CSA

Elizabeth Henderson & Allan Smith
Elizabeth Henderson talked about the community organizing that goes along with CSA farms. She is shown here talking with MOFGA-certified organic farmer Allan Smith.

By Jean English

Variations on the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) theme were highlighted at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference in April. Community Supported Agriculture involves customers who buy shares in a farm, usually paying before the growing season begins in order to support the farmer’s startup and continuing costs for the year. Like shareholders in the corporate world, CSA members share in the risk of your business. If a late spring frost kills your tomatoes, customers know that they’ll have to wait longer for that crop that year; they may even volunteer or be enlisted to help replant.

Russell Libby, MOFGA’s executive director, said that Maine has about 80 CSA farms (about 1% of Maine’s farms) with about 45 to 50 members each. He introduced speaker and N.Y. farmer Elizabeth Henderson as the person who “pulled together the grassroots effort in the ’80s” to promote CSA farms. Henderson had met Robin van En, the pioneer in the CSA movement in the United States, and wrote Sharing the Harvest – the first manual on CSAs in the United States – based on van En’s work and Henderson’s additional experience with her own CSA and others. (She is collecting material for the second edition of Sharing the Harvest and welcomes input from CSA farmers. You can contact her at [email protected].)

Part Farm Business, Part Community Organizing

Henderson noted that the Robin Van En Center for CSA Resources at Wilson College lists about 1000 CSA farms around the country and has resources for CSA farmers, such as slide shows, videos and farmers’ advice to help start a CSA. Listing your farm on the Center’s Web site may help potential members find you. (Maine farmers should also be listed at www.mainefoods.net, www.getrealmaine.com, www.localharvest.org and www.mofga.org.) The CSA Center conducts a census of CSA farms, and the 2000 census elicited responses from 356 of the more than 1000 farmers who received it.

The report “CSA Across the Nation” [linked at Wilson College’s CSA Center] details those 356 farms, how long they’ve been in business, acreage, cost per share, and so on. Almost all are organic and/or biodynamic. Henderson’s own CSA, which she operates with two partners, has 250 shares and about 300 families.

Henderson mentioned two studies of CSAs, one showing that CSAs with a core group (a group committed to helping the farmer with organizational and other tasks) gross $10,000 more than those without a core group. The other found that CSAs that offer satisfaction and a sense of community last longest and do best. The reasons CSAs go out of business, Henderson continued, are divorces, death, illness, not having enough shares to make a living, and organizational problems.

Henderson’s main topic was taking your CSA to the next generation. “We’re doing something significant,” she pointed out. “This is an opportunity to build a new kind of enterprise in which farmers and non-farmers share risks. This is the only kind of farming that does that. It’s part farm business and part community organizing.”

At Henderson’s Peaceworks Farm, core group members oversee distribution; make schedules; prepare and deliver shares (to a coop in Rochester, where they’re distributed); do outreach, bookkeeping and farming jobs; designed and built a greenhouse; and contribute money to buy equipment. The farm started with just four core group members: two CSA members and two farmers. “But we asked members to do jobs from the beginning. It’s easier if you start with the work commitment from the beginning.” Rather than solicit help when jobs arose, Peaceworks would tell people, “We are building a new, exciting kind of institution to make a better, sustainable world, and you can work with us to make this happen.” Peaceworks’ members “are activists in the community, and because they can bring their children to the farm, this works into their social life as well.” Henderson and her partners recruit people to do the jobs that they aren’t good at, don’t enjoy or take considerable labor. One reason they’re able to grow peas and beans is that they have so much help from their members.

Most of Peaceworks’ members live in Rochester, about an hour from the farm. When members come to the farm to help with the harvest, the farmers make sure they have time to talk with them, to “encounter each other as human beings.” Some members form “Special Vegetable Action Teams” to harvest garlic and to trellis peas and tomatoes.

Peaceworks is now appealing to a local land trust and to its members to help them buy a local farm that they have been renting. She noted that Kirby White of Equity Trust, Inc., which focuses on developing CSAs, has a model land lease. (www.equitytrust.org)

When asked about potential conflicts between CSA farms and farmers’ markets, Henderson recommended citing statistics about how much food is imported into your area and noting that “we’re nowhere near to saturating the market.”

