Establishing a Regional Community Food Project in Rural Northeast Michigan

Project Overview

FNC07-654
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: barley, oats, potatoes, rye, sunflower
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, celery, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), sweet corn, tomatoes, turnips
  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Animals: bovine, poultry
  • Miscellaneous: mushrooms

Practices

  • Animal Production: free-range, grazing management
  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, mentoring, networking, workshop, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, community-supported agriculture, marketing management
  • Natural Resources/Environment: hedges - grass
  • Pest Management: physical control, row covers (for pests), mulching - vegetative
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, public participation, community services, employment opportunities, social networks

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    My farm operation, Centurion Farms, LLC, is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation, community service and education. The small farm is situated on 8.5 acres in Alpena Co, Michigan and the parcel was initially part of a 320-acre farm producing wheat, corn, and dry beans. I established Centurion Farms, LLC in 2005 and began our CSA in 2007 as a hands-on learning tool focused on using private investment and my experience in military logistics to gain personal knowledge in agricultural supply chain management and as an impetus to increase citizen involvement in local food issues. This is not a typical family farm operation, but a project I began based on personal interests and circumstances. Yvette King, with a BS in Horticulture from Michigan State University has been the primary grower at the CSA and was also motivated by an interest in supporting sustainable agriculture, growing local healthy foods, and teaching others interested in organic farming.

    Centurion Farms grows a variety of fresh vegetables and pumpkins following sustainable practices including crop rotation, cover cropping, green manures, and composting to minimize outside production inputs, but uses organic fertilizers and composted manure from nearby farms. We currently have 2.5 acres fenced, ½ acre in raised beds, and a 30’ x 96’ passive solar hoop house.

    As a new farm operation in 2005, we converted a larger field previously growing winter wheat and grew field pumpkins the first year. We started using sustainable practices including raised beds, crop rotation, cover cropping, and hand weeding from the start. In 2006, we began adding composted manure and preparing raised beds for the 2007 growing season.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    This is the core of the report. Consider what questions your neighbors or other farmers or ranchers would ask about what you did with this grant. Describe how you planned and conducted your research or education project to meet your goals and discuss the results.

    GOALS
    The overall goal of this initiative is to support community development in Northeast Michigan by creating opportunities for new and expanding local food and farming enterprises while providing assistance to those facing hunger in our community. Specific problems being addressed include limited availability and consumption of fresh, local produce, especially for those with limited incomes, challenges sustainable farmers in small, rural communities face with marketing and distribution, understanding barriers to entry for new small farm operations and steps required to operate successfully, and lack of opportunities for youth and young adults.

    Specific project objectives included:
    - Develop CSA to provide 20 private shares in addition to 20 shares donated to pantries, shelters, and meal programs
    - Provide nutrition and food preparation classes to food recipients
    - Pursue self sustainability through increased sales at farm markets and direct outlets
    - Develop implementation plan and funding strategy for entrepreneurial agriculture program for at-risk youth
    - Pursue local location to produce and package value-added products for market
    - Collaborate with sustainable/organic farms to cooperatively products through CSA, farm markets, and other outlets

    This grant project built on an earlier 2005 individual farmer-rancher grant based on demonstrating the feasibility of using a CSA operation for vegetable production to feed local people in a rural area. The objective of the demonstration project was twofold: first, to see if the local community would support a private farm to grow fresh, healthy produce for the needy in our community; second, to determine if there was interest in developing a larger Fresh Food Program through a non-profit initiative in Northeast Michigan to promote local food and farm products and increase the quantity of fresh produce provided to people receiving support through the emergency food system. The concept was to provide 20 CSA shares to pantries, shelters and meal programs while pursuing sponsorships and fundraisers to provide the fresh healthy vegetables at no cost to the recipients.
    To understand the environmental, economic and social impacts of this project we established the following specific project measures:
    -Quantity (in lbs) and dollar value of fresh produce delivered to emergency food organizations; our goal: 4,000 lbs
    -Number of CSA shares sponsored and donated; our goal: 20 shares at $425 per share
    -Number of private CSA shares purchased; our goal: 20 shares at $425 per share
    -Dollar value of Centurion Farms produce sold at farm markets/other outlets: our goal: $400/week over 20 weeks
    -Dollar value of other producers’ products sold through Centurion Farms CSA
    -Number of adults and children that receive support from the community garden; our goal: 400
    -Number of adult volunteers helping at the farm; hours volunteered; goal: 20 with 400 hrs
    -Hours of community service performed at the farm by at-risk youth; our goal: 1000 hrs
    -Number of ‘hits’ on initiative website, once established

