Small Northern Michigan farms, big ideas! From a humble $1,200 start to a recent $250,000 grant, here’s how MI Farm Co-op is transforming the North’s farm-to-table economy.

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One of the best things to happen to locavores since sliced local bread: MI Farm Cooperative, the increasingly brawny brainchild of 9 Bean’s co-owner Nic Welty and Bardenhagen Farms’ owner Jim Bardenhagen.

An independent producer-owned cooperative, MI Farm Co-op launched in 2014 with a $100 investment from 12 northwest lower Michigan farms.

The initial mission: Join forces, pool resources like marketing and delivery, and create a system to connect more farmers to the folks who want locally grown and raised foods: area restaurants, caterers, grocery stores, hunger helpers like Goodwill and Food Rescue and—key to growing a healthy community and local economy—schools.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Easy, right? Not so much. But with that little bit of money and a lot of blood, sweat and volunteers, the co-op concept caught on. It attracted more member farms (25 at last count) and developed an online market where wholesale buyers can order an array of freshly made, plucked and picked goodies from multiple local farms at once.

We surfed MI Farm Co-op’s online shelves on a 7-degree day in February and found them brimming with a smorgasbord of delights, from apples, eggs and aged cheese, to fresh basil, baby kale, microgreens and a multitude of beef, pork and chicken cuts. We even saw CBDA deodorant. (In case overindulgent restaurant patrons get the meat sweats, maybe?)

For average (read: non-wholesale) buyers, MI Farm thought outside the traditional CSA box. Instead of each farmer selling, packing and delivering boxes of only its fare each week, the co-op crafted a CSA that packs in every box a big, fat, fresh variety—bread, eggs, greens, in-season fruits and veggies and value-add items like goat cheese, maple syrup and granola—sourced from at least five different farms.

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo by Dave Weidner

Lately, MI Co-op is making its farmers’ rows even easier to hoe—and hungry locavores even happier. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development recently awarded the co-op a $250,000 grant to, as Operations Manager Kat Palms says, “stoke the fires of growth and impact.”

The co-op quickly hired a dedicated driver—a role formerly held by Welty, Palms and others wearing a half-dozen co-op hats—to deliver to the co-op’s drop spots in Leelanau, Benzie and Grand Traverse counties.

It also hired a processing manager, Maya Koscielny, and teamed up to share a processing kitchen with Goodwill. Peeling, chopping and prepping the growers’ produce will make cooking and serving faster and easier for lunchroom cooks, restaurant chefs and the like, says Palms, helping co-op farmers compete with other suppliers.

Palms says more plans are afoot, such as community cooking events and, one day hopefully, opening MI Farm’s online market to non-wholesale buyers.

For those who can’t wait, you can still get a taste of the co-op’s cornucopia: Sign on for a spring or summer share now, follow live CSA unboxing and recipe-making videos on Instagram (@mifarmcoop) and stay tuned to what the co-op’s cooking next at

Photo by Dave Weidner

Photo(s) by Dave Weidner