On a Thursday afternoon near the end of summer, the courtyard of the Mercado San Agustín teems with activity before the start of the weekly Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. Tables are unloaded, tents popped up, signs unfurled. Baskets of vegetables, loaves of bread, and jars of honey are arranged on tablecloths. Just inside the courtyard’s southernmost entrance, beneath a sign that reads “Abundant Harvest Cooperative,” several tables are pushed together in a line and filled with eclectic offerings: green nopales, dusty red garlic, glowing pears, multicolored eggs.
The Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, a year-round market run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, began in 2005 to address the lack of direct market outlets facilitating the exchange of fresh produce between farmers and consumers. Today the market is a pillar in Tucson’s local food system, accepting SNAP benefits and WIC vouchers and requiring that all products sold be grown in Arizona, and that vendors themselves grow or make at least 80 percent of the products they sell.
In addition to narrowing the food gap between farmers and eaters, the Community Food Bank has also used its market resources to support the development of Tucson-based agricultural microenterprises. Once known as “the consignment program,” the recently renamed Abundant Harvest Cooperative is a network of small farmers and backyard growers, making use of shared market space to gain experience and access to economic opportunities. Supported administratively by the Community Food Bank, AHC members bring their eggs, honey, dried goods, and produce to the cooperative table, where staff oversee the sales in exchange for a small fee, which is returned to the organization.
Audra Christophel, the community food systems coordinator for the Community Food Bank, says that the 11-year-old program has morphed from a tiny experimental program with just five participating gardeners to a true market staple, with participation from over 150 growers. Don and Chris Breckenfeld, who now operate their own booth at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, began selling their homegrown produce in the early days of the consignment program. Chris describes the value of the Community Food Bank staff in “coaching and encouraging us into being independent vendors.” When the Breckenfelds made the choice to invest in their own market booth, they did so having gained significant knowledge in sales and marketing, as well as the important connections with consumers that would carry them as full-fledged farmers.
Anne Loftfield, chair of the AHC Governance Board, and co-owner of local farm High Energy Agriculture, knows well the risk and challenges associated with becoming a farmers’ market vendor—namely the investment in infrastructure, time, and producing enough food to justify having an entire booth. Loftfield says that AHC provides a low-risk alternative for smaller growers wanting to supplement their income, or gardeners simply looking to gain market experience.
In addition to the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, AHC members also have vending access to a Tuesday morning farm stand at the Community Food Bank, where Christophel says the majority of customers come to use their federal Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) checks. In fact, during the FMNP check season, which is May through October, AHC growers sell more produce on Tuesdays than at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. “Last Tuesday market, we collected over $1,600 in FMNP checks alone—all for AHC grown produce,” says Christophel, “So on both the economic impact front and the accessibility front, the Tuesday market is key.”
Recently the Community Food Bank has worked with growers to transition toward a shared leadership structure, in which growers have a larger role in informing the decisions and direction of the program. Christophel says the transition to shared leadership has been profound in moving the AHC toward “a more grower-driven and grower-centric cooperative.”
With funding and organizational support from the Community Food Bank, AHC established a governance board of growers, launched new economic incentives for growers open to taking leadership roles, and developed values, a vision statement, and organizational bylaws. And while the AHC is still a project of the Community Food Bank, there is potential for the cooperative to become self-sufficient in the future.
“It’s been really amazing for me to see the way this has transformed people’s relationships,” Christophel says, “For a long time, growers would drop off their product, interface only with the Food Bank, and then leave. The Food Bank did everything else. It was a super-limited way for this group to function. With shared leadership, it’s much more rich, with more opportunity for common good, connection, and a strong network of sharing resources and knowledge—grower to grower.”
It has taken time to fully gauge the impact of the program on participating growers, but today it’s clear that it has made significant social and economic impact. According to recent surveys of AHC growers, nearly 40 percent of members self-identify as low-income and 59 percent are women. A total of 46 percent of surveyed members report wanting to start their own food-related business. And more than a third of growers report that they “sometimes or often” depend on money they earn through AHC to make ends meet.
“One day I realized: this is really big,” says Christophel, reflecting on the seven years she has spent dedicated to the program. “We continue to ask how we can facilitate this sharing of resources in a way that holds space for community and opportunities to develop naturally. And what kind of knowledge is held in this community of over 150 farmers and gardeners?”
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer and a co-founder of th Farm Education and Resource Network (FERN). She serves on the City of Tucson’s Commission for Food Security, Heritage, and Economy, as well as the Pima County Food Alliance Leadership Council.