    PROCESS
    There were five primary components to this project, which included:
    -CSA Operation
    -Youth Involvement
    -Hoop House Construction and Season Extension
    -Cooperative Marketing
    -Presentations and Demonstrations

    Grant funds were primarily used to hire Yvette King as the CSA manager and part time farm help, purchasing seed, and fuel for transportation. In 2008, we also purchased and erected a 30’ x 96’ Rimol passive solar hoop house for season extension (discussed below). Finally, we began development of a website for the Sunrise Food Coalition, to promote the community food project and begin marketing local food and farming businesses in Northeast Michigan.

    CSA Operation
    Grant funds were used to support the continuation of the first full community supported agriculture (CSA) farm operation in rural Northeast Michigan. As discussed above, a key goal of the project was to provide fresh, healthy produce to the needy while providing opportunities for at-risk youth and other community members to participate in a local food initiative. In 2007, we began the CSA operation and provided 20 vegetable shares to eight organizations providing direct support to homeless and at-risk populations. We provided these shares at no cost to the recipient organizations. The concept was to solicit sponsorships from religious groups, non-profit agencies, area businesses, and individuals. In 2008, we increased operations to support 20 donated shares plus an additional 20 private shares. Fresh food recipients in 2008 included Hope House, a group home for teen girls; Huron House, a group home for teen boys; The Salvation Army food pantry; Shelter, Inc, a shelter for battered women and their children; the Trinity Episcopal Sunday meal program; St Vincent DePaul food pantry; and the Sunrise Mission homeless shelter.

    Youth Involvement
    A key component of this community food project was beginning to provide learning and job opportunities for at-risk youth. While the initial demonstration project introduced fresh, healthy vegetables into the emergency food system through shelters, pantries, and meal programs, we did not want to only give fresh produce away for free.

    Initially, as part of the grant we were going to work with ACES Academy, an alternative high school in Alpena, to develop an implementation plan and funding strategy for an entrepreneurial agriculture program for at-risk youth. The concept was to adopt a curriculum and hands-on training program which provided training on all aspects of running a small business as well as experience working at the CSA and producing and selling organic vegetables. This effort would also support the fresh food project, providing fresh, healthy vegetables to the emergency food system. After we received the grant, the principal at ACES decided they could not participate at the time due to other issues and commitments they had to deal with. However, we still have the goal to develop an entrepreneurial agriculture program in Northeast Michigan and did continue youth involvement as discussed below.

    Two recipients involved in the project, Hope House and Huron House, are group homes for teens who have been removed from their families through the court system. Teens from both homes directly participated in the production of vegetables at the CSA and harvesting and preparing shares for distribution. They also received lessons on nutrition, healthy eating, and other aspects of operating a small farm operation. Additionally, over both summers (2008 and 2009), teens from the Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps provided community service while working at the CSA. The purpose of getting youth involved was three-fold: first, to introduce at-risk youth to fresh, high-quality, nutritious vegetables and show them where food actually comes from (the earth and farms, not grocery stores and factories) so they can live healthier lives; second, to build interest in sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and the potential for pursuing further education and careers in agricultural fields; and third, to provide training and experience to interested youth and young adults so they can succeed as farm workers and add value for existing small, local farms or begin farm enterprises of their own.

    Hoop House Construction and Season Extension
    Over the summer of 2008, we erected a 30’ x 96’ Rimol ‘Nor’easter’ passive solar hoop house at Centurion Farms. Using $5,000 in grant funds, we spent approximately $11,000 on the hoop house frame and materials and used volunteer help to put up the hoop house. We purchased a gothic-arch style framed hoop house, which is the same model used for a hoop house study conducted by David Connor at CS Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems and Adam Montri at the MSU Student Organic Farm and Michigan Food and Farming Systems. (see: Hoop houses for season extension: Are they right for you?)

