Metro Detroit market farmer Alexander Ball successfully created a community supported agriculture (CSA) business with two acres of land, a unique business model and support from GreenStone Farm Credit Services.
A Challenging Start
At age 18 and with no previous experience, Alex Ball researched the internet for how-to-farm information and leased some land to begin growing vegetables. During that first year on his rented farmland, he learned a pipeline soon would traverse his fields. Undeterred, he worked through the struggle and leased land the next four years.
Deciding to buy land proved almost as frustrating. After looking at nearly 50 properties, Alex found two acres of zoned land with affordable taxes, five miles from his home in Romulus. But he couldn't find a lender willing to finance a small farm.
"I was desperate," Alex said. "No one would give me a loan, but I was directed to GreenStone. So I called Senior Financial Services Officer Mike Niesyto. I emailed him with information about my finances, my website and my business plan, and a day later Mike said, ‘hey, I like what you are doing. I think we can work with you!’”
"I met Alex in 2017 when he was looking for a lender to finance a two-acre parcel," Mike said. "Early on in the conversation, I could tell his passion for agriculture was immense, and he seemed to have really great character. Those subjective measures can really go a long way when a lender is working with a young, beginning or small customer."
Alex spent the first year as a property owner clearing out lowland forest and preparing some fields, while still maintaining his greenhouse production. He spent the next two seasons building drainage and irrigation systems, ditches, levees and ponds on what he realized was wet, tired land.
"I was barely making enough to cover my expenses,” Alex said. "I was living below poverty line. But I just had a dream, and I knew the only way to get it done was to get into the field and plant as quickly as possible, with as little debt as possible. I was in the business for the long-term and I told myself, no rush - I was going to take about three or four years and just do it right."
Alex's Old City Acres farm specializes in small-scale, intensive market gardening. The farm's yields competitively compare to sweet corn production at a large operation. And Alex has found success in farming year-round under hoops, low tunnels and plastic.
Formula For Success
It's more than just Alex growing his tender winter greens and spring and summer vegetables organically, sustainably and lovingly, like the Old City Acres website states; Alex has created a community of regular customers eager to purchase his products and support his endeavor.
"Oh man, we have a ravenous fan base," Alex said. By design, he sells flexible, 12-month CSA memberships and delivers vegetables to just three areas: Romulus, where he grew up and has family and friends who want to buy from him; Ypsilanti, a college town outside of Ann Arbor's market-saturated reach; and the rural neighborhood surrounding his farm. "I've really cultivated an awesome following over the last eight years," Alex said. "I see my customers more like family and having that customer base has been a lifesaver.
"You only need 50 solid customers with a $20 per week membership. So instead of doing a shotgun approach, I've been refining my products and cultivating the relationships I have with these people. My customers can choose which vegetables they want to buy, and they can choose their own schedule. Because of our flexibility, we're attracting a diversity of untapped, younger consumers. It's a very customer-oriented CSA model. The product is fantastic, but on top of that, I make sure our service is even better. I quickly realized that if you take care of people, then they are there for you when you need them,” Alex said.
Alex relied on his loyal supporters more than ever when COVID-19 hit Michigan. Overnight, farmers' markets shut down and restaurants canceled their wholesale produce accounts. Regrouping, Alex and a couple of friends built a new driveway for the farm and put it in a small parking lot. He then installed a self-serve farm stand, complete with refrigerated coolers to capture drive-by business.
2020 presented more challenges than those first, difficult years. He believes that COVID-l9's trial-by-fire forced him to build a solid infrastructure that will help him stabilize his operation for the years ahead. Agile thinking is part of Alex's formula for success, which also includes developing a niche market with high-quality product, creating a strong and growing community, and providing superior service that reflects the needs of customers.
"I realized really early on in farming, that if I couldn't adapt, I was going to quickly fall by the wayside," Alex said. "Farmers deal with difficulties all the time; hard is a normal thing in agriculture. We can do this."
Feeling comfortable with the size of his land, and only growing on half of it, Alex still has plans for the future: up. He will continue leveraging his current acreage to its peak capability while running an all-year, greenhouse-aided operation. He expects to cultivate both acres over the next three to four years and has thoughts of using the wet forest land for mushroom production.
"If I want to expand certain crops, there is rentable land down the street from me. To buy more land, I would have to scale up my infrastructure, buy more equipment, hire employees and take out more financing. Right now, my risk ratio is safe. If I had a huge operation, things like flooding and COVID-19 could take me down. I am more comfortable with slow, incremental growth," Alex said.
"I'm a big proponent of slow food," Alex said. "Local food, traditionally prepared. I've never been in an insane rush to be the biggest or fastest producer. I'm 26, and I have the time to start small, avoid unnecessary debt and live a profitable, agricultural lifestyle close to the community.
“It’s a slow model that works for me."