MI Farm Cooperative adapts to CSA shares after pandemic shuts schools, restaurants

By Madeleine Hill Vedel

Sun contributor

We can be grateful in Leelanau County that we remain a land of agricultural bounty. Though the past decades have been tough on farmers, there are yet energetic and committed individuals choosing farming, and exploring multiple means to market their produce.

Nic Welty, farmer and owner of 9 Bean Rows, is one of the key people behind the emergence in 2015 of the MI Farm Cooperative which brings together 12 different farms to collaboratively meet the needs of schools, restaurants, caterers, and as of this past fall, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box purchasers.

During Michigan’s pandemic response to COVID-19, restaurants, schools, and caterers were all shut down, which eliminated the Coop’s primary markets. Furthermore, unsettling news dropped in October 2019 that the popular 10 Cents a Meal program—an initiative of the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities which enables the sale of quality, local vegetables and fruit to our schools, and offers Michigan farmers a valuable outlet for their produce—was to be cut. The program’s projected $2 million budget, intended to cover the entire state, was one of the 147 line items left on the floor as Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature battled over the 2020 budget. As recently as spring of 2019, schools made up nearly 90% of the MI Farm Cooperative’s sales. The revelation was a terrible blow.

“It came out in the news last fall. Everyone [the schools’ food directors] had been buying, thinking it would go through, but then in October it was nailed down.” said Welty. Many learned the news on October 3 when Patti Brandt wrote in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, “Funding for 10 Cents a Meal Sliced from the State Budget.”

Given the chance to speak with Governor Whitmer directly, during her tour of Leelanau County this past fall, Welty broached the topic and heard that what had been a popular bipartisan initiative was no longer a priority. By contrast, and perhaps in lieu of supporting 10 Cents a Meal, the budget for the Double Up Food Bucks had been increased.

However, our local farmers are nothing if not resourceful, and in collaboration with his fellow MI Farm Cooperative farmers, Welty had already diversified the Cooperative’s market, initiating a CSA box this past fall, with an initial 30 shares a season. Faced with the lost market, the cooperative increased the number of shares to be offered in the winter and spring. But then COVID-19 hit.

“We had planned to launch at the end of September—our unadvertised launching. But as all of this [Coronavirus shutdown] happened the demand went through the roof,” said Welty. “The coop did 30 shares in the fall, 50 in the winter, and 50 in the spring. Then when we advertised the summer boxes we sold 100 boxes in 48 hours! We went from selling $40,000 to schools to $50,000 of CSA shares in 48 hours. Let’s hold it there. We could have sold 200 shares, but we want to do this well before we expand.”

In this small cooperative each member participates at their level of comfort and need. Bailey Samp of Lakeview Hills Farm handles communications and marketing, manages the website and Facebook page, takes care of wholesale accounts, and answers emails. Michelle Ferrarese of Birchpoint Farm is in charge of internal farm communications with the farmers, checking with each farmer weekly to be sure they can supply the produce they’ve signed up for. The farmers deliver their week’s contribution on Monday evening. 9 Bean Rows hosts the CSA box-packing in their 20-by-30-foot chilled space. Deliveries go out on Tuesday to the six different pick-up sites.

Taking stock of the many items that each farmer brings to the table, the group wrote out spread sheets detailing who would have what when, enough to fill the boxes and not run out. They offer 10 weeks of food per season. Customers receive two to four pounds of seasonal vegetables, two to four pounds of fruit, salad greens or microgreens, a loaf of bread, and a dozen eggs each week, with options to add on chicken, beef, and flower deliveries. A 10-week share costs $475. Each CSA box has items from 5 to 8 different farms. The early spring boxes were filled with produce from the farms with green houses, able to ripen produce early. As the summer progresses, farms with field ripened produce will be more evident.

“The idea was we felt it [CSAs] was a market place that would grow. But we didn’t know that schools would be crippled and farmers markets’ crippled and even restaurants. The CSA just took over,” said Welty, a bit surprised at the turn of events.

The group hopes the increased demand that the pandemic caused will be a lasting and even expanding demand. If more people want it, the farmers will do their best to provide it.

“I really want people to know that we think this CSA is a really awesome mix of local produce and high value products in northern Michigan. And a great way to support local agriculture,” said Bailey.

Jim Bardenhagen of Bardenhagen Farms agrees. “The CSA is growing fast and we hope as schools reopen that markets will grow also. COVID-19 decreased our business with the wholesale market but increased our CSA business as more people wanted local food and curbside pickup,” said Bardenhagen.

When asked about future plans, Bailey said, “Right now we’re planning on 100 CSA members for the fall. We’d like to have 200, but we need a larger packing building. There’s definitely a possibility of reaching this. Maybe we will invest in a warehouse and a larger delivery vehicle. We currently share the 9 Bean Rows truck. There’s talk of getting a truck with a refrigerated system. Ideally it could handle 100 boxes and we could park it downtown [at a set time] and people could come by to pick up their share directly from the truck.”

The farmers behind the MI Farm Cooperative have brought creative solutions, and nimble adaptation to the shifting market demands. Those farmers include:

• Al Bakker of Bakker’s Acres, Suttons Bay

• Jim Bardenhagen of Bardenhagen Farms, Suttons Bay 

• Pam Bardenhagen of Homestead Hill CSA, Lake Leelanau

• Noel Weeks of La Casa Verde Produce, Cedar

• John Dindia and Bailey Samp of Lakeview Hill Farm, Traverse City

• Jacob Mishler of Pristine Acres, Manton

• Paul Mast of Shared Blessings Farm, Marion

• Ryan and Andrea Romeyn of Providence Farm, Central Lake

• Michelle Ferrarese of Birchpoint Farm, Traverse City

• Joe Vanderbosh and Anne Cunningham of TLC Farms Inc

• Matthew Hall, Midnight Harvest Mushroom farmer, Interlochen

• Nic Welty of 9 Bean Rows Farm, Suttons Bay

To inquire about shares, email mifarmcoop@gmail.com.