    In Northern Michigan, our growing season is fairly short, with planting of early season crops beginning in April and harvesting primarily June through the end of September. A hoop house allows us to extend the growing season and begin cool season crops as early as February and harvest through November/December. We decided to erect the hoop house to help support a full-time farmer working year round and also to continue growing crops during the school year to support a youth training program.

    Cooperative Marketing
    As part of the community food project, we wanted to raise awareness of local farmers, market their products, and also begin supporting the development new farm operations in Northeast Michigan. The majority of farming in the region is currently focused on grains and corn, with only 7.6% of farms in the region producing fruits and vegetables representing only 0.1% of farm acreage. Over the long-term, through a buy-local campaign, our goal is to strengthen existing small farms to the point they can hire additional employees as well as increase the numbers of sustainable farms and farm acreage growing fruits and vegetables in Northeast Michigan.

    During the grant period, cooperative marketing efforts focused on promoting local farm products through the CSA and at local farm markets. This included working with Briar Hill Farm and Marlin Goebel to sell pastured meat products and eggs, Chris and Monique Williams for cultured mushrooms, and John Whitehead as he develops Bush Rd Berry Farm. Each of these farms participated in CSA distributions at Centurion Farms and began to pursue opportunities to cooperatively market and sell products at farm markets and other outlets.

    In 2009, we began work on a website for the Sunrise Food Coalition (a group of non-profit agencies that support the community food project) and Centurion Farms CSA, which includes a buy local page providing information on farms selling local food and value-added products in Northeast Michigan. We decided to use approximately $2,000 in grant funds to reimburse the Land Information Access Association (LIAA) in Traverse City, Michigan to design and set up our websites. Our concept is to build a buy local webpage with links to individual farm pages for interested farms around the region. While we could have developed a website for a lot less money using local resources, LIAA is already working with Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) on a Regional Prosperity Initiative, which includes supporting local agriculture in Michigan, and they are already working on a few other website projects promoting Northeast Michigan. LIAA has also built similar websites for the Fresh Food Partnership (http://www.freshfoodpartnership.org) and CSA Farms (http://www.csafarms.org) in Northwest Michigan. We believe with this approach, we will build a build a solid, professional foundation for promoting the community food project and expanding the buy-local campaign in the future.

    Presentations and Demonstrations
    To promote the community food project, Centurion Farms CSA, and the Sunrise Food Coalition, we provided numerous presentations and on-farm demonstrations. The primary purpose of our outreach was twofold: first, to share information from our experiences with other farmers and community members; second, to solicit support for our initiative and further develop the
    community food project.

    We held CSA information sessions at a local coffee house to solicit private members for the CSA. We provided numerous briefings on the community food project, sustainable agriculture, and our NCR SARE grant to local government, civic, and non-profit groups. Additionally, Yvette King provided briefings and on-farm demonstrations on season extension using passive solar hoop houses. We also participated in sustainable agriculture conferences to share information from our project and collaborate with other sustainable farmers in the region.

