Developing a Community Sponsored Vegetable Operation in Rural Northeast Michigan

2006 Annual Report for FNC05-579

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:

Developing a Community Sponsored Vegetable Operation in Rural Northeast Michigan


Establish a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm operation as a community garden to provide fresh, healthy produce to the needy in northeast Michigan and provide opportunities for community involvement in a local food initiative. The purpose of this demonstration project is to build interest in establishing a wider fresh food program to introduce larger quantities of fresh, healthy, locally grown produce into the emergency food system in Northeast Michigan. This project will also demonstrate sustainable vegetable production in rural northeastern Michigan, where typical farming enterprises are primarily focused on larger-scale alfalfa/hay, wheat, corn and dry bean production.

As a new farmer, I’ve spent the past year developing my garden plot and finishing a new barn as my center of operations. Due to deer pressure in the area (a herd of about 30 deer started grazing in the back of my property), I decided to put up a deer fence with mesh fencing and cedar posts to keep the deer out of the garden area, rather than a smaller electric fence. I planted a pumpkin patch with white cotton candy and miniature pumpkins, which we sold at a nearby harvest festival and my brother and I planted a small test garden for personal consumption. At the end of the season, I had approximately 20 tons of composted cow manure delivered from a nearby farm. This was spread over the garden plot to prepare vegetable beds for next season.

Unfortunately, I experienced a few setbacks which delayed my progress and kept me from accomplishing as much as I planned in the past year. First, after numerous delays, the carpenter who was helping me with my barn had to deal with some family issues and could not help complete the barn anymore. Because of this, I spent most of the past summer working on the barn, with some help from my father and brother, so it would be completed before winter. I also had some personnel issues and other work related issues to deal with at my full time job in the Michigan Air National Guard. These issues took a lot of unexpected time and have caused numerous long work days over the past twelve months. After discussing these issues with Susan Smalley, the Michigan SARE coordinator, I decided it was best to focus my grant efforts on the 2007 growing season. Finally, I found out I was deploying to Germany for four and a half months and left in November 2006, so I have not been available to continue work on planning and marketing over the off season. So I will also not be able to participate in the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference or Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) Family Farm Conference in January/February 2007.

All of this does have me concerned about the progress of my project, but as of now, I plan to keep moving forward when I return to Michigan at the end of March 2007. I do have the help of a local landscaper who has a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University and she has pledged her time and expertise

I have used grant funds so far to purchase a rototiller, the compost, fencing materials, and tarps, bins and shelves.

We established a small market garden this year raising 21 varieties of vegetables. Based on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model and with the help of a few dedicated volunteers, we've been delivering weekly bags of freshly harvested produce to shelters, pantries, and meal programs in Northeast Michigan since the first week of June.

While generally not new lessons for SARE or extension personnel, my biggest lessons this year were as a newcomer to farming and community involvement. My first lesson was on how difficult it is to get consensus and move forward when trying to use an open, inclusive forum to address community issues, especially when bringing a new perspective.

The focus of my project and my personal interest is to work in a way that adds value to my community. Because of this, I put a lot of effort over the past year and a half on working with community members to develop an integrated approach to addressing community food security issues within our region. In the winter of 2005, I started working to bring together interested non-profit organizations and individuals to see if there was support to start a Fresh Food Partnership in Northeast Michigan. There was interest in bringing fresh produce to the emergency food system, but also clearly a need to improve coordination among organizations that provide emergency food assistance to fully address the food needs of the community. In response to this and at the recommendation of participating non-profits and the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency (NEMSCA), we began to develop plans to establish a separate non-profit organization, the Sunrise Food Coalition, to work on food security issues. This included establishing an initial board of directors and draft by-laws.

Unfortunately, there were also a number of setbacks that kept us from moving forward. First, the biggest supporter of my project was the Corp Commander at the local Salvation Army. Capt Sells was a stalwart in the community, and his programs provide critical social and community food support to Alpena County. As the initial Chairman of the Sunrise Food Coalition, he was very interested in helping establish a Fresh Food Partnership, including supporting my project, and offered staff time to act as an initial coordinator for the project. Unfortunately, he was transferred out of the area last year, so I lost a huge benefactor.

The remaining people involved in the food coalition effort, including NEMCSA’s regional emergency food coordinator and community development specialist, were more interested in focusing on a food rescue program for the city of Alpena. They did not understand why anyone should pay for fresh produce when they can just ask for donations from area gardeners or farmers who have unsold produce.

On September 20th, 2007 from 12 to 4 pm, there will be an open house at Centurion Farms in Alpena, Michigan to discuss ongoing results of the fresh food demonstration project.