The Detroit Cooperative Ecosystem

The USDA APRTAI Cohot pose with USDA Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small in front of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op

From May 20-22, the USDA American Rescue Plan Technical Assistance Investment (ARPTAI) Cooperator network gathered in Detroit, Michigan, for three days of networking, visiting farm spaces, and exploring how to further support historically underserved communities. The Strengthening Cooperative Ecosystems project at NCBA CLUSA showcased specific examples of technical assistance efforts that have led to significant success for producers and cooperatives, particularly through leveraging USDA programs and services. Whether assisting a small-scale farmer in securing a grant or guiding a cooperative through the intricacies of a USDA application, this convening highlighted the impactful work of the Strengthening Cooperative Ecosystems project and its tangible benefits for our producer communities. 

Exploring Detroit’s Urban Agriculture Scene 

The trip began with pre-conference tours showcasing efforts to foster a healthy and sustainable urban agriculture environment in the city. The first stop was the Michigan State University Partnership for Food, Learning, and Innovation (DPFLI). Founded in 2017, DPFLI is Michigan State University’s first urban agriculture center. It is dedicated to research and programming that improves the quality of life for Detroit residents and farmers, while also serving as a community space for recreation and connecting with nature. 

“We want to show folks that if you’ve got land, there are sustainable ways to manage it. Right now, humans are out of sync with each other and the planet, and a part of DPFLI is to reconnect us to each other, to plants, and to the Earth,” says Naim Edwards, Extension Specialist at DPFLI. 

The research at DPFLI includes soil and pest management, variety trials, and identifying plants that thrive in urban settings. The center also focuses on leveraging relationships with other Detroit farmers to create a resilient community. 

The second stop was D-Town Farm, Detroit’s largest urban farm. Spanning over seven acres in Rouge Park, D-Town Farm is maintained by a small staff and volunteers who grow more than 30 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs using sustainable, regenerative methods. 

“The food economy is the first economy of any economy,” says Malik Yakini, Executive Director of D-Town Farm. “As we think about building a more sustainable and just economy, food has to be prominent in that.” 

D-Town Farm’s members believe that building a sustainable economy starts with educating children about where their food comes from. Their children’s program, “The Food Warriors,” teaches kids about food production, encouraging them to appreciate and prefer fresh produce over junk food. 

“We have a children’s program called ‘The Food Warriors,’ which gives children education about food and where it comes from. It was a great way to show children that you can grow something on your own, and I saw how when children have a deep relationship with their food, they don’t want junk, even if it’s right in their face. They want the carrot that came from the ground.” said Aisha Ellis, Manager of D-Town Farms 

The tours concluded with a visit to the Detroit People’s Food Co-Op, a project 14 years in the making, which celebrated its grand opening in early May. The visit was highlighted by an appearance from Deputy Secretary of the USDA, Xochitl Torres Small. 

The Strength of the Cooperative Network 

For the remainder of the trip, the network delved into strategies for supporting producers and cooperatives, particularly in accessing USDA programs and services. A panel discussion, moderated by Teia Evans, Project Director for the Strengthening Cooperative Ecosystems project, was titled “Working with Underserved Producers: Wins and Challenges.”  

“This panel helped all of us put the cooperator network among historically underserved communities in perspective. I’m looking forward to the new ways we can continue to connect and support these communities in how they can access these programs from the USDA,” says Ms. Evans. 

The conference hall buzzed with discussions centered on enhancing awareness of USDA programs and services, providing technical assistance for program applications, and overcoming barriers to access. Participants shared successes and challenges in delivering technical assistance for programs such as FSA loans, EQIP, and grant applications, and strategies for improving producer preparation and support to access USDA programs were also explored, emphasizing the importance of tailored assistance to meet diverse needs. 

NCBA CLUSA’s Strengthening Cooperative Communities Project Director Teia Evans moderates a panel discussion

In the ever-evolving landscape of agriculture, equitable access to resources, markets, and support services plays a pivotal role in the success of producers, especially those that are underserved. This cooperative network conference served as an invaluable platform for fostering collaboration, sharing best practices, and addressing key challenges in the agricultural community. As we reflect on the insights gleaned from this conference, let us continue to champion innovation, inclusivity, and resilience in agriculture, driving positive change for generations to come. 

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