With plenty of “incredibly positive support” during its first growing season last summer, the Royal Oak Community Farm plans to expand customers this year, offer more CSA shares and raise the nutrient level of the farm's soil to ensure plenty of fertile seasons in the future.
Two-fifths of the farm’s five acres last year was dedicated to community-supported agriculture shares (CSAs), said David Baldwin, executive director of Royal Oak Forward, the community development nonprofit organization that runs the farm, located on 11 Mile just east of Campbell Road, on the former site of Lincoln Elementary School school. The farm had sold 30 shares, each of which can feed a family of four for the entire season, in spring of 2010 before it even planted a seed.
“We sold out very quickly,” Baldwin said, noting that a woman who moved from Brooklyn, NY, to Royal Oak even contacted the farm before she arrived to make sure she could get a share.
The farm is dedicating about three-fifths of the harvest to CSAs this year to accommodate demand and there were just a couple of the 45 CSA shares still available last week. A full share this year sells for $775, or about $30 a week. That buys a good portion of fresh produce on a weekly basis, which feeds about four people. Half-shares are also available while some people split a full share.
The farm sells to Royal Oak businesses as well, such as , and . These are the farm’s three main commercial customers, and Baldwin said he will actively seek more partnerships with local businesses this year.
“It’s a good marketing strategy to be able to tell customers you serve locally grown food,” Baldwin said.
Also new this year is the farm’s spot inside at the . Last year there was no room for the farm's offerings, so it had to sell produce outside the building. Baldwin said he’s optimistic the farm’s new spot inside the market will help elevate its presence in the community.
“We need people to know about us,” Baldwin said of the farm, located on 11 Mile just east of Campbell Road, on the former site of Lincoln Elementary School school. “The farm isn’t just about produce. It’s about beautifying the community and developing a good example of what we can do within the community.”
Royal Oak resident Terri Garrett has enthusiastically been a part of the farm since its beginning last year. She has welcomed the chance to get fresh produce through the half CSA share she bought and actually work on the land.
"As I get older, I'm always looking for ways to give back, and honestly, working on the farm is just a lot of fun," Garrett said.
The farm leases its land from the Royal Oak school district for no cost. All profits – and any surplus produce – go to the Royal Oak Foundation for Public Education. "As of now, we have donated $2,500 to the foundation," Baldwin said.
The farm relies chiefly on fundraising and does not make a profit on what it sells. Any money made from the farm helps pay for irrigation, insurance and water, which costs thousands of dollars, Baldwin said. The farm also is concentrating on raising the nutrient level of the farm's soil to grow more efficiently in future seasons and get better yields.
The Royal Oak Community Farm grows about 40 types of vegetables and about 50 varieties — everything from tomatoes and carrots to more exotic things such as kohlrabi and Chinese cabbage. Baldwin tapped Ferndale resident Trevor Johnson, an organic farmer and professional permaculturist, last year to oversee every aspect of the farm’s production.
Walking through the farm one recent evening, Johnson talked about the farm’s potential in the coming years. Although it grows only commodities now, he said true sustainability will come from eventually growing perennial crops such as fruit and nut trees, while also producing value-added products such as jams and jellies. All of this will add to the community’s continuing positive relationship with the farm, Johnson said.
“We should always be asking, how can we structure the Royal Oak Community Farm so someone can really get a great experience out of this?” Johnson said.
In addition to residents’ opportunities to buy CSA shares, anyone can volunteer at the farm. “We can always use more volunteers,” said Johnson, who is typically out on the farm late Friday nights and into the wee hours sporting a headlamp while he harvests the produce for the next day's CSA shares pickups and Royal Oak Farmers Market stand.
Johnson's weekly emails to members and volunteers often include an invitation to socialize as well as work. "Bring something to throw on the grill and I'll have a salad ready fresh from the farm!," he wrote recently.
The farm also is hoping for more programs involving school children to take off. A 4-H program is in the works as well as an after-school program with to give kids a chance to learn about farming.
“It’s all about creating a sense of community,” Baldwin said.