    PEOPLE
    - Yvette King, CSA manager; BS in Horticulture from Michigan State University, primary grower for the CSA; Yvette also led numerous presentations and on-farm workshops, as well as provided hands-on education and training to youth from Hope House, Huron House, and the Alpena Youth volunteer Corps
    - Ella Haselswerdt, co-producer; helped with bed-prep, planting/transplanting, weeding, harvesting for the CSA. Ella also helped develop the Sunrise Food Coalition website
    - Matt Fitzpatrick, co-producer; helped with bed-prep, planting/transplanting, weeding, harvesting for the CSA
    - Alissa McPhail, MSU Intern, MSU Student Organic Farm CSA Program; Alissa helped with all aspects of the CSA, including attending farm markets in Alpena and Gaylord. Alissa also assisted with education and training of youth volunteers working at the farm
    - Doug and Lee Kirkpatrick, Briar Hill Farm; Doug and Lee run a pastured beef, poultry and pork operation on 160 acres in Southwest Alpena County. All of their cattle are grass fed and they do not use growth hormones or antibiotics. Briar Hill Farm sold their products at the CSA and Lee also helped develop the Sunrise Food Coalition website.
    - Marlin Goebel, pastured beef farmer from Hillman; marketed organic beef through the CSA
    - Chris and Monique Williams, Michigan Mushrooms, LLC; Chris and Monique worked at the CSA in 2008 and initially began their mushroom production at Centurion Farms over summer 2008. In 2009, they moved their mushroom production into family property in Alpena and continued to market their mushrooms through the CSA.
    - John Whitehead, Bushy Road Berry Farm; John has been developing a new fruit farm over the past few years and will have his grand opening in May 2010. John began marketing his berry farm through the CSA and at the Alpena farm market.
    - Randy MacAulay, Volunteer Coordinator for the Sunrise Food Coalition;
    - Rhonda Proulx, Nutritionist at Alpena Regional Medical Center; provided nutrition and healthy eating classes for fresh food recipient organizations
    - Lee Shirey, Target Alpena EDC, 235 W. Chisolm St, Alpena, MI 49707, (989) 354-2666
    Primary contact for NEMCOG Entrepreneurial Communities Initiative, providing project advisory group; Lee also administered local grant funding for regional initiative in 2008
    - Adam Montri, MIFFS and MSU Student Organic Farm; assisted with construction of the cold frame hoop house and provided info on winter CSAs/growing
    - Jenny Rings, Organized and prepared local foods dinners at the Great lakes Lighthouse Festival for the Sunrise Food Coalition

    RESULTS
    CSA Development

    2008
    • Harvested 4,923 lbs of fresh vegetables grown on 2.5 acres
    o Provided 1,880 lbs (38%) of fresh vegetables to emergency food organizations
    o 2,400 lbs (49%) went to private shares
    o Only 636 lbs (13%) were taken to market

    • Number of CSA shares sponsored: 2.5
    o But also received local grant funds of $4,437

    • Number of private shares sold: 20
    o Average share price (16 weeks), $357 (8 full shares at $425; 10 half shares at $350; 2 provided in-kind)
    o CSA revenue totaled $6,426

    • Sales at farmers markets totaled $3,059

    • 1,168 people supported throughout the season
    o Includes weekly pantry counts and meal participants

    • 84 volunteers provided 908.5 hours of labor on farm
    o 57 youth from Hope House, Huron House and Alpena Youth Volunteer Corp
    o 27 adults

    2009
    In 2009, I deployed to Afghanistan from April through November, so was unable to coordinate the project. This impacted record keeping, especially with volunteer hours.

    • Harvested 4,262 lbs of fresh vegetables grown on 2.5 acres
    o Provided only 10 shares to emergency food organizations

    • Number of CSA shares sponsored: 1

    • Number of private shares sold: 21
    o CSA revenue totaled $8,760
    o Average share price (20 weeks), $440 (9 full shares at $540; 10 half shares at $350; also provided 3 work shares and 2 late season shares at $200)

    • Sales at farmers markets totaled $963

    • Volunteers from St Vincent DePaul, Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps, CSA members, and Hope House provided much assistance with planting, harvesting, and preparing vegetables, but their volunteer hours were not documented; over the summer, girls from Hope House came out twice a week to work at the farm

    Community Organizing
    • Updated Memo of Agreement with seven non-profit organizations who make up Sunrise Food Coalition and who support Community Food Initiative in Northeast Michigan

    • Developed planning document for Sunrise Food Coalition establishing mission and vision statements, goals and objectives, and project timelines

    • Collaborated with Hillman Village Eco-Industrial Park through Strategic Planning process; group established goals and objectives for supporting entrepreneurial and sustainable agriculture training program in Northeast Michigan

