Nathanial Thompson feels that, after three years, the Full Plate Farm Collective is becoming a solid venture. “There are so many things we learned along the way,” he says. Here is some of his best advice for those who might like to try a collective venture.
• In a cooperative venture, growers have to let the coordinator make some of the decisions. That’s why you pay her.
• Growers need to be respectful and understand other growers’ limitations in the CSA – such as a crop failure. “You can’t let it become a blame game,” says Thompson.
• Communication is of paramount importance. Growers need to be able to share ideas and concerns clearly and easily. They need to be friends, not just business partners. “We get together once a month for business meetings,” Thompson says, “but our relationship with each other is the cornerstone for the collaborative.”
• Extend the cooperative effort to things such as renting a greenhouse and sharing labor.
• Seek advice from those who are successful. Thompson invites growers to call him for information and advice. Contact him at 607-227-4650 or [email protected].
by Sue Smith-Heavenrich
A few years back Russell Libby wrote an opinion piece urging us to spend $10 a week at the local farm stand or farmers’ market. The idea made sense then, and makes sense now. Not only would we get fresh and wholesome food on our tables, but our money would turn over many times in the community, generating local wealth.
Ten bucks a week may not sound like much, but over a summer it adds up. Get 50 or more people to make the same commitment and you’re talking a big chunk of change. Get those people to commit their money at the beginning of the season for a share of the produce, and you’re talking CSA: Community Supported Agriculture.
Food With A Farmer’s Face On It
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is based on a simple proposition: A community of people supports a farm, and the farm supports that community. An early version of CSA developed in Japan in the mid-60s, when a group of women banded together to purchase fresh milk. Other consumer-farmer partnerships formed, driven in part by environmental concerns and lack of trust in food offered through the conventional food system.
The Japanese called these consumer-organized direct marketing associations “teikei,” a word that means “cooperation” or “joint business.” To make this new food distribution system work, farmers and consumers had to talk with each other, had to figure out how to share the labor and capital to develop and support their new delivery system. Over time, “teikei” came to mean “food with the farmer’s face on it.”
In the United States the idea of community supported agriculture has been gaining momentum, growing from a handful of farms in the mid-80s to over 1500 farms in 2005. Maine alone has at least 100 CSAs. While an American CSA may look different from a “teikei,” the idea is the same: A community of individuals pledges support to a farmer by purchasing “shares” of that year’s harvest. In return, customers receive a weekly shopping bag full of what is in season.
Growers benefit because shares paid in advance of the growing season help cover seed and production costs. They also share the risk of a poor harvest due to weather or pest problems.
Members receive freshly harvested produce. They know how their vegetables and meat are raised, whether chemicals are used, and how the food is processed. There is a certain comfort in knowing that your weekly share of food will show up regardless of rising oil prices, truck strikes, or food riots in Haiti. Not to mention that, given the price of gas, 12 or 15 bucks a week for a grocery bag full of food is a good deal.
From Fish to Fowl
Say “CSA” and most folks think of a grocery bag full of freshly harvested carrots, salad greens and other produce, but many CSAs offer meat and poultry shares: lamb, pork, chicken, beef. A goat dairy may offer shares that include eggs, goat milk, cheese, soap and lotions. A farmer who taps his maples may offer syrup, while another may deliver a table-ready bouquet of freshly harvested flowers to your home or office each week.
One Upstate New York fruit grower is starting an apple CSA. He sells his apples, pears, peaches and cherries at the farm as a U-pick operation and at a farmers’ market. With rising gas prices he worries that people may not drive to his orchard, so he is offering a variation on the U-pick idea through his “apple” CSA.
“Members will pick up their shares of apples and cider at my farmers’ market stall,” he explains. Instead of picking up a pre-packed order, members are given an empty bag to fill from among the 15 or so varieties offered that week.
John Stewart, one of the owners of Home Grown Farm and Market in Washington, Maine, is offering a fish CSA this year. “We used to offer farm-raised trout,” he says. “Now we’re reviving the fish CSA with tilapia shares.” CSA members pick up two fish a week, or can drop by and pick up their fish on a monthly basis. Stewart and his partner still offer their traditional vegetable CSA.
Meat, fish and dairy CSAs are focused operations that allow farmers to expand their markets by adding CSA shares to wholesale and farmers’ markets sales. In contrast, produce CSAs often offer 150 or more varieties of vegetables and fruits. On top of that the farmer does the marketing, maintains the CSA lists, and might even put out a newsletter listing “crops of the week” and how to prepare the lesser-known varieties.
