Detroit Collaborative CSA Models Cooperation and Sustainability
April 14, 2014 | Marianne Peters
Local urban farmers in Detroit have recognized that the whole is often greater than its parts—and so they’ve combined forces to strengthen the local food scene and their own bottom lines.
Six Detroit farm businesses have combined to create City Commons, a cooperative in which members support the six farms with a purchase of seasonal shares of fresh produce and other farm products. Members receive a weekly box of fresh-from-the-farm, organically grown food that has been raised entirely within Detroit’s city limits. The coop model is advantageous for customers who like a wide variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s also advantageous for independent farmers who are trying to make a living exclusively by farming—especially those who share a passion for fresh, local food for an urban population.
Minni Forman founded City Commons in 2012 with fellow AmeriCorps members she met while working with the Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit that works to support reforestation and urban farming in the city. According to Forman, the idea of a cooperative CSA made sense from a business perspective.
“We wanted to find a way to make enough money to make our businesses viable,” she says. “With a CSA, you don’t have to stand at a market all day hoping to sell your products. It’s not a gamble, because the produce is already sold. We’re now the largest CSA in the city of Detroit.”
Alice Bagley was also instrumental in founding City Commons CSA. She was one of the only founders who had previously run a CSA, and her primary role in the organization is bookkeeping. There’s strength in numbers, she points out.
“We help each other because we all bring our own networks of family and friends,“ she says. “And we all grow slightly different things.” Most of the farms grow fruits and vegetables, but some also provide honey, poultry, and fish.
To assist customers who may not be familiar with every variety of food contained in the box, each weekly pick-up comes with recipes, information and serving suggestions. A full share includes a box of produce every week for 20 weeks and costs $425 for the season. To make their produce affordable to all, the CSA also offers half-shares, work-trade agreements, and payment plans for customers receiving government assistance through SNAP. According to Forman, the majority of City Commons’ customers are professionals who work in the city and care about local agriculture. In order to reach out to local businesses, the CSA now offers on-site delivery to businesses in the city that sign up a certain number of employees.
Forman, Bagley, and their partners share a strong passion for growing food in the city, though they have learned some valuable lessons about making a cooperative function on a day-to-day basis since they first partnered in 2012.
“We have a strong sense of community,” Forman says. “Our farms have each stood the test of time, and we are all invested in making the coop work. One of the lessons for us was having clear roles and expectations. This year we have set roles, so everyone knows who’s doing what. We encourage each other to be honest and keep each other accountable. If you bring up a suggestion, you are the one who solves the problem or takes on that role.”
According to Alice Bagley, a co-op of six farm operations is a comfortable situation for the present, and they have no current plans to expand.
“We have a deep personal trust in each other,” she says. “Since we all want to grow our businesses as well as the coop, we’re all on the same page.”
“Besides,” she adds, “we all fit around one dining room table right now.”
The CSA would like to expand its weekly box offerings, however, and add to its available land for growing, though, in Forman’s opinion, trying to purchase land in Detroit is currently a disorganized, slow process. She sees a need for a consistent customer base. “We want to get to a point where we have perennial customers who re-buy their share every year,” she says. “We also have a lot of administrative work that has to be done; all the memberships and record-keeping for the CSA , and we have our own businesses to grow as well.”
Overall, however, Forman and Bagley are optimistic about the future of food in Detroit and the commitment of its citizens to sustainable urban agriculture.
“People understand the value of what we’re doing,” says Forman. “They like that their food doesn’t travel far, because our farms are right in the city.”