Co-op Farmstands for Backyard Gardeners

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Co-founder Annelies Lottmann talks to patrons at the Sunset Valley market.
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Yard to Market Co-op enables backyard gardeners to bring a surplus of eggs or small amounts of produce farmers markets, local grocery stores, and restaurants. The gardener-to-consumer pathway allows customers to talk one-on-one with the producers of the food they're buying.
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Members drop off their produce or eggs in the morning and fill out a form recording the items and quantities they're selling. Pictured are Nitya Uthenpong's edible flowers and garlic chives.
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Co-op members can bring any variety of produce to sell. Pictured here are member Candace Squire's nopales.
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Jen Mack, farmstand coordinator, sets up for the HOPE market.
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Nitya Uthenpong harvests garlic chives, which she'll weigh, bundle, and bring to market that morning.
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With its colorful shed and greenhouse for seedlings, Nitya's urban garden connects her with nature and inspires her to share.
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Shirley Mount has added to her coop over time. It even has a solar-operated automatic door.
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Member Shirley Mount sorts eggs for market.
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The abundance of each member's handfuls of homegrown produce.

In 2013, a few folkswho knew each other from the gardening community in Austin, Texas, came together with a dilemma — how to sell their extra produce at farmers markets. As individuals who didn’t want to deliver on a market-farm scale, the barriers to entry seemed too great. They had the idea to create a shared farmstand or a CSA program.

The group, including co-founders Annelies Lottmann and Lesley Williamson, spent most of 2013 meeting and figuring out which structure would work best. Finally, they decided to organize as a co-op because of their interest in group ownership. In early 2014, members began selling produce at the HOPE Farmers Market, which already allowed gardeners to drop off and sell small amounts of produce. Later that year, they had enough members to form a farmstand at HOPE. In 2015, then-named Yard to Market Co-op received a Value-Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which allowed them to open a second farmstand, at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market in South Austin, and to pay their farmstand workers. The group has doubled its revenue every year since 2014, has about 50 members across the region, and sells 90 percent of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and eggs that come in.

At two weekend markets, members can drop off any items they want to sell — even just a bunch of herbs or a half-dozen eggs. To join, they fill out a membership application and agree to certain commitments, including not using synthetic inputs. Members pay $49 to join and then contribute a $65 capital investment, which helps put everyone on equal footing; if that member leaves the co-op, they receive their $65 investment back. Before market, members weigh and bundle their produce according to the group’s guidelines, and on market mornings, they fill out a form that documents what they’re selling. After markets, Lesley, the finance director, compares these forms to the sales records, tracks what’s been sold, and pays each member quarterly.

Whatever doesn’t sell at the markets is brought to Austin-area grocery stores Wheatsville Co-op and in.gredients, as well as the restaurant Black Star Co-op. Produce is also advertised on neighborhood Listservs, where individual buyers can claim products — eggs and specialty fruit are especially sought after. The five-person board that represents all 50 members meets monthly and sends out newsletters to inform everyone of schedule changes or seasonal news, and all members come together to vote on group matters at an annual meeting. Yard to Market has become an entry into the local food market for everyone from windowsill gardeners to small farmers.

A Little Profit, A Lot of Community

The model works well for Nitya Uthenpong, who in 2002 began transforming her yard with native plants and heirlooms. At one time, she nurtured 17 raised beds, and over the years, she realized she could share her extra produce if she had an outlet. She’d thought about taking produce to market — but not every market. She didn’t want to give up every Saturday. So when she found out about Yard to Market Co-op through her daughter’s school, she joined.

“Now I know someone will be at the market, and I can just drop my extra produce off,” she says. At a recent market, she brought items she had picked that morning — some edible flowers and a few bunches of herbs, which she bundles for Thai cooking.

Haley Bradley, who has served on the board for three years, says the co-op model appealed to her because it seemed like the fairest arrangement. After the first year, she didn’t make a lot of money but was able to pay her water bill, and the following year she upgraded her watering system. Selling some of what she produces helps offset her costs, makes her gardening pursuits easier on her family’s budget, and lets her take on more projects in her garden, such as investing in raising more chickens.