    • Coordinated with Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) on Regional Prosperity Initiative, a People and Land (PAL) grant program of Michigan State University/WK Kellogg Foundation
    o NEMCOG will provide fiduciary/administrative support for Sunrise Food Coalition
    o Sunrise Food Coalition goals and objectives helping define Regional Prosperity Initiative implementation in support of Michigan’s Six Pillars of Prosperity defined by PAL

    • Held fundraisers for Sunrise Food Coalition, including fun run, bratwurst burn at the local brewery, and organized a local foods meal at the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival in October
    o Provided forum to promote local food and farms and Sunrise Food Coalition programs

    Marketing

    • Developed Sunrise Food Coalition Website (www.sunrisefoodcoalition.org)
    In 2009, Ella Haselswerdt and Lee Kirkpatrick began to develop a website for the Sunrise Food Coalition. The purpose of the website is to promote the community food project and local farms in Northeast Michigan (discussed above in cooperative marketing). The website is a work in progress as Ella ended up moving from the area over the past summer, but should eventually become a very powerful tool to help spread our message. Working with NEMCOG, in the short term we hope to secure resources to develop the local farms pages to effectively market locally grown foods in Northeast Michigan.

    What went well:

    • As demonstration project, we have definitely established a strong foundation of support for a local food initiative in Northeast Michigan
    We updated a memo of understanding with seven non-profits which officially established the Sunrise Food Coalition and outlined pledges of support for the project and for grant applications. Over the past year, the Sunrise Food Coalition established a strategic planning document and the village of Hillman developed a strategic plan for their Eco-Industrial Park. These documents have significant overlap in established goals and objectives and demonstrate multi-community support for a regional initiative. Combined with other efforts in Michigan to support sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship, and regional economies, the Sunrise Food Coalition is now poised to make significant progress toward implementing our goals.

    • Private CSA shares
    In 2008, after putting flyers up around town, we held three information meetings (one each in March, April, and May) at a local coffee shop to market 20 private CSA shares. With only these meetings and word of mouth, we sold all 20 shares before the season started in June. Half of the members came out to farm on Thursday evenings for pickup (approximately 10 miles from Alpena). These were great result as CSA is new concept in Northeast Michigan

    • Quality of produce grown
    The overall quality of what we grew was outstanding, especially our lettuces, green onions, leeks and carrots. We received numerous accolades for our quality produce. The cook at Hope House said our produce is far better than anything available in Alpena, including the farm market. Alissa McPhail, the intern from Michigan State’s Student Organic Farm, stated we grow the best lettuce she’s ever seen and it’s absolutely amazing and would last forever – lettuce mixes would easily last over two weeks in the refrigerator if stored properly.

    • Involvement of at-risk youth in farm operations
    Fifteen boys from Huron House and thirteen girls from Hope House came out to the farm to help at various times during the summer of 2008. The boys from Huron House also provided key labor to erect the hoop house we put up in 2008. Each time both groups came out, it was a powerful experience with their youthful energy and enthusiasm. There was fairly strong interest from some of the boys in getting involved in farm jobs or starting small farm enterprises. An Additional 29 youth from Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps volunteered at the farm in 2008.
    In 2009, boys from Huron House were not able to make it out to the farm, but the girls from Hope House came out twice a week during the summer. Youth from Alpena Youth Volunteer Corps also came out a few times. There is huge potential to establish a more formal entrepreneurial agriculture training program for these youth to provide business training and prepare them for part-time farm jobs or to start their own small enterprises, but would require larger outside investment.

    • New farm enterprise start up
    Chris and Monique Williams joined the farm to help part-time with the CSA in 2008 and were interested in starting their own vegetable operation. They decided to start a cultured mushroom operation (Michigan Mushrooms LLC) and Centurion Farms property provided a base for their start-up. They sold their gourmet mushrooms at farm markets and through the CSA. They went through pretty intense preparation for inoculating their growing medium and the mushroom operation took over a large portion of the barn plus a couple outdoor shaded growing tents. In 2009, they moved their mushroom operation to family property in Alpena and are currently selling their products through the CSA, at Nieman’s grocery store in Alpena, Alcona County farmers market, and the Ann Arbor farmers market. They also developed a website (www.williamsfamilyfungi.com) to market their products.

