Pete Johnson of Craftsbury, Vermont, and Jeff and Amy Burchstead of Wiscasset, Maine, described their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms at MOFGA and Cooperative Extension’s Farmer-to-Farmer Conference in November.
|Working with horses at Buckwheat Blossom Farm. Photo courtesy Jeff and Amy Burchstead.|
The Burchsteads of Buckwheat Blossom Farm lease two farms, producing most of their livestock at The Morris Farm (a nonprofit, educational farm) and most of their vegetables at Old Stone Farm, both in Wiscasset. They began a meat CSA a few years ago and added vegetable CSAs last year; now they offer a winter option including storage vegetables, onions, garlic, winter squash and frozen produce.
Through the Maine Farms for the Future Program, the Burchsteads created a business plan and mission statement to help them understand their skills, values and goals. They use horse power, for example, partly because they’re neither good at nor interested in mechanics – although Jeff says he would use a tractor to move manure and save his back. They also enjoy horses and got the first of their two teams through a friendship with Donnie Webb in Pittston.
Their mission is “to be a responsible steward of a diverse, productive farm ecosystem and to utilize horse power to produce quality food to supply our local community year-round. The farm also strives to be a welcoming place where people can gain an understanding of their role in a farm ecosystem.”
Buckwheat Blossom Farm is diverse, with animals “as a way to be able to expand our business without having a lot of good, tillable land,” said Jeff. “We have plenty of pasture available to us, and we have the skills to raise all kinds of livestock – chickens, turkeys, sheep, pigs, beef cattle and horses. We’ve worked all these years to get them to work together symbiotically.”
As an example of that symbiosis, after cole crops are harvested, sheep eat the remains of the plants and any weeds that are present. Sometimes the Burchsteads broadcast cover crop seed, and the sheep “plant it for us” – or the sheep “mow” a field of flowering buckwheat while “planting” overseeded rye with the impact of their hooves.
Chickens fertilize next year’s crop ground and break ruminants’ worm cycle by consuming parasites in manure deposited on fields.
Pigs are symbiotic, too, turning vegetable waste into meat. The Burchsteads raised 15 pigs last year; the first batch turning manure on a manure pad; the second foraging in the woods.
Jeff and Amy also raise 300 laying hens in a moveable coop surrounded by Flexinet; nine beef cows; 20 ewes and their lambs; two batches of turkeys, including a summer batch and 85 Thanksgiving turkeys; five batches of broiler hens with 125 per batch; two batches of pigs; and four horses. Cattle, sheep, chickens and horses graze rotationally. Turkeys raised in a hoop house (the only infrastructure the Burchsteads had for many years) helped clear a woodlot after Jeff cut trees. “They’re excellent foragers,” said Jeff. The farmers also sell wool and lambskins.
Animals are slaughtered on the farm sometimes. “It makes me feel a whole lot better about the animal’s life to have it end on the farm where it was raised in this kind of way, where they’re eating bugs, grass and have a natural lifestyle,” said Jeff.
|Ross Nolan and Amy, Jeff and Ruth Burchstead with work horses Bill and Perry. Olivia Goldfine photo, courtesy of Rising Tide Community Market.|
Involving family (including daughter Ruth) and friends in the farm requires a pace that allows the Burchsteads to stop what they’re doing when necessary. Amy’s sister Anna, who has Down syndrome, lives and works with the Burchsteads. “We need to be able to stop and show her how to do stuff, so she can help and feel like a valuable part of the farm,” said Amy. “She loves it.” They also have an apprentice, a journeyperson, and a summer helper who’s good at mechanics and repairs.
Except for some chicken, all meat products are sold through Buckwheat Blossom’s meat CSA, their first CSA, started four years ago. People pay a deposit roughly representing the out-of-pocket expenses of raising any one (or half or quarter) of the animals. “Technically they own it,” said Amy, “which enables us to have them slaughtered at a custom facility instead of a USDA or state-inspected.” The customer tells the butcher how to cut the meat, picks up the meat from the butcher and pays him, and pays Buckwheat Blossom the difference between the deposit and what the farm needs to get per pound. (MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist, Diane Schivera, noted that Maine farmers can sell chickens that they process, if they do fewer than 1,000 birds, from their farms; these birds cannot be sold at the farmers’ market.)
