Establishing a Regional Community Food Project in Rural Northeast Michigan

2008 Annual Report for 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:

Establishing a Regional Community Food Project in Rural Northeast Michigan


Grant funds were used to support the continuation of the first full community supported agriculture (CSA) farm operation in rural Northeast Michigan 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.

Grant funds were primarily used to hire Yvette King as the CSA manager and part time farm help, purchasing fuel for transportation, and purchasing a 30’ x 96’ passive solar hoop house for season extension.

In 2008, we made solid progress on planning for a regional Community Food Project, but did not make as much progress as expected in meeting all our objectives. After receiving the 2007 grant, the principal at ACES Academy, a local alternative high school decided they could not participate at this time due to his workload and one of the couples originally planning to work on the project separated so they did not participate. We were not as successful as planned with cooperative marketing other farm products as a lack of trained labor forced us to focus mostly on production at Centurion Farms, and the Kirkpatrick’s at Briar Hill Farm, now in their mid-60’s, did not have the energy to participate at farm markets on a regular basis nor reliable hired help to provide some freedom to focus on marketing.

CSA Development
• Harvested 4,923 lbs of fresh vegetables grown on 2.5 acres
o Provided 1,880 lbs of fresh vegetables to emergency food organizations
o 2,400 lbs went to private shares
o Only 636 lbs were recorded 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, $357 (8 full shares at $425; 10 half shares at $350; 2 provided in-kind)

• 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

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

What went well:
• As a 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
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.

• 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. The boys from Huron House provided key labor to erect the hoop house we put up this year. Each time both groups came out, it was a powerful experience with their youthful energy and enthusiasm. Leaders from both Hope House and Huron House have pledged to come out once a week in 2009. There is also strong interest from some of the boys in getting involved in farm jobs or starting small farm enterprises, which we will try to work out for next year. An Additional 29 youth from Alpena Youth Volunteer Corp volunteered at the farm.

• New farm enterprise start up
Chris and Monique Williams joined the farm to help part-time with the CSA and were interested in starting their own vegetable operation. They decided to start a cultured mushroom operation 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. We’ll report more on this in the final report.

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 two years ago. 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.

• Continued limited resources, lack of weed control in 2-acre field, limited irrigation, and no dedicated tractor significantly reduced yield from potential and production plan

• 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 this year 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. Also, 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, and put up the hoop house) added to less volunteer help on production.

• Initial participants pulled out after we received grant

• 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.

• 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 season. Support for new enterprises fits our concept, but was not the best idea during CSA start-up phase.

Lessons Learned
• Either community organizations won’t support a private farm to grow fresh produce for the needy in NE Michigan or a lack of promotion, personal relationships, and pre-coordination were too much to overcome.
o Explaining concept while soliciting support difficult
o Definite need for dedicated coordinator for approach to work

• Some local non-profits willing to support initiative once a non-profit oversight organization established

• You’ve got to be a little crazy to do this!
o Not best approach to start from scratch – we did this based on personal situation
o While not a typical new farm operation, definitely have same working capital issues – aggravated by aggressive growth timelines

• Marketing and producing at the same time can be extremely difficult, if not impossible
o This is critical issue for new farming enterprises
o Need dedicated marketing coordinator

• Availability of trained workers a huge problem

In 2009, we will focus on expanding the CSA, increasing production to fully support 40 private CSA shares, 20 donated shares, and two farm markets. We are working with the seven organizations receiving our “donated” shares to have them come out to the farm on a weekly basis to help with harvesting and other tasks. This will essentially turn their shares into work shares. This summer, a student from Michigan State University’s CSA certificate program at the Student Organic Farm will complete her internship at Centurion Farms and will work with our recipient organizations on a regular basis to train their members on proper agricultural techniques and improve their learning outcomes.

We will continue to support cooperative marketing of local farm products through the CSA and at local farm markets, working with Briar Hill Farm and Marlin Goebel to sell pastured meat products and eggs, and Chris and Monique Williams for cultured mushrooms. We will continue to look for other sustainable farmers interested in joining a marketing cooperative and may pursue an on-farm market if we can secure the required logistical support and dedicated cooperation from participating farmers to make it happen.

We will also begin working with Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG) to begin implementing their Regional Prosperity Initiative in Northeast Michigan. NEMCOG received a People and Land grant through the WK Kellogg Foundation to increase regional cooperation on economic development and implement projects supporting six pillars of prosperity they view as essential to transforming Michigan’s economy. One pillar is sustainable agriculture and NEMCOG has agreed to provide administrative oversight for the Sunrise Food Coalition and help seek funding for our initiatives as a potential pilot project for the Regional Prosperity Initiative. In 2009, we will pursue funding to complete a regional Community Food Assessment and a feasibility study for expanding the CSA as an economic development institution and training program for new farmers.

A more in-depth draft 2009 action plan for the Sunrise Food Coalition is included as an attachment to this report.

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 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 and provided presentation on our NCR SARE producer grant. Twenty seven people attended.

Info Sharing Planned for 2009
In cooperation with NEMCOG and the Land Information Access Association, we plan to develop website for Sunrise Food Coalition and Centurion Farms CSA to provide information on our initiative.

We will continue our CSA information meetings to explain the Community Supported Agriculture concept and recruit new share members. This year we will hold informational meetings in Gaylord and Rogers City, as well as Alpena.

Plan to hold a hoop house workshop in spring and/or fall 2009 to share information on hoop house construction, production, and season extension. We will coordinate with Adam Montri, the hoop house expert at Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm and Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) to see if he can participate.

As opportunities arise, we will provide briefings on sustainable agriculture, CSA, and our Community Food Project to government, civic, and non-profit groups.