    • Marketing at Alpena Farmers Market
    In 2009, Yvette King and Alissa McPhail made huge progress with the Alpena Farmers Market and successfully changed the farm market policy to allow distribution of off-site sales (CSA shares) and marketing the CSA at the farmers market. Previously, according to their by-laws, we could not distribute CSA shares at the market, because the ‘sales’ did not occur at the market. We were also not allowed to promote the CSA or solicit additional members and other farms could not market their products which were available outside of the market. This also affected John Whitehead at Bushy Road Berry Farm as he tried to market his start-up operation before bringing product to the Alpena Farm Market.
    I attended the end of season membership meeting/dinner in the fall of 2008 to request being allowed to distribute shares at the market, but a few other farmers quickly pushed a vote through to not allow us to distribute at the market. Yvette and Alissa attended a few more meetings in 2009 and discussed what we’re doing, what CSA is all about, and how our distributing shares at the market will actually bring more people to the market (where they’ll most likely buy more products from other vendors). With strong support from Michigan Mushrooms and other farms who would like to develop full-time farm operations in Northeast Michigan, the group voted to amend their by-laws and allow marketing off-market sales/opportunities at the farmers market. This is a huge step forward in supporting full-time farmers, rather than primarily supporting hobbyists at the farmers market.

    What didn’t go so well:

    • Project manager balancing time between full-time job, family, and Community Food Project
    Basically, I had the lead for coordination and cooperative marketing for the project and ended up being a weak link in the plan. Because of changes at my full time job, I don’t have as much time available to coordinate activities, such as organizing fundraisers, grant writing, and Advisory Board Meetings, as I did three years ago. I’ve also deployed overseas twice with the Air National Guard since 2006.
    There is a solid core group on the Sunrise Food Coalition Advisory Board, but without a dedicated coordinator, either paid or volunteer, to comprehensively market and coordinate our initiatives, we haven’t yet been able to secure significant additional resources in donations, volunteer labor (for Sunrise Food Coalition activities), or volunteers for fundraisers to take the initiative to the next level.

    • Labor versus revenue – With lack of trained help, we were unable to take large quantities of vegetables to market, greatly reducing expected income
    18-yr old we hired in 2008 to help out at the farm had great intentions, but actually caused production to go down while working at the farm because he required so much supervision.
    Due to family issues, Yvette King, could not work full time at the CSA and was not able to dedicate numerous long hours required to support both the CSA and significant farm market and other direct sales.
    Even with three additional workers in 2009, we were not able to significantly increase production and therefore, generate income from farm markets and direct sales. This is partly because part-time help did not start until after our busiest planting season in May, partly due to a poor growing season in Northern Michigan, and partly due to very heavy weed competition.

    • Continued limited resources, lack of weed control, no dedicated tractor and irrigation (until 2009 season), significantly reduced yields
    A focus on key infrastructure projects (we built an insulated walk-in cooler using a window air conditioner and ‘Cool-bot’ for cooling, a storage shed, put up the hoop house, a small propagation hoop house, and completed irrigation and drainage projects) added to less volunteer help on production. While this will help in the longer-term with good infrastructure for a vegetable operation, it took away from fully focusing on production in the near-term, reducing income generation now.

    • Initial participants pulled out after we received grant
    With ACES Academy pulling out of the initiative, our plan to develop an entrepreneurial agriculture program was significantly delayed. As discussed in previous sections, we still had significant youth involvement and demonstrated positive impacts an entrepreneurial agriculture training program could have in the community. Howver, a full program will require significant outside funding or a sponsor organization willing to provide management and oversight of the program.

    • Cooperative Marketing
    Participating farmers already stretched thin and it was a challenge balancing production versus marketing/sales. As mentioned above, as the project manager, I was unable to coordinate during growing season. We were also not successful in securing volunteer support to help with marketing through the Sunrise Food Coalition. Ella Haselswerdt began working on a website, but also needed to work a paying job for money. This is also another area where we need dedicated resources to make significant progress.

