Urban Farmers Marketing Cooperative

Project Overview

FNC12-868
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $21,070.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Matthew Jose
Mad Farmers Collective

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Crop Production: food product quality/safety
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, community-supported agriculture, cooperatives, marketing management, farm-to-institution

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND

    IndyGrown is currently comprised of four small-scale vegetable farms located in central Indianapolis: Big City Farms, South Circle Farm, CUE Farm at Butler University, and Growing Places Indy. The farms vary in size (from less than one acre to three acres), but all are focused on growing a wide range of vegetables, there are several shared restaurant clients, and each one operates a CSA program.

               

    All of the IndyGrown member farms have carried out sustainable practices since the beginning of their formations. Each farm works to improve their own particular site through the regular application of compost, the incorporation of cover crops into the planting calendar, and the occasional use of organically-approved pest controls. The use of sustainable farming practices is a core concept of IndyGrown, and it is an approach that IndyGrown works to make more popular and widespread amongst small farms throughout Indianapolis.

     

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION

     

    GOALS: Broadly speaking, IndyGrown’s original goals were to:

     

    • increase the market presence of its member farms,
    • establish a coordinated restaurant sales/distribution process to ease potential hurdles experienced by small growers,
    • aggregate select items from individual member farms to better serve existing and potential restaurant/institution clients.

     

    PROCESS

    Indianapolis has experienced a relatively-significant increase in the presence of urban farms within its boundaries over the last five years. This has been accompanied by a noticeable increase in consumer interest in supporting local food sources. IndyGrown’s member farms have been in operation for a varying number of years, but each one has confronted obstacles related to growing and supplying vegetables, on a limited scale, to a new market: How does one increase public support for a relatively-new industry? How does one streamline processes to maximize revenue? and How does one lay the groundwork for the success of future growers?

               

    IndyGrown’s current member farms had each been grappling with these issues on an individual basis and, over the course of numerous conversations, began to feel that these obstacles might be best addressed through a collaborative effort. The participants felt that such an approach might ease distribution obstacles each farm had experienced, as well as increase the potential clientele that they could serve – by combining sales and marketing efforts, a group of small farmers might be able to better serve a wider range of Indianapolis residents, as well as larger restaurant clients, than each one could do individually.

               

    After receiving the SARE grant, the participating farms met throughout 2012 and 2013 to determine how the grant funds could be used effectively and have the greatest impact. The farmers worked with the Business Ownership Initiative in Indianapolis to develop a mission statement and setoff shared values for IndyGrown, as well as a series of common goals and objectives for the following two years. In addition to working to solidify the organizational structure and priorities for IndyGrown, the member farmers began piloting collaborative sales and distribution efforts. This was done on a small scale with 2-3 farms notifying local restaurants of what produce was available for purchase. The participating farms would then, on the designated delivery day, share delivery and payment collection responsibilities. This arrangement was trialed during the first half of the 2012 season, in an attempt to determine its efficiency and potential long-term benefit.

               

    IndyGrown contracted with a local branding and marketing firm to develop a logo that will be used in public advertisements for the organizations. This logo will also be used on various materials Indy Grown will distribute to restaurant customers (in the form of informational cards and window decals), as well as to advertise the presence of various member farms at local farmers markets (in the form of informational cards for customers and signage indicating that particular farm’s membership to IndyGrown).

               

    Upon completion of the logo designs, IndyGrown began working with another marketing firm to create a basic website for the group. This website will contain an overview of IndyGrown’s current work and future goals, basic information about each member farm’s operations, as well as purchasing information for prospective customers, both individuals and restaurants. These efforts are intended to facilitate a cohesive public presence for existing IndyGrown member farms, in addition to providing a clear path by which prospective farms can successfully participate in the Indianapolis market.

               

    In the fall of 2013, IndyGrown hosted a farm tour for nearly fifty Indianapolis consumers (attendance for the event was capped at this number, due to transportation restrictions). The tour involved a substantial visit to each farm’s site, as well as appetizers prepared by local chefs highlighting the produce offerings of each farm. There was significant positive feedback from tour attendees, and IndyGrown expects this tour to become an annual event.