The meat CSA is not as intimate a relationship as the vegetable CSA, said Jeff. Sometimes they see customers only once. Some buy 20 chickens, half a pig, half a cow and two lambs; some buy just five chickens. Still, some interaction occurs. One customer left a bag of acorns for his pig after reading that acorns produce a beneficial fat in pigs. Some customers offer to help with slaughtering. “People are really getting interested in how their meat is produced,” said Jeff.
Jeff and Amy market vegetables through their CSA; through Crystal Springs Farmers’ Market in Brunswick; and a little to area health food stores and restaurants.
|Photo courtesy Jeff and Amy Burchstead.|
The CSA model “fits with our mission in so many ways, and we like the financial planning and security,” said Amy. “We know how much money is coming in; obviously having that money in the spring is great. For the summer [CSA], they pay right upfront to minimize our administrative work. For folks who can’t pay upfront, I do let them postdate checks.”
“Being able to market [i.e., sell shares] in the winter instead of during the growing season allows us to spend more time on the farm in the summer,” Jeff added. They also like the educational aspect of the CSA and the simplicity of the harvest. “Instead of going out and getting 5 pounds of this for one market and 5 pounds of that for another, you just go out and harvest a whole bed of lettuce.” Bookkeeping is simplified. “You don’t have to fill out a million invoices and have a bunch of different checks.
“We also like being able to sell other products during the CSA pickup,” Amy continued. “We make a little more money and support other local farms. We buy bread wholesale from a local baker, and I mark that up some so I make a little money to cover my time, but I don’t mark it up as much as it is in the local store, so it’s more affordable for our members.” Buckwheat Blossom has 51 summer CSA members; about 45 come to the farm once a week, when they may buy other goods – including the farm’s eggs and chickens.
The CSA structure allows for creativity and flexibility. Its brochure, for example, has a space where customers can offer to help subsidize a share; and another for customers who need help paying for shares. The Burchsteads were able to offer a whole share to a family last summer just from small donations from other customers. The family loved the produce and was able to save enough to buy a winter share on its own.
Crop planning is easier and more reliable with a CSA. The Burchsteads had asked restaurants and stores in the winter what they wanted in the summer, but those orders often changed by harvest time.
With the help of an employee, the Burchsteads turned to spreadsheets for planning. First they listed what each shareholder would get each week (two heads of lettuce, three bunches of carrots…), then entered those amounts into a spreadsheet.
The spreadsheets list yield per row foot for each vegetable, categories of markets, yields needed for each market, row feet needed (with a margin of 25% typically added for most crops), number of beds needed (Buckwheat Blossom grows on two-row beds 4-foot on center, with rows a foot apart for most crops). Another spreadsheet plans what to do each week for each CSA share and helps calculate the value of that share “so we know we’re not giving them $800 worth of produce for $500,” said Jeff. (Spreadsheets are available from Brookfield Farm, 24 Hulst Rd., Amherst MA 01002; i[email protected]; www.brookfieldfarm.org/cps.html. To order, send a check for $25 to Brookfield Farm and note your name, address, phone number and what version of .xls you use.)
|Jeff, Ruth and Amy Burchstead at the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, where they talked about extending CSA operations to include winter shares of produce, and shares of meat. English photo.|
To advertise their CSA (now for summer and winter), Amy placed posters and brochures in places within half an hour of the farm. The Burchsteads also do as many talks as they can about local food.
The growers don’t do any drop-off: “Everybody has to come to us,” said Amy. “That’s a big part of making our farm conducive to family life. We don’t want to be on the road.”
Customers check a signoff sheet at pick-up; the sheet lists the towns where customers live, to help with carpooling or joint pickup.
Pick-up is “market style” in the barn at The Morris Farm. Produce is set on a table with signs noting the amount for a full or half share. Customers bring bags or get bags at the farm and pack their produce. If they don’t want something, they can leave it, or they can trade it at a swap table. The better Amy stocked the swap table, the more produce moved.
The spacious barn enables customers to take their time, interact and let their kids play. Either Amy or Jeff is present, so customers get to know them. They don’t put all their produce out at once, but restock during the 3:30 to 6:30 pick-up so that the earliest customers don’t get the biggest leeks or best carrots.
