Triple A Farm Stops
Acorn joins Argus and Agricole in connecting farmers and customers-to everyone's benefit.
by Misty Callies
Published in February, 2021
Manchester's food horizons are looking a bit brighter. An indoor farmers market, conceived as a response to the closing of the village's only grocery store in early 2019, is up and running in a shoebox storefront. By early summer, Acorn Farmers' Market and Café will be moving to a bigger, shinier, renovated shared space in that old grocery.
It's an exciting development for the village of 2,000. It's also big news regionally: Acorn is just the latest flowering of a farm-to-table innovation planted locally in 2014 by Ann Arbor's Argus Farm Stop.
Like Argus and Chelsea's Agricole Farm Stop, Acorn provides a central location where local farmers and producers can sell their products-mostly fresh produce and dairy, frozen meats, grain products, honey and maple syrup--directly to consumers on a consignment basis. Each of the markets was shaped by the needs of its community in particular ways. But all share a common goal: increasing the availability of seasonal Michigan-grown food for consumers and, by eliminating middle-men, helping farmers realize a better return for their products.
The county's three farm stops allowed growers to pivot quickly when the pandemic closed farmer's markets, providing an alternative outlet even before many producers instituted their own online sales. Like food stores everywhere, they saw increased business as folks cooked more at home, and new systems had to be established and implemented to deal both with Covid restrictions and the sales growth.
A full year of cooking hasn't lessened interest in Michigan-grown food-in fact, just the opposite. Many consumers realize the true costs of big farming in terms of land, air, water, livelihoods, and food safety and flavor, as well as its inability to react and change quickly in times of emergency, shortages, overstocks, closed production outlets, or changing needs. Local farmers and local farm stops, smaller and more nimble, could--and did--adjust and accommodate.
Argus Farm Stop debuted as a L3C (low profit limited liability company) in a renovated gas station on Liberty
St. west of downtown Ann Arbor. Its mission: to grow the local food economy. Locals embraced the farm stop model, and success allowed owners Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff to open a second store on Packard in 2017. Both stores featured a café to help offset the stores' low consignment rates. An extremely generous revenue share-75 percent to the producer, 25 percent to the store--works well for the farmers' bottom lines, but left the farm stop in need of an additional revenue source. With the transformation of coffee drinking into an accessible luxury, the beverage provides an excellent margin, and the cafés Argus modeled also featured local coffee roasters and tea purveyors. Moreover, the cafés, along with a program of events, enhanced the sense of community and neighborliness the farm stops hoped to facilitate.
Before the pandemic hit in March 2020, Argus's sales had been growing 20 percent per the year. With the governor's shutdown of schools, restaurants, and shops, Argus lost both employees (college students returning home as well as workers with immune compromised relatives) and business (its café sales and restaurant accounts). Fortunately, as an essential service, Argus-without the cafés-could stay open, and worked with farmers to provide increased accessibility when the Ann Arbor's Farmers Market closed briefly early in the pandemic.
By adjusting a restaurant online ordering platform it had been designing, the Argus staff quickly set up internet, curbside, and delivery sales. With Ann Arborites cooking and eating at home, grocery sales boomed, farmers ramped up production, and Argus rented portable coolers to increase its holding capacity. Online sales became a third store equivalent, though with additional costs--a new hire in a dedicated systems guy, and the increased expenditures of sorting, weighing, packing, delivery, and inventory. The Packard store, with its small footprint, was closed for a time and then redesigned before reopening to more business than previously. Eventually both cafés were reopened for take-out service only.
With all these quick turns and fast maneuvers, Sample and Brinkerhoff had no time to apply for any of the government's first wave of pandemic subsidy offers. Yet Argus accomplished much: a customer-friendly online catalog and a database of 300 customers; a delivery service that has become a core part of the business; and a weekly produce box, a sort of farm stop community-supported-agriculture subscription that includes seven to ten store-picked items for $30 a week. But these accomplishments, as well as the expense of quarantining staff, cost money; Argus will be applying for some of the latest rounds of government support. People are still cooking and eating at home, though, better educated about and better fed on local produce.
With its downtown market long gone and only a single grocery near the highway, Chelsea had lacked, for years, a village marketplace. Though the town's farmer's market brought in some local food, residents Abby Hurst, Kathleen Kennedy, Sharon Norton, and Patrick Zieske shared a vision of a regular, brick-and-mortar outlet for Michigan-produced goods. To augment their own investments, they set up a crowdfunding campaign on the Patronicity platform, gaining enthusiastic community support and a subsequent matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Hurst and her husband made available a downtown location, a dilapidated but historic building on Main St. that they gutted and renovated into an inviting, light-filled space. Joining forces with Brogan Darwin, who came from Argus, the group opened Agricole in June of 2019. Using the same LC3 model as Argus, Agricole supplies space for local farmers, producers, and artisans to sell their wares on consignment, with a small café to help cover costs and foster community spirit.
Sales were initially good, and Agricole quickly grew to a staff of fifteen to sixteen employees. When the pandemic hit, the store lost five employees who were dealing with compromised immunities. They also closed the café but offered curbside pick-up of groceries; the café space became their "battle"-or packaging-station as the staff worked to keep up with those orders.