               

    In late 2013 and 2014, IndyGrown has facilitated an initiative related to professional development for member farmers, as well as the creation of production and post-harvest handling guidelines. The professional development has come in the form of two visits from a well-established farm consultant, who has advised each member farm on how their operation might be improved, so as to achieve the greatest degree of agricultural and economic sustainability. These on-farm consultations, coupled with detailed soil analyses and recommendations, will provide a short-term benefit for the participating farms, while also providing IndyGrown and its member farmers with additional agricultural training and advice which will benefit future growers and IndyGrown members.

               

    The production guidelines will help provide a benchmark for existing and future member farms. Current member farms have encountered frequent questions and concerns from the consumer public about the safety of producing food in an urban environment. These standards will provide farmers with the confidence to simply and clearly respond to these questions, as well as provide consumers with the reassurances they might need to begin purchasing their produce from urban farms.

               

    In addition, the idea of IndyGrown post-harvest handling standards came to be seen as a necessary resource for participating farms. While there have not been any food safety concerns connected to any IndyGrown member farm, this is a subject that is gaining increased traction in the public’s mind, and it behooves IndyGrown to be proactive in establishing such standards – to insure that the farms are confidently operating in a safe manner, and to reassure the public that any produce grown on an IndyGrown member farm follows a specific series of post-harvest handling steps in order to minimize the risk of contamination.

               

    These resources will be made available on IndyGrown’s website, and will be distributed to local agricultural- and food-focused organizations in Indianapolis. The rationale behind this tactic is that better-informed consumers are more loyal consumers, and better-prepared new farmers have the greatest likelihood of succeeding in business.

     

    PEOPLE

    • Matthew Jose – owner/operator, Big City Farms; member farmer
    • Amy Matthews – owner/operator, South Circle Farm; member farmer
    • Tim Dorsey – farm manager, CUE Farm at Butler University; member farmer
    • Tyler Henderson – farm manager, Growing Places Indy; member farmer
    • Tim Carter – director, Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University; assistance in developing IndyGrown standards, assistance in advertising IndyGrown, assistance in managing non-SARE funds.
    • Gabriel Filipelli – director, Center for Urban Health at IUPUI; assistance in developing     IndyGrown safe soil standards.
    • Julie Grice – president, Business Ownership Initiative of Indianapolis; facilitating initial

    conversations related to the organizational structure and goals of IndyGrown.

    • Andy Fry – creative director, Big Car; facilitated initial logo and design process.
    • Ryan Hunley – owner, Second Street Creative; created final IndyGrown design, logo, and

    • Jeff Evard – owner, One Sky Agriculture Enterprises; on-farm consultations with member

    farmers, focusing on long-term ecological and financial sustainability.

    • Sarah Mullin – independent contractor; assisted in the development and execution of the

    IndyGrown inaugural farm tour, as well as the development of production guidelines and post-harvest handling instructions for current and future member farms.

    • Lacy Leadership Program – provided financial support towards the successful launch of

     

    RESULTS

     

    IndyGrown has been able to pursue and complete a wide range of goals with the financial assistance of the Farmer/Rancher Grant. Over the last two years, IndyGrown has:

    • Worked with a consultant to help member farmers create consensus on IndyGrown’s organization structure, standards, and roles.
    • Test piloted co-marketing strategies and collaborative sales to restaurants.
    • Completed construction of a post-harvest wash station at a member farm, and began the process of building additional wash stations at other member farms in an effort to improve post-harvest handling practices.
    • Created and distributed an online survey to local chefs in order to gauge the possible barriers that exist which keep them from purchasing from local farms.
    • Organized and implemented the inaugural IndyGrown farm tour outreach event to connect farmers, chefs, and consumers.
    • Worked with a respected farm consultant to improve member farms’ individual operations, as well as to improve IndyGrown’s capacity to advise new and emerging farms.
    • Overseen the creation of a logo and worked to develop various branding strategies.
    • Overseen the creation of an IndyGrown website, which will serve as an informational hub for Indianapolis-area consumers and producers alike.
    • Worked to create a series of production techniques which will provide a benchmark for existing and future member farms.
    • Worked to create a series of post-harvest handling standards which will provide a benchmark for existing and future member farms.