The Burchsteads planted a pick-your-own herb garden to attract customers and get them out on the farm and not just in the farm buildings.
A printed, weekly newsletter describes the share that week; has pictures and stories about the farm and the CSA; and recipes and histories of crops. Placing the newsletter at the beginning of the pickup line, by bags and by the checkoff list, often prompts customers to select an unusual vegetable to try in a recipe. Amy would like to email the newsletter eventually.
Buckwheat Blossom holds a preseason and end-of-season potluck on the farm, so people can see where their vegetables are grown. The preseason event enables customers to arrange joint pick-ups.
An end-of-season survey had some standard suggestions (“More corn”) as well as a suggestion for a cooking contest using the farm products, with CSA members as taste testers.
Amy thinks that a children’s play group would be a valuable addition to the pick-up. She tried one this year, but it didn’t take off; she thinks having another parent involved in organizing it would help.
Long-term, the Burchsteads want to concentrate on a winter CSA offering hardier crops more suited to “less delicate” cultivation by horses.
This year’s winter CSA pick-up, “semi-market style” at the barn every other week, included onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, cabbage, dried herbs, winter greens (until they were covered by snow), winter squash, carrots, potatoes, beets, rutabaga, turnip and, sometimes, parsnips, as well as frozen produce from summer, such as paste tomatoes in Ziploc bags. “A lot of winter CSA shares are cheaper than summer CSA shares, because you’re dealing with easier to produce crops or lower value crops. We felt that we wanted to get that same $500 for a full share, so we throw in some of these [frozen] items”—e.g., sweet corn; grated summer squash for soups or zucchini bread; green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, greens and green peppers. “We already do this [freezing] for ourselves,” said Jeff. “Kick it up a little notch and do it for customers.” They already have five freezers full of meat and vegetables.
With Cooperative Extension storage specialist Steven Belyea, and a green design person and a concrete specialist, Jeff and Amy designed the basement of the house they are building this year to include a climate controlled storage area, walk-in cooler, packing and utility area, and big doors so that they can drive in and out with heavy crops.
Seeing frozen vegetables from Woodstock Farm at her mother’s house motivated Amy to start the winter CSA. “On the front it says ‘From family farms.’ I looked at the back, and the stuff was grown in China.” Checking frozen vegetables from Cascadian Farm, Amy couldn’t find, on the package or Web site or by calling the company, where the crops were grown – only that it does sometimes source from other countries.
The winter CSA attracts more customers to the farm and keeps existing members involved year-round. It also offers the Burchsteads more opportunities to sell their chicken and eggs, and bread and milk from other farms. “It helps with the year-round income,” said Amy. Given time, they could also sell seasonal products such as Christmas wreaths and ornaments.
Planning is easier than for the summer CSA. “We know how much is in our freezer and root cellar, so we can say exactly what’s going to be in each share,” said Amy, “and exactly how many people we can take on.”
Last summer the Burchsteads visited Essex Farm, a horse-powered CSA in New York. The owner leases the land, and offers meat, eggs, milk, vegetables and grains to his members. Each person in a member household pays $2,400 for a year’s worth of food, and customers can take whatever they want from goods at the weekly pick-up. “He says it works,” said Amy. “He has sold all his shares and has a waiting list.” The farmer gives away food that isn’t picked up, and recipients of that generosity sometimes do jobs, such as clearing land, for him.
|Pete Johnson of Craftsbury, Vermont, has a fast-growing CSA that offers produce from his own farm and goods from nearby farms and businesses. English photo.|
Pete’s Greens, and So Much More
Pete Johnson started farming 10 years ago, right after college, with hand tools on his parents’ land and on leased land. He bought his farm, with 40 acres of prime, rock-free, well-drained, river-bottom vegetable land that won’t flood, in Craftsbury a few years ago and has grown on it for two years.
Pete’s Greens has been expanding rapidly. Initially Johnson sold to stores and restaurants as far away as Boston and New York City. He still sells a lot of produce wholesale, but has been selling increasingly directly to customers closer to home. He has a year-round CSA for his produce and other local foods, creating a “localvore” option (a chance for shareholders to eat more local foods).
“I’d like to sell all my stuff within 10 miles of where I live within the next 10, 15 years,” he said. “It’s going to be a big challenge.”