Jill Agnew & Lee Humphreys
Jill Agnew talks with Lee Humphreys about their CSA farms during a break at MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference.

Cultivating the Local Community

Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus was Maine’s first CSA farmer. She moved to her 35-acre farm in 1982 and ran an existing orchard on the farm for seven years before she realized that wasn’t enough to make farming feasible. In 1988, at a conference at the Mountain School in Vermont, she watched a movie that Eliot Coleman showed about CSAs. “That clinched it for me. People were already coming to the farm for pick-your-own apples.” She advertised in The MOF&G and got good press in the Portland papers. “It was a tough first year, but the rest is history.” She is in her 16th year now and draws members from a 35-mile radius.

Agnew’s farm consists of a 6-acre garden, 8 acres of pasture and the rest orchard. She raises turkeys, chickens, laying hens, sheep and pigs; practices rotational-intensive grazing; and uses her pigs as rototillers, moving the trailer in which they live by pulling it with her tractor. She uses horses to work her garden, except for the initial preparation and tilling in cover crops.

Willow Pond Farm has hosted 45 apprentices over the years, and about one-third of them are still involved in farming in some way. Agnew describes the apprenticeship program as “really valuable.”

Her CSA begins with greenhouse-grown mesclun, spinach and lettuce, and parsnips and overwintered scallions in May. The main season runs 21 or 22 weeks, from June to October, followed by monthly pickups from November through March. She provides 70 Senior Shares (through the Maine Department of Agriculture), and has full (4-bag), half (2-bag) and quarter (1-bag) shares for her 60 other shareholders. She has determined that 60 shareholders is the maximum she can have and still be able to rotate crops and use her animals’ manure properly. A share is about 425 pounds of food, and a winter share is about 430 pounds. The cost comes out to about $1.12 per pound for a summer share and $ .35 for a winter share. A bag contains 15 items each week and is designed to meet a family’s fresh eating needs.

The first event in the spring is a potluck picnic and a time to plant the children’s garden. “Having the kids come to the farm is probably the richest experience,” Agnew believes.

A pick-your-own flower garden is a “bright light” for her CSA customers. “Sometimes it gets kind of weedy. It’s not high priority for us.” She doesn’t have a work requirement for her members, “but sometimes I do say, ‘Help!’ Then they’ll weed the flower beds.”

Agnew and her help wash, weigh and bag everything for their customers. From 9 to noon, four people work in the packing shed every day. “I’ve done it this way for 16 years. It’s too hard to change.” Monday and Thursday are pickup days for customers, “but if they need to come other days, the stuff is in the cooler.”

Expand in small increments, Agnew suggested. “January and February are the only time you have to think, plan and change.” Her goal has been to grow as many things as possible for local people, so she has raised more and more organic meat and eggs. She has found, in her rural Maine area, that trying to find people who care where their food comes from is challenging. “I’ve never had a waiting list. My goal this year is to create a waiting list. I’ve been guessing the number of shares, the amount of seeds to order, etc., to date. To expand, I need a secure shareholder base early. My goal is to have them in the fall, but people don’t do that. Some wait until May. I’m trying to change that.”

The increase in CSAs – from one in Maine and 40 in the United States in 1989 to almost 80 in Maine and over 1000 in the United States in 2004 “helps us,” said Agnew. “People know what a CSA is.”

Another goal for Willow Pond is to “bring our community closer to home. If there is to be a CSA every 25 miles, we have to cultivate the local community.” She now serves 18 families in Portland (with a different family driving to the farm each week, picking up all 18 orders, and distributing them in Portland). She would like to have her neighbors as customers, “but many of them don’t care what they eat.” She wonders “how to inspire them with a passion to eat good food.” As people hear more about organic agriculture and dangers of pesticides, more people are stopping at her farm. This year about 10 people from her town got food from Willow Pond. “It’s not the hippie, groovy people, just ordinary people. It’s really exciting to spread good food into our local community.”