     

    DISCUSSION

    This SARE grant has afforded each IndyGrown member farm with a wide range of learning opportunities. These opportunities came about through successes and obstacles alike. One of the obstacles was the simple fact that each member farmer had an incredibly-limited amount of time to devote to the conception and implementation of IndyGrown’s initiatives. This frequently made regular meetings difficult, put an undue burden on particular farmers, and diminished the capacity of IndyGrown to fully pursue its goals. A solution to this, which IndyGrown will explore for any future projects, is the possibility of outsourcing event-specific planning and implementation. This would allow member farmers to continue focusing on the income-generating work of running successful farms, while also providing opportunities for non-farmer individuals to take on a supportive role.

               

    Another obstacle experienced during this process was that not all of the initial member farms continued to operate as time passed. These farms ceased to exist for a variety of reasons, but the fact that they halted so quickly and without leaving any imprint on Indianapolis’ food landscape raises the possibility that the existence of a well-established and active urban farm advocacy and support organization (i.e. IndyGrown) might have prevented such sudden dissolutions. The fact that these farms stopped operating also meant that the core group of member farms was smaller-than-expected and that the member farmers had to take on more responsibilities than anticipated. Over the next year, IndyGrown intends to recruit additional farmers and food-related organizations, in an attempt to increase its public presence and spread the management responsibilities across a larger number of people.

               

    One of the primary lessons from this process was the realization that our original goals were not the best solution to our individual, and collective, obstacles. The original grant proposal was created with the intent of combining the member farmers’ relatively-small outputs in order to better meet the demands of current restaurant clients and possible institutional clients. After trialing this type of collaborative sales and distribution strategy, the member farmers realized that this approach added an undue burden upon their existing sales approaches. The practical obstacles inherent in combining and redistributing produce under this type of arrangement were not overcome by an increase of sales to existing clients or potential new ones. The small size of the member farmers’ operations allows them to achieve a certain degree of nimbleness in their respective interactions with chefs – a nimbleness that is highly-valued by the farmers, as well as the chefs.

               

    Upon this realization, IndyGrown decided that it would be best to set aside this particular goal of the original grant and focus, instead, on the group’s potential to highlight the existence of urban farms to current and future customers, to facilitate the entry of new urban farms into the Indianapolis market, and to continue working as a unified voice for urban farmers in regards to food and urban planning policy in Indianapolis.

               

    This question of how collaboration can assist highly-individualistic enterprises is a fascinating one, and deserves continued consideration. As small farms steadily increase in number and become a more visible presence throughout the country, it will become more attractive (and necessary) for individual farms to collaborate with others, so as to more forcefully voice their opinions on issues related to the continued success of small farms (such as land use policies, institutional purchasing requirements, and agricultural training programs). How can this collaboration be successful in ways that avoid diluting the particular brand of each participating farm? How do such initiatives succeed in encouraging the establishment of new farms without seeming to undermine the operations of existing farms? These are just a few of the issues that should be taken into account by others who might be considering such a collaborative endeavor.

     

    OUTREACH

    IndyGrown promoted itself and its initiatives primarily through the existing professional and customer networks established by member farms. These efforts were especially clustered around a farm tour that IndyGrown hosted in the fall of 2013. This tour provided fifty Indianapolis residents (nearly all who had had no previous experience with the member farms) an opportunity to visit the IndyGrown member farms, to talk with the respective farmer about the unique aspects of her/his operation, as well as explore the ways in which additional urban farms might be incorporated into the Indianapolis landscape. This event was promoted through the participating farms’ social media networks, as well as through local food-related organizations and individuals. IndyGrown anticipates hosting such a tour on an annual basis, which will allow it to reach a larger number of Indianapolis residents, in addition to providing participants to visit new member farms and witness how current member farms continue to evolve.