Since Agricole hadn't set up an online ordering system prior to the pandemic, curbside shopping meant writing down and managing phone call and email orders given from a PDF product file on the website; the process was difficult and time-consuming. In addition, the form had to be updated weekly, and it obviously couldn't reflect all daily shortages and changes. Nevertheless, the curbside service enticed new customers to Agricole who have continued to visit the store.
As the pandemic lengthened, the staff eventually reopened the café for take-out and patio service. Curbside service has continued, but perhaps because of Chelsea's relatively small size, customers have also felt comfortable returning to shop inside the store. The staff still hasn't fully developed a true online ordering system, though it's an eventual, if long-term, goal. The pandemic didn't prevent the introduction of Agricole's commercial community kitchen, a facility that allows cottage producers to become retail ones. One Mean Team (granola, peanut brittle) and Kitchen Little (baked goods) have both utilized the rental space, and Chef Allison hopes to offer prepared meals and cooking classes. As with other food outlets, the tremendous sales increases Agricole experienced at the beginning of the pandemic steadied; sales remain strong, with the store managing to return over a million dollars to farmers and artisans since opening.
After Manchester's initial search for a new grocery store proved unsuccessful, a cadre of residents joined forces to set up a non-profit with themselves-Megan DeLeeuw, Linda Davis, Ruth VanBogelen, Theresa Herron, and Linda Knox--as the volunteer board. They talked to Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff about establishing a farm stop based on the Argus model. At the time, Manchester had an outdoor farmer's market running only from May to October, and an initial collaboration was set up between the market and the new non-profit, opening a three-day-a-week consignment market in a rented storefront in November 2019. The pandemic forced its closure four months later.
After shutting down to build an online ordering system, Acorn reopened a month later for curbside service only-- the space was too small for indoor shopping. Since the outdoor farmer's market didn't reopen in the spring-many farmers had discovered they preferred the consignment model--Acorn remained Manchester's only source for local produce. And, because it's the only food store in the immediate community, Acorn, unlike Argus and Agricole, also chose to sell non-local and non-seasonal items.
In July 2020 the non-profit launched a Patronicity campaign to raise $50,000. The goal was met within two months, earning an MEDC matching grant.
The group was considering a larger space for a permanent indoor market when the recent buyers of the old Manchester Market-Justin Dalenberg and Ken Heers-approached Acorn's board about a new possibility: They had bought the old grocery store to house a commissary bakery and butchery for Dalenberg's restaurant group (Grand River Brewery and Doll n' Burgers) and a new Perky Pantry outlet in Heers's chain of stores. They envisioned these enterprises sharing space with additional shops-and wanted Acorn to be one of them.
The board leapt at the idea; with renovation costs taken off the page, the funds raised would now be sufficient to completely outfit a new store and café. The setup would also likely increase foot traffic for the café, the engine, as with Argus and Agricole, necessary to float the consignment side of the non-profit. As of mid-February, renovation work continues, but all parties hope to be in the new market by early summer.
In the meantime, the Acorn board (now consisting of DeLeeuw, Davis, VanBogelen, Herron, Laura Billetdeaux, Laurie Brewis, and Laura Wohlgemuth) has hired a store manager, Kenny Frost. Two paid part-time store associates and more than a dozen volunteers help keep the current storefront organized, stocked, and open twelve hours per week. Saturday remains the only day for in-store shopping; otherwise, shopping is via online, phone, or curbside orders, with pick up. Soon Frost hopes to open another day before the transition to the new space; the hours of the shop and café in the renovated market are, as yet, undecided.
How Acorn develops is a work in progress, to be determined as the community voices its needs and the organization responds. Frost, for instance, hopes there will be an outdoor component to the new market as the weather improves, perhaps with vendors lining the parking lot one day a week. While the local emphasis and the 75 percent farmer/ 25 percent farm stop consignment ratio are set in stone, the organization will likely continue to debate the practice of selling non-local and non-seasonal items. First, local farmers will have to grow and store more so they have items to sell in January and February. And, with the new Manchester Market the only local store, attempts must be made to supply what residents want and need. "After all," said Frost, "if our carrying bananas prevents a Manchester resident from getting in his or her car to drive to Meijer to buy produce, some overall savings of resources has been realized." Hiring adequate staff may also determine the structure and hours of Acorn and its café; Manchester's employee pool, like Chelsea's, is small and less predictable than Ann Arbor's. Frost, though, remains enthusiastic for the future, certain in the heartfelt effort made by Acorn's board, volunteers, and the Manchester community in establishing this farm stop.
And community is what Argus, Agricole, and Acorn speak to-the community of local producers, the community of neighbors, and the community of like organizations working together towards the common goal of making a better food system for all.
A version of this article previously appeared in the newsletter of Slow Food Huron Valley.
On February 19, 2021, shawn personke wrote:
Chelsea has a great market, in addition to the Polly's Country Market -- The New Chelsea Market. In addition to providing a great selection of staples, specialty goods. and excellent wine and chocolates, the New Chelsea Market also provides curbside and some free delivery options.
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