ON PAPER, the community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription model is an ideal partnership. Members of the community support the farmer by paying for their produce in one lump sum before the harvest and then receive a weekly box of food during the growing season. In some cases, CSA boxes can provide up to four-fifths of a family’s diet.
But boxes can also be inconsistent—one week a customer can be overloaded with squash or kale, and the next week have none at all. The model also can have some downsides for farmers, who not only need to grow a diverse set of crops, but also spend time packing weekly produce boxes and staffing member pick up stations. And despite the upfront investment by CSA members, many such farmers are still struggling to make ends meet. (A 2014 Massachusetts study found that 81 percent of full-time CSA farmers aren’t earning a living wage.)
To address these issues, a group of young farmers in Detroit started a cooperative CSA in 2012 called City Commons. The five urban farms—Fields of Plenty, Food Field, Buffalo Street Farm, Vinewood Knoll, and Singing Tree Garden—contribute to the weekly box and are paid based on how much produce they supply. By pooling their resources, they decrease their workload and risk and provide their customers with a more reliable, varied collection of produce every week.
City Commons boxes always have between eight and 10 items so customer don’t get overwhelmed with too much of one or two vegetables. And with careful planning in the winter, City Commons farmers make sure they have enough variety to fill their customer’s needs. “[That diversity] is part of why the cooperative model creates such a consistent product,” says Alice Bagley of Fields of Plenty. By the end of the season, members will have received about 50 different types of fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
City Commons’ membership grew from 13 to 60 members between their first and second year of business, and rose to 90 members last year. (This year, they limited membership to 65, because one of their founding farmers moved away and another is having a baby.) The original group of farmers met while working for the Greening of Detroit. Each had previous experience with CSAs and a shared philosophy for sustainable farming.
Once a week, member farmers send an e-mail list of available produce to crop coordinator and Vinewood Knoll owner Elizabeth Phillips. She then calculates how much product each farmer needs to contribute to fill customer boxes. “The beauty of the cooperative is if I only have greens, I have four other farmers back me up providing other things,” Phillips says.
Each farmer also has a role in running the business. For example Bagley manages the books, and Link from Food Field responds to e-mail inquiries. “Our administrative work is what we give back to the cooperative,” Phillips says. “We don’t get paid for those jobs.” With no administrative costs, City Commons is able to keep their prices at $450 for a 20-weeks full share and $230 for a half share.
“We want to make sure the food we are growing is accessible to the community we’re in,” says Buffalo Street Farm’s Chris McGrane. He grows food on the east side of Detroit in a neighborhood that is mixed with abandoned, run down homes, and older, inhabited ones, and says that most of his neighborhood relies on some type of food assistance. As a result, City Commons has to be able to accept Michigan Bridge cards from Michigan’s electronic food assistance program. McGrane says about half of City Commons’ customers are from Detroit, and the other half work in the city.
The support the cooperative CSA provides to farmers is invaluable. “Farming is kind of lonely,” says Phillips. “It’s just nice seeing someone every week who is going through the same thing and supporting you.” If one farmer needs to take some time off, the other farmers pitch in as needed. “You don’t have to have that 24/7 marriage to the farm,” says McGrane.
A known customer base also gives the farmer more time to spend on farming instead of marketing. “You know [the produce is] going to get sold,” says Bagley of Fields of Plenty. “At the beginning of the season, I already knew that I had 65 customers waiting to eat the things I was growing.”