               

    IndyGrown members also had the opportunity to present information about this project at the annual Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) conference in 2014. This was a unique opportunity for these farmers to discuss the obstacles and successes they had experienced with other farmers engaging in similar efforts. A recording of this presentation is available on NCR-SARE’s YouTube channel or at: https://youtu.be/pC1cU_aFLdY

               

    IndyGrown member farms will continue to promote the group’s existence and initiatives by providing informational cards at various farmers’ markets each attend around Indianapolis, as well as encouraging individual consumers and restaurant customers to purchase and display an IndyGrown decal, indicating their support for local, small-scale agriculture.

     

     

     

    Project objectives:

    As a group of urban farmers, we are proposing to join together to create IndyGrown brand and membership organization to help individual farms market our goods and our message. We will use SARE grant money to jump start the organization more quickly and effectively than we could with our own limited skills and resources. With the grant money from SARE, we will spend time and funds in the first season 2012 to create a sound structure and a “sticky” brand. First season goals would include:
    – Creating an IndyGrown brand with a website, logo, and marketing materials.
    – Formally defining the standards of IndyGrown relating to safe soils, organically based growing practices, and post-harvest practices focusing on food safety. These standards would be used to determine membership, as well as a marketing tool to communicate with our customers.
    – Hiring a consultant to help member farmers create consensus on IndyGrown’s organizational structure, standards, and roles.
    – Test piloting co-marketing strategies of selling together to restaurants and possibly at farmers’ markets, developing streamlined delivery and record-keeping processes. These have been informally trialed with a few farms in 2011, with the recognition that efficacy could be improved with skill and capacity expansion.
    – Building a shared walk-in cooler.
    – Training member farms in GAP procedures.
    – Beginning a Grower’s Manual to outline our standards, including product quality, safe soils, and growing practices.
    During the second grant year 2013, our goals would include:
    – Officially launching our brand and website.
    – Refining delivery and record-keeping processes.
    – Refining Grower’s Manual.
    – Purchasing post-harvest wash stations for some participating farms to ensure compliance with our post-harvest food handling standards.
    – Purchasing some shared equipment, such as standard delivery boxes with our logo.
    – Establishing an annual IndyGrown farm tour outreach event to connect farmers, chefs, and consumers.

    The primary goals of this project are to improve the financial sustainability of market growers within Indianapolis and to increase the visibility of the role that urban farming can, and does, have on Indianapolis’ existing food system. Our efforts towards accomplishing these goals will be measured in a variety of ways over the two years of this grant, including surveying of local chefs/restaurant owners and farmers’ market attendees, comparison of member farm’s current sales against previous year’s records, and surveying of participating farmers about the project’s impact on their farming strategies and overall quality of life.

    A majority of the participating farms in this proposal have established professional relationships with numerous chefs and restaurant owners in Indianapolis. These contacts will help identity target restaurants on which IndyGrown can focus its efforts.

    IndyGrown will survey these chefs in early 2012 in order to gain a better understanding of what they desire from local growers, and how member farms can best meet that demand. This pre-season survey will be repeated in early 2013 in an attempt to discern how the needs of local restaurants might be changing over time. There will also be a post-season survey distributed to participating chefs in 2012 and 2013, as a way to determine how this joint marketing, sales, and delivery effort succeeded, and where it fell short.

    There will also be a concerted effort to survey participating farmers in this experience of joint marketing and sales. When available, farms will submit records of past sales to restaurants and farmers’ market. These records will serve as a benchmark against which future sales will be measured – the comparison of which will enable us to determine the efficacy of our market penetration. In addition to this financial data, surveys will be distributed to participating farmers at the end of each year. These will help explore the ways in which the coordinated marketing effort affected farm-related decisions farmers made over the course of the season, and how the effort impacted the individual farmer’s quality of life – did it lessen the time and energy spent on distributing one’s products to a variety of markets? Did the collaborative approach encourage a sense of shared success amongst participating farmers?

    At the end of the second year of the grant, after the IndyGrown brand and website have officially been launched, surveys will be distributed to customers at selected farmers’ markets in order to determine the level of brand visibility that was achieved over the course of a season, and how the marketing campaign might be improved so reach a greater number of people, and how it might be fine-tuned in order to best articulate its message.

    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.