One way to encourage local CSAs is to recommend a closer CSA if a potential customer from afar calls to join yours; to offer recruitment bonuses for members who bring in another member; to put an announcement in the calendar section of local newspapers a couple of weeks before you want people to sign up for your CSA; and to hold informational meetings at members’ houses for prospective members. These informational meetings could be county-wide, with several CSA farms in the county participating. Agnew and others at Spring Growth mentioned the importance of getting people to write articles for small, local papers to publicize your farm.

Agnew hired her first full-time worker this year, a necessity as she gets older and can’t do all of the work herself. “It’s really hard” paying a wage, she admitted. “It’s like a full share each week” in pay. “It jacks our budget up. Labor is one of our biggest costs.” In addition to hired labor and apprentices, a core group of about eight members helps with marketing, maintaining the Web site, and more.

About half of her customers bring their own bags with their names on them. Agnew is getting canvas bags with the farm name on them this year, hoping that this will encourage more people to remember to bring bags.

Steve Fulton
Steve Fulton is part of a farmer-cooperative CSA in New Hampshire in which several farmers and a baker pool their products in one CSA with a central distribution point.

A Farmer-Cooperative CSA

Steve Fulton of Blue Ox Farm in Enfield, New Hampshire, represented Local Harvest CSA at Spring Growth. This is a cooperative of eight New Hampshire farms and one baker, all certified organic, who supplied 125 shareholders (or 140, if partial shares are included) last year, their first year, and hope to boost the numbers to 185 (or 200, including partial shares) this year. Most of the farms are within half an hour of Concord, although Fulton is an hour away. Pickup takes place at a church in Concord. The enterprise was started by Dave Trumble, who got a SARE grant to see how a cooperative would work.

Customers can get an 18-week share and an optional, 5-week fall share. The can get single shares with or without bread, or family shares with or without bread. “The bakery is very popular,” said Fulton.

At the distribution site, one row of tables holds single shares, the other family shares. An extras table holds “impulse things” such as baked goods, maple syrup and dried flowers, “but we don’t want to turn this into a farmers’ market and overwhelm people,” said Fulton. “We’re trying not to sell vegetables at the extras table. We don’t want to compete with ourselves.” A bulk table is available for people who paid the week before to receive extra tomatoes, beans or other vegetables.

Fulton acknowledges that this model removes customers from the farm. To increase that connection, the coop will offer a farm tour; and each farmer is at the pickup site at least once during the season. The farmers brought food to the church at the end of the year and cooked a dinner for the shareholders. They also held a fundraiser with the church to provide five low-cost shares to low-income people. This year they hope to have a calendar with pictures of the farms and bakery.

The coop workers are all paid employees or contractors. They include a production manager, who decides what will go in the market basket and which farmer will provide each item; a site supervisor and assistant, who set up, take down, and take leftover food to a food pantry; a bookkeeper; newsletter writer and editor; meeter/greeter; extras and bulk table coordinator; office manager; and marketer.

The major costs for the coop are labor (68%) and the site (12%). The year begins when a market basket is proposed in December and is adjusted based on member feedback. Prices are negotiated and bid, and market agreements are made. “If we need x bunches of beets, we set a price; we don’t compete on price. Then we ask who wants to grow what. If four people are growing broccoli, we arrange it so they don’t all come in the same week.” The coop has formal contracts with individual farmers. Farmers get cash up front for seed and fertilizer.

When the harvest is ready, farmers tell the produce manager on Monday morning what they have, and the produce manager puts together a market basket, then places orders with farmers on Monday afternoon. On Wednesday from noon to 2 p.m., the farmers deliver their produce and submit an invoice, for which they’re paid two weeks later. From 2:30 to 6, subscribers pick up their food. The coop takes 20% of the income (mostly for wages for employees), and the farmers take 80 percent.

This model presents less risk for consumers because more farmers are involved; farmers get no bonus in a bumper-crop year and they are paid only when they produce – but the market is guaranteed if they do produce. “Each farmer can grow what they grow best,” said Fulton. While the connection between farmer and consumer isn’t as strong as in a traditional CSA arrangement, it’s better than at the grocery store. The model requires significant time for board meetings and communication.

