Thursday, April 10, 2008

Michigan Farmer reaches new farming audiences in Community Supported Agriculture

Jim Sluyter first read about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in a now-defunct magazine called Harrowsmith, soon after the first CSAs were started in the north east part of the United States. Although the concept was immediately appealing for their small homestead farm, Sluyter and his spouse, Jo Meller, hesitated to become involved.

“At the time we mistakenly believed that our rural area didn't need, or couldn't support, more than one farm. We now know that we need far more than the dozen or so that serve the region,” said Sluyter.

Twenty years later, Five Springs Farm is a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm serving Michigan since 1994. They offer on-farm pickup at their farm near Onekama, MI and they deliver to members in Manistee, MI.

In 2004, Sluyter and Meller helped to host a major CSA conference in Michigan with a group of other Michigan CSA growers and advocates (CSA-MI) who felt the timing was right.

A year later, Sluyter and the group looked to the North Central Region Sustainable Research and Education Program (NCR-SARE) for assistance with a new project, “Growing New CSA Farmers: Conference and Mini-School for Community Supported Agriculture.”

This project aimed to help farmers, especially new and prospective ones, learn about CSAs and sustainable agriculture through a conference and 'mini-school' for prospective CSA farmers. The grant would also provide financial assistance for farmers to attend the CSA conference and/or mini-school, a CSA mentoring program, and a CSA "startup" manual.

“NCR-SARE deals with groups of farmers (or individuals) who are not organized as educational (for the Farmer/Rancher grants) or non-profit agencies, making groups like our CSA-MI eligible,” explained Sluyter.

The group has been pleased with the project so far, and called the 2006 CSA Conference and Mini-school an “unqualified success,” although the project has not yet run the full course of its funding.

“The interest and enthusiasm about CSA, with new growers and those wishing to transition from conventional agriculture (or add CSA to an existing operation) is re-affirmed. We expect to see a measurable increase in CSAs in Michigan and nearby states as these projects come to completion,” said Sluyter.

Sluyter reports a steady growth of CSA farmers in his area of the region, especially among younger producers and women producers.

“At many agricultural conferences I would consider myself, at best, in the middle of the age range at 58. A conference for CSA attracts a significant number of young growers and wannabes, and I find myself feeling much more like one of the 'elders.' This bodes very well for the future of CSA and agriculture in general. The number of women is also noticeable, with perhaps half of those attending being women.”

Although Sluyter already considers their project a success, he is looking forward to the final phase of the project, a mentor pilot project. NCR-SARE is will provide support for that phase of the project as well.

“SARE offers a few advantages over many funding sources. The application process is straightforward and easy to understand. With a direct interest in issues of sustainable agriculture, applications do not need to be detailed on the concept of small farm needs and interests since the agency knows the terrain,” said Sluyter. “Local food has become a real force in people's eating and food selection habits. We hope that our conference and mini-school will be an important part of the growth of Community supported Agriculture.”

Read more about Sluyter’s project online at, or contact the NCR-SARE office for more information.

Since 1988, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has helped advance farming systems that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities through a nationwide research and education grants program. The program, part of USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, funds projects and conducts outreach designed to improve agricultural systems.

CSA Conference and Mini-school audience. – photo by Jim Sluyter

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