In addition to the CSA, Johnson sells at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market and at his own farm stand. He likes selling directly to consumers for the security and control it gives him—contrasted with restaurants that may change chefs, or stores that change produce managers.
Pushing the Seasons
Johnson starts working his ground in early April, after spreading ash to melt snow. “We’re planting greens by hand before we can drive tractors. We totally push the season as much as we can, and it pays off. Sometimes you lose, but it’s worth the risk.” He transplants all the early crops, even beets—at a high cost, but the payoff is good.
Early potatoes grow under row cover (for heat) and are picked around June 5. “Our overall mission is to provide as much vegetable diversity for as much of the year as possible, and now we’re working into other types of food. We want to be a one-stop, year-round source for local food.”
Late in October the farm still has beets, carrots, collards, endive, broccoli…”anything I can put in, all direct seeded.” Johnson continues to harvest under row covers, possibly into December. He had a double, 50-foot-wide row cover on crops in late October and planned to triple it in early November. “We actually crawl under the row cover to harvest. It’s easier than pulling it off. It’s secured super-well with these sandbags.” Being under the row cover can actually be pleasant on a cold day. “There’s no wind under there. Sure, you’re crawling…,” he quipped. “Workers walk along until they want to get under a certain spot, then crawl under.”
A 42’ x 420’ greenhouse made from local cedar poles with local spruce and fir rafters served Pete’s Greens for a couple of years and will become a big grow tunnel, as this winter Johnson is constructing new, moveable greenhouses with better heating. In the old greenhouse, Clean Burn furnaces burned waste oil picked up from restaurants on Johnson’s delivery route.
In the old greenhouse, Johnson transplanted tomatoes in mid-March into the top of sloped beds, and a quick crop of greens grew on the sides of the beds before the tomatoes shaded them out. “We’re picking bunching greens out of here in mid-April. It really helps to get the markets excited.”
Johnson grows everything from heirloom to grafted tomatoes in his greenhouse. He had a bad problem with grey mold in the heirlooms this year for the first time; he hopes the moveable greenhouses will help avoid the disease.
Johnson is moving toward using all soil blocks, with a used mechanical blocker and seeder (a new one would cost about $28,000). The machine mixes water with the soil mix, “so you’re basically putting potting soil in and your seeded blocks come out.” One of the new greenhouses will hold the blocks on a heated slab.
Harvest and Storage
For two years Johnson’s crew used the greens harvester sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds. “I think it’s an excellent tool,” said Johnson, although it requires that greens be at a particular growth stage for harvest. He reduced his greens-cutting labor by two-thirds using the tool.
Now Johnson harvests his 1,000 pounds of greens with an Ortebec greens harvester. The $15,000, simple, hydraulically-driven machine, with a band saw and conveyer belt, is faster than the hand-operated harvester and doesn’t require that the greens be at such a particular stage of growth for harvest. It enabled Johnson to plant greens once every five or six days this year, compared with three times a week last year. “It’s one of those things you buy, and you say, yeah, that was the right thing at the right time for us,” said Johnson.
Pete’s Greens grows 8 acres of storage crops, most of them roots. (About 25 acres are cropped in total, and another 30 are cover cropped.) All storage crops are picked into bags, set on pallets, loaded on a truck and taken to a root cellar cooler, where they’re unloaded and stacked by hand. “We grow too many varieties of too many things to use bins, and they’re all sorted and sized in the field so that when we get them into our cooler, our wash-out crew knows the inventory. When they need baby red beets, boom, there they are.”
Mechanical harvesters won’t dig root crops grown very close together (five rows per bed, 6 inches apart, at Pete’s Greens), and Johnson is not willing to give up the yield he gets from the spacing. “We have packed away 170,000 pounds of storage crops off 7 1/2 acres.” Because picking and sorting take so much labor in September and October, Johnson is trying to develop a machine to do the work.
A 35’ x 35’ cooler in a renovated dairy barn holds rows of produce with three, 2 1/2-foot-wide walkways between. To fill an order, bags are pulled, taken to another room and barrel washed. A 12-foot space beneath the cooler is a true root cellar, without a cooler. The cooler units, kept at 33 degrees F. and at high relative humidity, allow earlier picking.