As a legal cooperative in the state of New Hampshire, the group had to have a certificate of organization, bylaws, marketing agreements, quality standers for every crop (including how many in a bag, whether the crop would be iced or not, the type of bag, etc.), pay taxes and take patronage (as a cooperative, any profit has to come back to the farmers as patronage), and hold meetings and record minutes. The board of directors consists of all producer members and meets monthly.

All of the farmers involved have other sales outlets. Some of the farmers are small and just starting out, grossing only $1,000 or $2,000. As Elizabeth Henderson pointed out, it takes about 100 shares to make a living running a CSA.

Discussion

Regarding setting prices for shares, Agnew and Henderson emphasized keeping rigorous records. “We budget all of our expenses,” said Agnew, “then we see how much we need to charge per share. Now it’s $520 per share” (roughly; she has a sliding scale). Members can work for part of their share.

Henderson pays herself $21,000 and her two partners $31,000 total. She includes insurance and even $1,000 per year toward a pension fund for each of the three partners. They let members decide what they want to pay, within a range of $13 to $19 per week, based on a $16 average cost per share per week. “Every year, the $19 shares almost perfectly offset the $13 shares.

“Having a living wage salary for farmers is extremely important,” said Henderson. “Adding a pension fund added $1 to each share each week.”

One grower said that a good business plan should include capital expenses (greenhouse, tractor, etc.), a salary, insurance, etc., and should be projected out five to 10 years. Then farmers should work backward to determine a share price. Henderson helped write a manual about holistic business planning for NOFA; it will come out soon. Dan Kaplan sells crop spreadsheets; he can be reached at 24 Hulst Rd., Amherst MA 01002; 413-253-7991; [email protected].

Richard Rudolph, a MOFGA member and farmer, mentioned another model in which customers get a line of credit and can use it at a grower’s farmstand or booth at the farmers’ market.

To move toward a larger, more sustainable CSA, Spring Growth participants were told that marketing is important; and that you should realize what size you want to be, and get good at supplying your current customers before getting bigger. Growers agreed that most of their customers come through word of mouth.

Another key to expanding is to identify the weakest link on your farm, said Henderson. “For us, it was irrigation; and we were spending too much time weeding. When we went to mechanical weeding, we saved hours and improved the quality of our life.” She added that a farm in Denmark enabled a local soccer team to get its spring exercise by weeding.

Russ Libby noted the rule of thumb developed by the University of New Hampshire: that 1 acre can supply 40 people with vegetables (not including sweet corn). Henderson said that the national average is about 20 shares per acre. Libby continued, “If you’re looking for $10,000 or $20,000 gross and have limited acreage, you may want to do something like hoop house tomatoes instead.”

Spring Growth participants asked how to involve lower income people in CSA farms. Agnew said that some come to her farm because they have health issues. Henderson suggested letting people pay in four or more installments; and having a buddy system of “carred” and “carless” people. “This works when the people become friends, but doesn’t work when they’re not friends.”

A school garden program in Rochester, N.Y., got a grant that paid for shares for four families whose children were in the garden program.

Low-income people in Vermont could buy leveraged shares after some restaurants paid a tithe on their receipts one day, raising $10,000, and NOFA-Vermont used the money to pay 25% of shares; the farmer raised 25%; and the low-income buyer paid 50%.

Richard Rudolph pointed out that the Maine Nutritional Network has small grants to impart nutritional information to low-income people. “It’s natural to link farms with community organizations that do this,” he said. Farms can offer fact sheets, recipes and cooking demonstrations. Henderson said that in New York City, Just Food connects CSAs with organizations that work with low income populations.

Another suggestion was that each farm could have a low-income and a high-income group, and the high-income people could subsidize the low. Henderson noted that Cooperative Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) could recommend low-income candidates for CSA farms.

Regarding apprentices on the farm, Henderson stressed that they should get the learning experience that the seek. “They’re your future colleagues in the organic community. Treat them with respect. If you want cheap labor, hire cheap labor.”

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