Thursday, November 05, 2009

CSA 2009 all wrapped up

Recently Gene Logsdon posted a great bit about how anyone with land should not be without a source of at least a little income.

If you have some land, even an acre, you have the means for making at least part of your income and in the process gain a more secure life. Surely that is what it means to “have a job.” Our society hasn’t endorsed that notion yet, but I think that we are evolving toward that kind of economy.

We are only beginning to recognize how many income possibilities that a little piece of land can provide. We know about market gardening but most of us do not yet appreciate its reach...

You can read the rest here.

There is no doubt that some of those people who do have land lack the knowledge and experience necessary to grow food for themselves or for sale to others. This lack of production This however isn't especially problematic if someone is willing to read, listen and get her hands dirty. Growing food isn't especially difficult. I say this as a longtime gardener and someone who spent this past season as a market farmer. The tough part wasn't actually growing the vegetables or even scaling up production so as to have more veggies to sell. I made production-related mistakes all year long mind you, but the harder work was the marketing and distribution of the food.

One of he ways I accomplished this was through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. I partnered with two other farmers and created Cold Water Creek Farms. You can read all about our season at our blog.

Cold Water Creek Farms

For 20 weeks we helped feed 50 families and it was an absolute rollercoaster; at times frustrating but overall an excellent experience. One of my farming partners attend a CSA workshop several weeks ago and the woman running the workshop stressed several times that new farmers should not attempt to set up a CSA program during their first few years. I understand why. It's one thing to learn all the production techniques necessary to grow lots of food. It's quite another to put together a CSA program, recruit people to participate, take money from them, handle the logistics of delivering food from the field to those participating and keep in contact with all the CSA members; to say nothing of the amount of educating most members will need. I'm not sure I agree though that new farmers shouldn't give it a try. It is a great way to sell food and the risk is shared with those who are eating it.

I posted weekly updated so CSA members would know what was happening at the farm. This took a lot of effort. I also included recipes because many of my members were unfamiliar with how to cook using fresh, whole ingredients. Too much squash, worms in the corn, non returned food containers- it was a lot of working keeping everyone moderately happy. And all of that coordination and communication had to happen after the vegetables were planted, watered, weeded, harvest, etc.

Our final CSA pick up was last Tuesday. It's too soon for me to look back with clear eyes and critique the season as a whole but I thought I would share some information fresh on my mind for anyone interested in using the CSA method as a way to distribute food. I'm going to do it in the form of advice directed just as much at myself (I'll be reading this in a few months as I decide what to do next year) as at anyone else.

1. Investigate the many different models of successful CSA around the US and the rest of the world. Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En have written a great book about the CSA way. _Sharing the Harvest_. These isn't one right way to run a CSA so take a look at what others have done before you get fixated on a particular idea.

2. Stay away from high maintenance people. Incidental this advice works well regarding spouse selection too ;-) but here I'm suggesting that farmers stay away from CSA members likely to be overly picky or those who think that participation in a CSA means having their food chewed for them. I think a healthy mantra for marketing a new CSA program is to undersell the benefits and overachieve in terms of results. Don't promise the moon because even if you actually deliver the moon you've just met your obligation. Promise a moon rock and then deliver a huge, well-polished piece of the moon that exceeds their expectations. Especially avoid people who think that because they aren't buying from the grocery store the CSA food will be cheaper.

3. Require participation in the form of work. A really great way to help people understand how much work goes into growing food is to have them help at the farm. On-farm projects need to be carefully planned and should include labor for all ages and skill sets. Once an individual has weeded or watered she'll have a greater appreciation for the work done by the CSA farmers.

4. If possible recruit cooks. You want as many of your CSA members as possible to be good at cooking. These people will appreciate fresh ingredients but they are also likely to share great recipes.

5. Plan in vacation weeks. If you're planning to have a 20 week CSA season be sure to charge members for 18 or 19 weeks and build in a one or two week break. You can decide which week will serve as your break or you can let members use their break week when they are on vacation. This way you as the farmer get the opportunity of a break and perhaps your members don't have to pay for food on a week when they are out of town.

6. Include CSA members in the planning of what to grow. Just because you love eggplant doesn't mean your members will. And the kinds of vegetables a CSA membership wants will change from year to year. Keep current regarding what they want.

7. Share your failures with your members. Don't just update them regarding your success. Let them share in the failures as well. IF the flea beetles destroy you eggplant crop let your members know. Then they'll understand why the eggplant never should up in their weekly produce allotment. It will also make them feel more a part of the risk embodied in farming.

8. Keep good records. Be sure to document what your members get each week along with all your information regarding what was planted when and where and how much etc. Good record keeping will make future CSA production much easier. It will also serve as a way to market to future CSA members. Take lots of photographs. Also be sure to keep good records regarding the money. Photocopy checks, make sure you know who paid, how much and when. You will not remember I promise- write it down!

9. Include lots of recipes. I mentioned recruiting cooks. A well run CSA will mean lots of education. Yes everyone should know what collards are and what they look like and how to cook them but everyone doesn't know this. You will have to teach some of them.

10. Keep your seasons short. If you can grow food 8 months out of the year that's great. However I don't recommend a 32 week CSA season. Break it up into shorter seasons. Offer a spring CSA for March through May. Offer another season starting in June. These shorter seasons will allow you or your members a regular reset button. If someone needs out or if an unforeseen event occurs it will be easier to adjust if you're not locked into a really long commitment.

If I think of others I'll update this list. I thin a CSA program is a great way to sell and distribute food. It takes planning and a willingness to communicate and educate others about the local food economy. It can be a very rewarding experience.



Paula Hewitt said...

thanks for this insight, and well done! I belong to a rather large 'corporate' (it's not really corporate I just can't think of a better description)CSA called which involves approx 80 farmers from within a three hour radius, 3000 subscribers and year round produce (you can subscribe for 4, 13....52 weeks, and arrange breaks for vacations). i have been wary of suggesting some friends try it because they are the whinging - worms in the corn, what to with do with all the zuchini, it is cheaper to buy at woolies - types. i'd hate for food connect to have to deal with them. I find it a very enriching, rewarding experience and i havent even been on one of the farm visits yet! Paula

Robert said...

Hi Paula; Thanks for your comments about us, we really appreciate it. It had been about ten years of experience put into this 'collaborative' CSA and although really tough it is very rewarding. I love the 10 points put together here Aaron, very insightful.
We have about 7 people coming up from Victoria next week to learn the ropes of what we do, both traditional CSA and our model and one day we may have as many as in Nth America.
Thanks for supporting and promoting us

Dan said...

Congrats on your first CSA year!

My CSA started offering a fall share for the month of October the past 2 years and most members really enjoyed it. I like the option as its mostly root vegetables that will keep well for months. It also gave me the opportunity to make 2 batches of kraut in the same year!

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