“We’ve seen a big difference between 33 and 37 when we get to May and June,” regarding what holds up. Johnson plans to build an equipment shed that doubles as an onion drying shed, and a drier space to store onions.
“The biggest thing about selling winter produce is, you have to have the infrastructure. You can grow stuff in the summer with nothing, and you can wash it under a tree somewhere… but if you want to be shipping stuff out in the winter, no matter what the weather is, you have to have a good vehicle, a heated space… you’ve got to be set up.”
Regarding storage facilities, Maine grower Jan Goranson said that her farm has one room for root crops, one for squash, and a third for onions and garlic in order to have the right temperature and humidity for each crop. Squash is held at 55 degrees using a heater, and a dehumidifier keeps it dry; removed humidity goes down to the cold storage.
Johnson noted that he’s growing and storing sweet potatoes. “They’re an amazing crop. You have to cure them at 85 degrees and high humidity for two weeks. They’re not sweet until you do that, and it helps them keep longer, too. Then they want to have the same conditions as squash.”
For storage crops, Johnson harvests potatoes first, then beets and carrots, and finally cabbage. Beets can handle temperatures down to 28 degrees.
Maine grower Jason Kafka said that he’s stored Brussels sprouts “right on the stick” for up to two months, under the same cold, humid conditions as cabbage. Johnson added that some people in Quebec keep Brussels sprouts frozen in a shed until they’re ready to sell, then thaw them slowly. Johnson himself has stored Napa cabbage for up to four months, broccoli and cauliflower for two months, fennel for three months. “You can flip through the Johnny’s catalog and see what you can store for some period of time. The diversity is really pretty good.” He stores potatoes at 38 degrees F. and other crops at 33. Kafka said he has to remind his workers to “treat everything like an egg” when putting it in storage so that it lasts as long as possible.
The farmstand at Pete’s Green’s is in its second season. “If you ever want to draw attention,” said Johnson, “put plants on a roof. It’s unbelievable! There were days when I’d say 30 cars stopped to take pictures.” Heavy beams gave the farmstand the strength to support a green roof. On top of a regular roof, he put an ice and water shield, a sealant, and a frame of plastic lumber to hold low-grade compost. “It grows great. We didn’t even have to water it this summer.” Plants included amaranth, nasturtiums trailing over the edge, sunflowers at the peak and scarlet runner beans coming down one side.
The stand did well considering it’s new. “We were having $300 to $400 days,” said Johnson, who wants to put a cooler in for next year. The unattended stand, open every day, operates on the honor system. After some theft problems, Johnson installed a camera, which worked well.
One Farmers’ Market Only
Pete’s Greens has been at the Montpelier Farmers’ Market for five years and will be part of its new, monthly winter market. “My philosophy of farmers’ markets,” said Johnson, “is you can kill a lot of time going to a lot of little markets, and I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to try getting into the best one and just go a lot. I’d go maybe 85% of the time. That seems to be an important part of it. We were averaging $4,200 every week this year at this market, and we’re growing at 30 or 40% every year. Some of the other farmers are scaling back, so we’re in a good position. It’s really been gratifying. Direct contact with customers is really great. I wouldn’t want to be totally reliant on a farmers’ market. If it rains the whole week, it definitely cuts back on things.”
To sell roots in winter, Johnson created “Rainbow Roots,” a bag of colorful carrots, potatoes, etc., with a label that reads: “Great for soups, stir fry, roasting and mashing. Large assortment of colors and flavors. We use greenhouses, season extension techniques and root cellars to provide a great diversity of produce year-round. We believe Vermont can feed itself.” The label also has contact information, and everything that might be in the bag is listed along the edges of the rectangular label. “People really love this,” said Johnson. “We sell them pretty cheap. We don’t make a lot of money on them, but it’s great advertising. Our CSA contact information is on there, and we’ve had a lot of people come to us through this. We also sell a lot of baby greens in labeled bags.”
Good Eats CSA
Johnson’s “Good Eats” year-round CSA has three sign-up periods: June through October; October through February; and February through June. Now almost two years old, the CSA started small but already has some 150 members, and “I’m thinking 400 to 500 members in the next three years or so. I really like selling food this way,” said Johnson.