Jen Mack got involved through a friend, joined as a member nine months later, and currently serves on the board and as farmstand coordinator. She runs the farmstands at both markets and organizes volunteers. She says the organization shows people they can contribute in a small way, offering what they have when they have it; they don’t have to grow a huge surplus to participate. “Even the produce you tried to pawn off on your neighbors has value,” Jen says.

Nitya joined partly to support the essence of backyard gardeners earning something for what they grow. “We earn top dollar,” she says. She also appreciated the co-op model, which is strong in the Austin community, and wanted to support it. “The whole idea of the co-op is that they’re not out to make a ton of money at our expense.”

Once a month, Yard to Market members meet in a member’s garden to socialize, and someone will often give a presentation. “I joined for the community more than anything,” Nitya says. Her garden puts her in touch with nature and has become a place of healing, which she’s motivated to share, along with her appreciation for fresh-picked produce in a world where even vegetables at organically minded grocery stores were picked days ago. “To go out in the garden, pick something, bring it inside, and immediately cook it — there’s nothing that can top that feeling.”

Jen had been involved for a while in the farming and gardening community in Austin, and being part of that larger community exchange also motivated her to join. “There’s something really special about pulling something out of the garden and selling it to the person who’s consuming it,” Jen says.

Cultivating Gardens and Gardeners

The members’ sentiments echo what Annelies says they’ve discovered over the years: Urban gardeners are not necessarily looking for profit — they’re looking for community. In the beginning, the board emphasized the money-making potential when reaching out to gardeners, but in the past year they’ve focused more on co-op ownership and other benefits they see cultivated in membership — sharing an enthusiasm for backyard gardening, exchanging knowledge, supporting each other, and maybe offsetting some costs in the process.  As a result of participation, members are planting more, are changing what they’re growing, and are spending more time in their gardens.

At markets, backyard gardeners can learn from each other and share common complaints and questions, especially about regional gardening issues. “That’s one of the best things at the farmstand. Members will all talk about what’s happening with their gardens,” Annelies says. They’ll think they’re bad at planting a particular crop — until they see that others have the same struggles.

 “I love working at the farmstand,” Haley says. “I’ve learned so much about gardening in Texas. I’ve grown as a gardener.” This year, Haley planted 100 strawberry plants and is growing potatoes for the first time. In the past, she planted a little of everything she likes to eat, but now she grows fewer garden crops in greater quantities and relies on fellow members for other produce.

Becoming a member of the group has changed the way Jen gardens too, and she sees the same in other members. They can put their skills, time, and finances toward their strengths and interests. “I can let someone else grow what I can’t. I know I can count on Kathy’s carrots,” Jen says.

Haley has been able to spend more of her time and energy on projects she enjoys and has attempted new ventures. She’s been developing the group’s cottage food program, which became possible after the Texas legislature passed a law in 2013 permitting the sale of homemade products, such as canned jams and jellies, granola, and dehydrated fruits. She’s also increased her chicken flock from 4 to 18, since she now has a place to sell the eggs her family can’t eat. “I enjoy it, and the chickens have a happier life,” she says. Without the support, the market, and the profits to invest back in the chickens, she might have given up.

For Annelies, watching fellow co-op members expand their flocks and sell lots of eggs successfully has been inspiring. With the co-op, there’s somewhere for the fruits of their labor to go. One surprising trend is that they’re selling fruit year-round. Backyard farming can be challenging in the Texas climate, but people enjoy having fruit trees, and, as Annelies says, “If your trees are doing well, you have way too much fruit.” But growing new varieties is worth the investment and risk when you have a ready outlet for the extra crop, shared resources, and support.

Recently, the group ordered a large shipment of strawberry plants for members to buy cheaply, and instead of 5 plants, people bought 100, like Haley did. “So it’s changing the size and makeup of our gardens,” Annelies says. “With strawberries, I’ve always been hesitant, but if I’m going to plant 150, I know I can lose some.”