    • Balancing on-site CSA pickup with mushroom production
    The combination of a messy mushroom operation and differences in expectations for cleanliness of barn/property caused some conflict during the 2008 season. Support for new enterprises fits our concept, but was not the best idea during CSA start-up phase.

    DISCUSSION
    Lessons Learned

    -Local infrastructure (for production, sales and distribution) is a fundamental issue which must be addressed before small-scale agriculture can significantly expand and improve local economies
    Growing production and sales to point where you can cover your fixed costs is a huge barrier to entry for new farm operations. It’s not the best approach to start from scratch – we did this based on a personal situation where my family does not reside where I work full-time during the week. But, while Centurion Farms is not a typical new farm operation, we definitely have the same working capital issues. It is obviously a lot easier for sustainable farm operations if your family already has a large farm operation with facilities and equipment. We have been successful production wise over the past three years only because Yvette King has volunteered so much of her time. With a horticulture degree from Michigan State and experience working in nurseries, Yvette was critical to the success of the CSA. Even with her full-time volunteer help, shortage of labor kept us from producing and harvesting as much as we could have. But lack of capital and revenues kept us from hiring more help or purchasing more time-saving equipment. While we understand you need to grow new businesses slowly, the challenge is to grow fast enough to generate enough revenue to make it economically feasible in the short run.

    -Farm markets, while providing a sense of place for small communities, are not a solution for full-time farm enterprises
    In rural Northeast Michigan, where the population is very dispersed in relatively small towns, the farm markets are not large enough to consistently support full time farm jobs and fixed costs. The revenue we generated from farm market sales would generally support seasonal farm workers over the summer and gas. Additional consistent outlets must be developed to support growing the number of farms and farm jobs in Northeast Michigan.

    -Marketing and producing at the same time can be extremely difficult, if not impossible for small-scale producers
    This is critical issue for new farming enterprises. Many small-scale farmers get into growing because they love being outside and producing high-quality produce from the land with their own hands.
    At the onset of this project, most people in Northeast Michigan we encountered had not heard of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) approach to farming. Many residents are focused on the cheapest price and don’t necessarily see the social benefits of directly supporting a local sustainable farm operation. There are pockets of interest in CSA and local agriculture, but we’re fighting a very large uphill battle against large corporations, their marketing savvy, and a continued emphasis on convenience over nutrition, health and benefits to the community.
    Small, local farms need help with marketing their products and the great benefits their farms provide to local economies and the community. On a regional level in Northeast Michigan, we need a dedicated marketing coordinator for the Sunrise Food Coalition to have the greatest impact on the local food economy.

    -Availability of trained workers is a huge problem
    There are a lot of great programs in Michigan to help develop ideas and business plans, but hands-on help for new farmers is still limited. While mentorship and farm-transition programs will help some new farmers establish their farm operations, older farmers often are not open to new methods and don’t provide a very dynamic learning environment. As the State strives to strengthen and grow the market for locally produced foods across Michigan, there will be a huge need for more farmers and younger farmers to help meet this demand. The Student Organic Farm at Michigan State, which is training students on the operation of CSAs, is an awesome program that will help immensely. But graduates of the CSA program still need to find jobs or land to begin their own operations. I believe establishing new farmer programs on a regional level at working farms, where entrepreneurs can grow new businesses in a fun, supportive environment with cheap land, facilities, equipment, and technical assistance readily available, will greatly help in developing new farmers and expanding the local food economy throughout Michigan.

    -Regional cooperation is very difficult (not really new lesson)
    After almost four years coordinating, discussing, planning, organizing and consensus building to develop the Sunrise Food Coalition, we have not made significant progress implementing a community food project on a regional level. Relying on volunteers to implement new concepts with a regional, integrated approach to strategic planning is a slow process. While there is a definite need for a dedicated coordinator for this approach to work, the Sunrise Food Coalition has not been able to secure outside resources to effectively implement all of our plans.