Only a few Good Eats members come to the farm, because “we’re not in a real CSA-type area.” Johnson has six drop spots, mostly at businesses where he already delivers en route to Montpelier and Burlington. Matching his farm with like-minded businesses, such as a restaurant and a granola bakery, has worked well.
Johnson would prefer that customers come to his farm; but since that’s not possible, each share is “totally bagged,” so customers have no choice about what they get. Filling bags takes a lot of labor, and “you can’t ever make everyone totally happy,” said Johnson. The system does force people to try new foods, and some sign up again specifically for that experience.
A share from the last week of October included apple cider, bread made with Vermont flour ground at the bakery, cheese from a local cheese maker, broccoli, colored peppers, onions, potatoes, fennel, carrots, a pumpkin and a bag of greens. “We have a combined share now called the ‘Vegetable Localvore Share,’ and it’s a $45 per week value with about $35 worth of vegetables.” During the growing season, it contains a lot of produce; in winter, other local items increase. “When we reach January, it will be $20 localvore stuff, $25 vegetables. People really like this variation.
“We also have a root share on the side…but [the localvore option] is way, way more popular.” Demand for localvore food has outstripped supply in Vermont. Other Good Eats offerings are frozen tomatoes and peppers, “Everything but the Kitchen Sink Vegetable Soup Base,” sauerkraut and other lacto-fermented vegetables, IPM apples and cider from Champlain Orchard; several types of yogurt, cream, corn meal, whole wheat flour and dried beans from Butterworks Farm; Northeast Kingdom sheep, cow and goat cheese, localvore bread from two bakeries, and organic oyster and shiitake mushrooms.
To make “Everything but the Kitchen Sink Vegetable Soup Base,” weekly culls are pressure-washed in a barrel. Johnson has access to a commercial kitchen where the produce is steamed in 40-gallon kettles until soft and run through an industrial food mill to remove fiber, producing a thick, nutritious soup base with a range of flavors, frozen in a quart container. It’s given to CSA customers and sold at the farmers’ market. “Some people think it’s soup, and they get disappointed. It’s not been flavored at all. It’s just this base.”
From southern Quebec, Good Eats sells sunflower oil, popcorn, rolled oats, rolled spelt, rolled rye and pearled barley; it has local miso and tamari, cranberries and cranberry juice, tofu, cream cheese and feta. As Good Eats’ customer base has grown, Johnson has asked his suppliers for more food and been told, “Oh. That’s a lot.” He anticipates having 250 CSA members by next year, and providing half with one localvore mix and the other half with a different localvore mix. “We mark this up 25%, and it’s good money,” said Johnson. “We’re still quite a bit cheaper than stores. And some of these items you can’t get in the best co-ops in the state. We tend to focus more on those items that you can’t get.”
Johnson enjoys interacting with other producers. He asked Champlain Orchards to make a localvore pie, for instance. “We got the butter for them, they had the eggs, they had the apples; there’s a guy growing soft winter wheat down there – they got that ground; and they made us these localvore apple pies that were awesome, and our customers loved them.”
Getting Canadian sunflower oil over the border is a hassle. Recently Johnson met some Middlebury, Vermont, growers who are raising sunflowers for fuel. “’My gosh,’ I said! ‘We’re paying $16 a gallon for the stuff. Grow it for food!’ So we have a couple of contacts down there now; maybe we can get them to grow it for us. But it’s neat to have an oil like that [in a CSA], and it’s way cheaper than the [retail] Spectrum oil, even with our markup.”
Johnson plans to raise chickens for his CSA customers soon.
A weekly CSA newsletter is emailed. “If you’re not online every week, it almost doesn’t work to be part of our thing, because any information we have to send out is emailed.”
While the CSA is still a small part of Pete’s Greens’ profitability, getting the money upfront is a huge change in terms of cash flow. With some restaurants, “we’re chasing money that’s 30 days old, 60 days old. It’s just amazing to get this money and be able to plan with that money in hand. I feel like I started selling vegetables the hard way, and now I’m learning the easy way. Selling things throughout the year has really helped us with our cash flow, too. We’re not starting and stopping things so much; we’re just going around in circles. We’re not getting so depleted before we start building back up again.” He thinks his business may jump start other businesses to supply Good Eats, and noted that in Vermont, Champlain Orchards has done its own CSA by going to two existing CSAs to sign up customers; the other CSAs get 10%.
