Farming for a CSA market is an exercise in diversity. CSA farmers must possess the skills to reliably 25 or more different vegetable crops and at least 100 different varieties each season. In addition to the challenges inherent in trying to raise so many different crops well, many CSA farmers also spend a great deal of time and energy raising livestock, fruit and even dairy items to expand their product availability.
As apprentices on vegetable farms in New England 12 years ago, we developed a holistic management plan for our future farm. This was the final exercise in our apprentice training program designed to prepare us for starting our own farm. When we look back at that plan now, we cannot help but laugh at our ambition. Our plan went something like this:
• Grow five acres of organic produce for a 200 member CSA
• Grow approximately one acre of fruit trees
• Use pigs to turn our compost and as a source of pork for our CSA
• Raise laying hens
• Raise broiler chickens for our CSA
• Raise turkeys and a few beef cattle every year for ourselves and our members
More than a decade later, we run a successful 200-member CSA. Otherwise, we have achieved none of those goals. (Not counting some poultry we’ve raised more as a hobby than serious farming.) But what we have learned is that we want to do what we do well, and that requires a certain degree of focus and specialization.
To be a CSA farmer is to be a specialist in diversity. Vegetable production is not only what we do best, it is also the foundation of our business and requires all of our time and attention to be done well and profitably. On the other hand, all our CSA members come to the farm weekly to pick up their produce and we are aware of the sacrifice this requires on their part. So we do our best to make our farm a one stop shop for local, sustainably made products. We have found that offering a diverse array of farm products has made our CSA attractive to new members and also increases our retention of existing members.
Over the years we have met many farmers and producers in our community who were already doing an excellent job raising livestock, fruit and dairy products. We realized that working with them was the most efficient way to provide our members with access to the best food. Working cooperatively with other farmers and producers has been a great way for us to achieve the goal of offering our members a “whole-diet” CSA.
One way to expand the products we offer our members is by hosting other farms’ CSA deliveries. It is a convenient way for our members to shop with local, sustainable producers and gives these producers a reliable market for their own CSA offerings. It is a simple way of doing business on our end as well. We don’t have to collect payments, stock inventory, or assume liability for these share programs. Each partner farm collects share payments and provides us with a sign-in sheet for members to check off when they pick up their share. We simply provide a host site for the producers to deliver their products. In return for this service, we generally receive a complimentary share from the producer.
Our members can pick up a weekly fruit share from a local orchard and/or a bread share with loaves baked fresh on pick-up days by an artisan baker. Our partner pastured poultry farmers offer egg and chicken shares. This year we are working with a local dairy to offer our members a grass-fed jersey cheese share. We are even working with a startup business to offer our members a wood-fired pizza share. Other items such as mushrooms, grass-fed beef and salmon are offered several times a season on a pre-order basis.
We are working with a former apprentice to produce a winter CSA share on our farm as well. We can offer her the land, resources and customers, and she can focus her energy on producing a quality winter share, including many storage crops grown during the late summer. This will not only allow us some much needed rest in the winter, it will also give another farmer the opportunity to earn a livelihood on our farm while providing our members with food year round.
Working cooperatively is not only a great way to expand your CSA, it has the potential to greatly expand the availability of local farm products for farmers and consumers. Perhaps the final frontier in the CSA movement will be the development of truly cooperative CSA’s with many farmers raising crops to be centrally gathered and distributed to the membership through food hubs. These types of enterprises are starting to become more common throughout the country and may be the next step in expanding the regional food movement to more consumers than ever before. Small cooperatives offer a great opportunity for farmers to pool resources and products to efficiently and profitably enter the mainstream food distribution system.
We started out farming more than a decade ago thinking we could do it all: raise veggies, livestock and fruits. In the end, we realized that growing mixed vegetables for our CSA already required us to specialize in diversity. We have found that working with other farmers and producers has been the best way for us to offer our members the greatest variety of local, sustainable food. It allows us to focus our efforts on growing the best vegetables possible and lets other farmers continue to do what they do best. Working with other farms and producers has not only made our CSA more appealing to our members, it has expanded the marketing opportunities for the neighboring farms that supply us with their products. It has strengthened our farm and our entire rural community.
John and Aimee Good run Quiet Creek Farm, a mixed vegetable operation, at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. They can be found online at www.quietcreekfarmcsa.com.