The problem with operating a farmer-owned CSA is burnout. Nathanial Thompson, who owns and operates Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg, New York, used to cultivate 12 acres of mixed vegetables in the Hudson Valley. In addition to filling orders for his 300-member CSA, he sold produce at farmers’ markets and distributed to restaurants, but the effort got to be too much for him.
“I love the CSA model for so many reasons,” Thompson says. “It’s great for the farmer; it’s great for the members; it’s great for the community. But it is such a challenge to manage it all with only one farmer doing everything.” Thompson, who is passionate about growing greens, decided to focus on a limited selection of crops. He developed his growing system around direct seeding, and his marketing plan around a local grocery store, a food co-op and a few select restaurants.
Thompson missed the close community that develops around a CSA, though. After talking with a friend who specializes in growing summer squash, beans, beets and cooking greens, and another who grows plants that do well on plastic mulch (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants), Thompson realized that if they pooled their produce, they could offer a substantial assortment of crops to a CSA. Because they would be working together, each grower would also be able to maintain his other markets.
Thompson invited his friends to dinner one night, and a few hours later the “Full Plate Farm Collective” was born. The first thing they all agreed on was hiring a coordinator to take care of the details that go along with a CSA project. They also agreed to find a way to make their CSA accessible to low-income families – by sponsoring fundraising events and participating in a grant with the local Cooperative Extension office. The CSA provides the food, and Extension Educators provide cooking and nutrition classes.
A cooperative effort closer to home is the Fresh Start Farms CSA in Lisbon, Maine. A project of the New American Sustainable Agriculture Program (NASAP), Fresh Start brings a community of refugee farmers from Sudan, Somalia and Guatemala together with a community of consumers who pledge to support these farmers. According to Amy Carrington, director of the NASAP project, in addition to the regular CSA crops, the farmers grow ethnic crops including Jew’s mallow (malokia), okra (bamia), purslane (rigla) and black-eyed pea greens (corpo lubia).
Part of the project trains these farmers, who raise produce at a training farm site; but the farmers also have their own plots where they develop their own small farm enterprises, Carrington explains. Working cooperatively offers the farmers an opportunity to develop their farms, their marketing skills and a customer base. The cooperative CSA offers members an unusual variety of exotic crops, along with recipes and advice on how to prepare the food. Additional cross-cultural volunteer opportunities are available for those who seek them. And, of course, they hold an annual Harvest Celebration.
Pick Your Own
Drive a mile or so up the windy road heading out from center Ithaca, New York, and you come to Kestrel Perch Berries, owned and operated by Katie Creeger. This 5-acre CSA offers fruit shares, but with a twist.
As with other CSAs, Kestrel Berry members purchase shares that assure them a share of the harvest, but instead of picking up a pint on their way home from work, members pick up a harvest basket and head into the patch to “pick their own.” Furthermore, each member contributes 15 to 20 minutes of weeding, watering or other garden chores each week or pays an additional $20 “non-working” premium for the season.
Last summer members harvested weekly shares of four types of strawberries, summer-bearing red raspberries, blackcap raspberries, thornless blackberries, fall-bearing red raspberries, red and black currants, two varieties of gooseberries, and elderberries.
“As far as I know, I am the only one to combine the CSA model with a U-pick operation,” Creeger said. Some other CSAs do incorporate a U-pick option for labor-intensive vegetables such as beans, but this is in addition to the regular CSA share. Creeger’s model is based totally on members harvesting their own shares. It seems to have caught on: Last year 130 members plunked down hard cash to pick berries in Creeger’s patch.
Fresh Start Farms: 207-772-5356 Ext.103
Henderson, Elizabeth, with Robyn Van En, Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, Chelsea Green, Dec. 2007
Homegrown Farm & Market: www.homegrownfarmandmarket.com/page3.html
Local Harvest – lists CSAs, farmers’ markets and other local outlets by state, zip code or other criteria: www.localharvest.org/csa/
Maine CSA Directory: www.mofga.org/Resources/CommunitySupportedAgricultureinMaine/tabid/653/Default.aspx
Perry, Jill and Scott Franzblau, Local Harvest – A Multifarm CSA Handbook, 2008. Free from [email protected] or [email protected] or 603-731-5955 or localharvestnh.com. Funded by USDA-SARE, this book details how eight Concord, N.H.-area farmers developed its multifarm CSA beginning in 2002.