Johnson hopes his CSA will reduce the miles that people currently drive to find local food. He’s checking the legality of shipping raw milk on his truck, given Vermonters’ great demand for the product.
Regarding pricing, Johnson asks what he needs to charge to make growing and selling a product worthwhile. “From day one, I’ve always been very concerned about being really profitable, because I’ve known that I wanted to expand into new things, and I don’t want to borrow a lot of money to do that. I look at prepared foods and ask what’s the value going into it, what’s the labor cost, and what gives us a nice margin on top of that for problems. If people aren’t happy, they’ll tell me. So far, people have been happy. Our new greenhouse project is funded by selling vegetables. We’re not going to the bank for that.” His soup stock sold for about $2 per pound. “Making applesauce like that is really profitable, too.”
A crew of about 10 in summer and four full-time, year-round includes three Mexicans (from one family) on H2A visas. “Each one of them is worth three local workers, because they work big hours and they’re fast. They’re always cheerful, and it’s just amazing. I don’t think we could do what we’re doing, with the level of hand work we’re using, without them.” Johnson has some great local help – people who tend to stay year-round and become managers. He does not see the kind of fast, efficient hand workers he used to get for summer work, though. “One good thing about selling year-round is that you can keep a crew year-round,” he noted.
New Buildings and Equipment
Johnson has an office and is installing a commercial kitchen downstairs in his farmhouse; upstairs are three apartments—one for the Mexicans, one for Johnson and a spare. He’ll be approved for processing meat in the building; and wants to use all seconds produced on the farm, and grow more crops, to diversify winter offerings, including pesto, salsa, soup base, frozen greens, sauerkraut, kim chee, dried foods, sausages… An 8 x 40-foot shipping container freezer will store food for winter sales. For the first year, a USDA grant will fund this processing enterprise, which seems key to Johnson for customers who don’t want to spend a lot of time prepping food but want to eat locally.
Johnson started farming with old equipment but has been buying new for the past few years, including a new tillage tractor and manure spreader. “I figured out what it cost me to miss a planting of greens because my spreader’s broken down so I couldn’t spread compost to grow a successful batch. By the time the spreader’s fixed, it’s four days later; then it rains for three days. I’ve missed a week, and there’s $3,000.” A new manure spreader costs $6,000 and pays for itself in the first year. “If it breaks, it’s the dealers problem for the first three years. It’s hard when you’re first starting out to spend the money,” but the two new tractors and the manure spreader were bought on 0% interest for four years.
For tillage, Johnson uses a chisel plow, then an S-tine cultivator levels the field. A roller on a smaller tractor rolls beds. Stale seedbeds are tine-cultivated three or four times over two weeks. “Even pretty weedy fields, by the time you’ve made four passes, you can grow a pretty clean crop.” He used a stone burier to bring one field into production.
Sutton Agricultural Enterprises in Salinas, California, custom-built a tractor-mounted seeder for Johnson to replace a push-version from Johnny’s. “It’s great. Everything we direct-seed on the farm, from all of our baby greens to all of our five-row crops, gets seeded with this.”
Johnson flame weeds, but less and less. “I don’t like it very much. It’s slow, it’s dangerous, it’s expensive, but it can be helpful.” Crops spaced 6 inches apart are weeded with a Buddingh cultivator.
A $2,600 Checchi Magli potato digger from Italy “is a great tool” that digs fingerlings and round potatoes. It’s simple, will never wear out, and “is a great example of small-scale, affordable equipment that makes a huge difference.” (See www.ferrari-tractors.com/walking.htm)
A salad greens washer did not work out, because it didn’t sort rocks from greens.
“To have a farm, you invest in infrastructure,” said Johnson. “Once you’ve done that, you might as well be using it more. I’m trying to run my farm like other business models, where we get good stuff, we take care of it, and we use it as much as we possibly can.”
Melissa White Pillsbury, MOFGA’s marketing coordinator, has published a Maine CSA Directory listing all CSAs known in the state (over 80 now, with over 3,500 shares), their products, share prices and season of availability. She updates it at mofga.org/Publications/Directories. CSAs that are not listed should contact [email protected] or 568-4142. Pillsbury hopes to include CSA sign-ups at Slow Food Fairs around Maine this year.