a “share” look like?
    2) How often do I have to deliver?
    3) How long is the delivery season?
    4) What should I charge for a share?
    5) When do you need my commitment if I’m offering a share?
    6) When will I know how many shares are sold?
    7) How do the finances work?
    8) What “shares” are you looking for? And
    9) What is my responsibility to the “shareholders”?

    Fourteen farms were represented at this meeting. A share producer information form was handed out. Any farm wanting to produce a share for the season was directed to fill out the form and submit it by the end of February. In addition to the vegetables and chicken produced by the host CSA, twelve share proposals were submitted.

    As each farm expressed an interest, on sight visits to potential participating farms were conducted to insure sustainable farm practices were being used.

    A brochure was created explaining the concept of CSA and the products available for the season. The coordinator developed individual information sheets for each producer with their photo and a sign up form for their share. These were sent out to customers as requested through the main brochure or by telephone. An article with photo was printed in six local newspapers and brochures were posted in every community within a 50 mile radius, along with press releases to all local public forums.

    Shelly Gradwell was brought in to speak with the farmers and coordinators on May 8, 2001. She is a coordinator with the Magic Beanstalk CSA in Aimes, Iowa a 17 farm CSA through the University of Iowa. This experience allowed her to answer questions and make recommendations to our farmers and coordinator.

    The final list of producers resulted in 14 share options being offered, including a great variety of fresh vegetables, pasture raised chickens, raspberries, fresh cut flowers, sweet corn, beef, pork, lamb, veal, turkey, honey, eggs, rainbow trout, rabbit, milk, cream, ice cream, ground beef, breads and grains, shitake mushrooms and asparagus.

    An invitation was sent to all prospective shareholders, inviting them to meet the farmers, taste food samples, and sign up for shares. On May 22, this informational meeting was conducted, giving details about the process, answering questions, and sampling products. This was an opportunity for the subscribers to connect with the farmers growing their foods, and the farmers to continue to direct market their products through the Multi-Farm CSA program. Over 80 people participated in this hugely successful introduction to local foods. Sales of shares doubled, many selling out that day.

    On June 19, a letter to the editor was sent to local newspapers, encouraging last chance sign ups for shares not already sold out.

    The first week of July marked the first shareholder pick up days. Several farmers brought additional samples to taste and sell, encouraging shareholders to sign up for the full season and reinforcing the connection between producers and consumers.

    Throughout the course of the summer, cooking classes and bread baking classes were offered to shareholders, using provisions directly from the very shares they were receiving. These classes were offered during regularly scheduled pick up times in hopes of encouraging high participation; however participation was not as good as anticipated due to the busy summer schedules of the majority of the shareholders. Those that did participate gave very favorable feedback.

    An end of the season potluck was held October 18th for all who participated. This was a great opportunity to continue the community building process. Entertainment was provided, everyone brought a dish to pass and hay rides and old timey games were offered for the children. Approximately 50 participated in the event. The potluck was the first opportunity for shareholders to respond to our CSA survey, in which we asked for constructive feedback in a two page questionnaire. The survey was then mailed to anyone who had not already responded. A stamped return envelope was included to encourage response. Of the 116 households participating as shareholders, 49 have returned surveys (42%) and more continue to arrive daily. Overall responses are very positive, despite the poor growing season experienced in northern Michigan.

    An evaluation meeting was scheduled with the farmers and Shelly Gradwell for November 8, 2001. Due to busy fall schedules, attendance was too slow to hold the meeting. As an alternative, evaluation forms were mailed to each farmer along with the survey results related to the share they provided.

    Shareholders from the 2001 season were given first chance to reserve shares for next season, beginning in January 2002. On March 1, 2002 all remaining shares were offered to the public on a first come first serve basis. The spring event with samples and farm demonstrations were repeated in May. Many of the same shares were offered in the second year, with a small number of farmers dropping out and a few more joining in for the first time. We increased our share offerings to 24 in our second year. Improvements were made in the ordering forms and record keeping system as well.

    With the main infrastructure developed through this grant process, we were able to barter coordination for food shares for the 2002 season. The first year, one of our vegetable shareholders did the weekly newsletter in exchange for a half price share. During this season each farmer provided 5% of their gross sales for the “coordinator fund” as their marketing expense. We then found someone willing to trade coordination for food shares, up to the total value of the fund. This coordinator was responsible for farm contracts, mailings, advertising and publicity, events, the weekly newsletter, and evaluations. She worked for the 18 week season, June through October 2002. The host CSA was responsible for the finances.

    OUTREACH
    Tracy Meisterheim (CSA project administrator) presented on the topic of this Multi-Farm CSA project at the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference in Gaylord, Michigan on January 26, 2002 and at the Michigan Organic Food and Farming Alliance Winter Workshop Series in March 2002. In December 2002, she will present at the Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Grand Rapids and in March 2003 she will present at the Michigan Organic Conference. We see a great need to duplicate this project all over the state and hope to present at many conferences in the coming years to encourage new CSAs to expand.

    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.