    -Keys to sustainability
    Patience, persistence, and flexibility are keys to transforming our food system in Northeast Michigan. Existing organizations are willing to identify overlap in services and initiatives (NEMCOG, Hillman Eco-Industrial Project, Entrepreneurial Communities, Regional Prosperity Initiative), but existing organizations working these issues all have limited resources and generally focus on funding priorities established at the State level. We realize that speed of progress depends on success in securing resources (funding, volunteers, donated goods). As the State progresses in supporting local food economies, we will be poised to fully implement a regional community food project.

    -3
    In rural Northeast Michigan, where the population is very dispersed in relatively small towns, the farm markets are not large enough to consistently support full time farm jobs and fixed costs. The revenue we generated from farm market sales would generally support seasonal farm workers over the summer and gas. Additional consistent outlets must be developed to support growing the number of farms and farm jobs in Northeast Michigan.

    Key Project Take-aways

    - Development and sustainability of local food producers is a systemic issue
    Production, distribution, and marketing networks are currently biased to larger producers from out of region. This situation is aggravated further in rural areas such as Northeast Michigan with smaller, dispersed markets. Local production is currently dominated by retirees and hobbyists who further undercut the potential for full-time farmers to grow the local economy and create jobs in our communities. These issues must be addressed concurrently to significantly affect the economy in Northeast Michigan.

    - Further study is needed to determine the economic feasibility of (and community support for) small farm enterprises and potential for significant job growth in Northeast Michigan

    - For significant change, public-private cooperation is required to overcome barriers to entry for new farm operations and biases toward large-scale production and quick, unhealthy foods
    Anchor enterprises may be a prerequisite to make significant progress

    - Affordable training programs are required to develop a skilled workforce for small-scale agriculture in Northeast Michigan

    - A local foods initiative should be seen as a combined economic, health, and quality of life issue

    - A dedicated coordinator is required to continue this initiative and potentially transform the food system in Northeast Michigan

    Next Steps

    Working with Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) to secure technical assistance grant to:
    - Complete a feasibility study for expanding the CSA operation into an Economic Development Institution (EDI)
    - Complete a regional community food assessment and marketing analysis for the EDI
    - Provide assistance with organizational development of the Sunrise Food Coalition
    - Begin planning for an Entrepreneurial Agriculture Education program and determine local interest among key decision makers

    V. OUTREACH
    2008 Information Sharing

    Held three information sessions at Cabin Creek Coffee Shop to promote and provide info on CSA; approximately 15 people attended

    Provided Power Point presentation on the community food project and discussion with following organizations:
    Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society – 28 attendees
    Sunrise Side Garden Club – 30 attendees
    Gaylord Master Gardeners Club – 30 attendees
    Alpena Community College Association of Life Long Learners – 15 attendees
    Alpena Kiwanis Club – 21 attendees

    Yvette King attended Small Farm Conference in Columbia, Missouri in November 2008 and provided presentation on our NCR SARE producer grant and community food project

    2009 Information Sharing

    Held two information sessions at Alpena Public Library to promote and provide info on CSA; approximately 10 people attended

    Participated in “Let’s get Growing, Alpena” spring garden show at the Alpena Mall in April, 2009; provided information on the CSA and Sunrise Food Coalition
    Provided Power Point presentation on the community food project and discussion with following organizations:
    Alpena Village Retirement Apartments – 28 attendees
    Sunrise Side Garden Club – 40 attendees

    Yvette held an on-farm class on Passive Solar Greenhouse Cultivation for Alpena Community College’s Lifelong Learners program in September 2009. She provided a Power Point presentation on hoophouse production, attendees went on a tour of the hoophouse, then ate a lunch with locally grown foods in the barn at Centurion Farms. Approximately 30 students participated in the program.

    I attended the Michigan Family Farms Conference hosted by Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) in Battle Creek, Michigan on 16 January 2009 where I participated in the NCR SARE Farmer’s Forum and provided a short briefing on the grant project. The session was attended by approximately 50 people. After the session, five different people asked me for a copy of my presentation and stated they were interested in starting their own community food projects in other parts of Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. I emailed them copies of the briefing and offered to share my experience with the grant writing process if they were interested. One of the people also requested information on starting an LLC as their group was also interested in starting their own LLC.

    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.