Monthly, the board orders full flats of seedlings from nearby Gabriel Valley Farms. They can target regionally and seasonally appropriate crops they know are in demand and will sell successfully. “We can sell 100 pounds of carrots in a weekend,” Annelies says. “When people grow carrots, they eat them, so we always need more.” So they can order a lot of seeds or seedlings of marketable items and encourage planting. Members get a good deal, and the seedlings start conversations at farmers markets with passersby who ask, “You’re here to help gardeners, too?”

To further support gardeners and the exchange of knowledge, the group has also organized classes in pruning and maintaining fruit trees, and it brings members and the community together through monthly garden tours. Members are especially interested in these opportunities to share the wealth of knowledge within the co-op, which includes many expert gardeners, or people becoming expert gardeners.

The community support gives backyard gardeners a little more impetus to keep going. In the past, Haley says, if she lost her crop to a hard freeze or disease, she might not have started over. But now, she can find solutions within the group and has an incentive to try again.

Refining the Co-Op Model

The ongoing challenge, according to Annelies, is to really fulfill the co-op mission — to engage with members, keep them involved, and continue to build a base of people ready to pitch in and help.

“In an ideal world, even the least-engaged members would feel and talk about the co-op as a thing we all own,” Annelies says. To this end, the board is working on building a more robust application and implementing more training at the farmstand. They recently incorporated a stewardship requirement with membership, meaning that everyone agrees to put in at least four shifts at the farmstands or contribute $100. They want to build that sense of cooperation and community, with new members in particular, so everyone benefits from the community involvement and shares the philosophy.

As Yard to Market has grown from its bootstrap beginnings as a hodgepodge of ideas, it’s slowly become its own model. Annelies says good ideas seem to come after the season is over, and you can’t do it all at once. Just like in the garden, another season will come; the group can implement those good ideas next year and keep expanding little by little. None of the members works at Yard to Market as a full-time job, so they’ve relied on a core committed group willing to go through trial and error. “You don’t have to be perfect at any of this,” Annelies says. “You just have to be enthusiastic and open to learning.”

A Place in the Local Food System

Eventually, the organizers began to see that the co-op can have a vital role in the wider food system. Yard to Market creates an entry point in the market for anyone — a hobbyist home gardener or even a small-scale farmer whose operations may not be big enough to engage with restaurants or sell to grocery stores.

With this realization, they’d like to connect more with small farmers just starting out. Small-scale growers could take advantage of the group’s already-established infrastructure and efficient system for keeping records and sales data to get a good sense of whether what they’re selling is viable in the market. That collaboration could help Yard to Market offer more to customers.

Currently, the group sells vegetables, fruits, nuts, herbs, and eggs. By including some bigger operations, they could offer meat and dairy and also help small farmers stay in business. Yard to Market would also like to continue working toward affordable food access in the city.

“This is something that’s close to all of our hearts,” Annelies says. “Part of the reason we grow our own food is that organic produce is expensive.” They want to be able to offer their homegrown produce at an affordable cost throughout the city while still providing a high return for members — which, Annelies says, is the balance farmers across the country seek.

They’ve begun to join with other organizations in Austin, such as the Sustainable Food Center, which offers farming and gardening training programs, and Farmshare Austin, which, along with the City of Austin and the Sustainable Food Center, has recently started a mobile farmers market to bring affordable organic produce to communities in the city.

The group has begun selling some produce into that system, but to the general cause of food access in the city, it can also offer the unique pathway it’s created — a highly organized system for selling food from multiple small producers.

Yard to Market, at its core, empowers individual people to garden, Jen says, which inherently addresses the issue of food access. “One of the solutions for food insecurity problems is for people to start growing their own food, even on a microscale, focusing on what we can grow and sell and getting the rest from our neighbors.” Yard to Market has created a formal channel to make that exchange possible. “Other communities could offer the same model,” Jen says.

The group is making the materials they’ve developed, including online farmstand training video tutorials and a lending library, open-source so backyard gardeners in other communities could adapt the Yard to Market model. From the seed of a few gardeners coming together to sell their produce, the co-op supports gardeners in their practice, puts money into the local economy, and empowers anyone, even with a few bunches of herbs, to be part of that exchange.

Kristi Quillen is a former Heirloom Gardener editor.

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