So you've grown the world's tastiest vegetables, you harvested them, and then you did all that post-harvest handling. Now, you've got a cooler full of stuff, and flats of tomatoes and boxes of squash and sacks of onions and baskets of garlic. What next? Short of using it all to do the most extravagant Thanksgiving display ever (and by the way, I *still* haven't seen the wild turkeys), you're now going to have to do something to get rid of all this bounty. Not so much because the bounty is unwanted (though I don't particularly care to live in a compost heap), but, well... because this is a business. And until now, you've not made any money. Think about it, you've spent time the previous year and early this year plowing, cultivating, spreading manure, seeding in the greenhouse, seeding outside, transplanting, weeding, weeding again, and weeding some more, thinning, harvesting, washing, packaging and all you've got to show for it is a pile of vegetables which will turn themselves into compost if you stop now.
Thus, by definition, every farmer needs to figure out who his or her clients are, be it a wholesaler, retail stores, processors, or direct customers through a CSA, farm stand, or farmers' market sales. "CSA" stands for "community shared/supported agriculture", and essentially takes the form of subscription farming: members buy a "share" in a farm's harvest (important to note: not in the farm itself, just in that year's growing season). The idea is that you share the costs, share the risks, and share the returns. In a "true" CSA, as it was originally conceived, the money share-holders put out up front covers the cost of inputs and labour to bring in a harvest - which is then divvied up among the members. If a crop fails, then the risk is absorbed by all those who have a part in the harvest. Similarly, if there is a bumper crop of something else, you get a bigger part of the bounty. It's much like your home garden: you always forget just how many zucchinis one plant will give, and that your tomatoes will always be hit by blight. Still, though, some years you have more beans than you can possibly eat but only one or two lousy peppers. This is the same thing, except that you have a farmer who is making the planting and growing decisions, and presumably has decent judgement and experience. CSA farming is thus mutually beneficial: you don't have to do the work of gardening yourself (or have the property), the farmer doesn't have the same level of risk and he/she has some capital up front to cover the huge costs you need to incur before you see any returns. Depending on the situations, you can still get your hands dirty, show your children where the food comes from, and get pleasure out of being in the fields.
The CSA model has, of course, been adapted and modified. My opinion is that if a farm were to exist as a "true" CSA, they would have to have well over 100 members. Most people, in my experience, balk at more than $500 for a season's worth of produce, so, if you get 100 $500 shares, that's still only $50,000. If that's your only source of income, and it's your gross, it's not going to work: out of that, you have to pay the mortgage pay labour pay utilities buy seed amortize implements buy fuel and so forth. Even 200 shares at that price don't give you a real living once you've accounted for all the costs (and the thought of direct contact with 200 households on a weekly basis makes me sweat. How would you know all their names? They'd have a right to have you know them, after all, because one of the things they bought is the personal contact). Realistically, Lorenz estimates 400 households for a CSA to be fair to both consumers and farmers.
Thus, there are many versions of hybrids. There are those who have a medium-sized CSA but also produce for wholesale or farmers' markets - in that case, though, you don't share in the bounty of bumper crops as much, since they'll go to the wholesalers. Similarly, you don't experience failed crops as much - if the yield is very low, the farmer likely will give what he does have to his members, and there is no wholesale profit. So the "S" in CSA becomes a bit less, but still: you have a pot of money to tide you over until you also get wholesale money or returns from farmers' markets once harvest starts. Seems like an ideal solution.
But even that hybrid model has potential pitfalls: now, you've started spreading yourself thin. If people buy their season's worth of vegetables from you, they don't expect that the entire season will consiste of kale, rutabags and carrots: they expect the same variety that they see among in-season produce in the grocery store. So you end up producing 40 or more different vegetables, and killing the economies of scale that you'd need for wholesale. It just doesn't make sense to have half a row of this and half a row of that, not from an efficiency standpoint. In addition, by having a medium-sized CSA, you're still in the situation where you have to have the energy to deal with people every week (people are not bad, having people come to your farm isn't bad, but it takes time to do it right). You have to set the CSA up, you have to manage it, and you have to cultivate personal contact. That can be hard to do when you have 100 things going on.
There are other CSA hybrids: there are those that are closer to food box programs than CSAs, in that the farm produces only a portion of what is distributed to the shares each week. The rest comes from other farms, or even distributors. The advantage for the consumer is the variety, but it gets further from the original notion of direct producer-consumer linkages: now, farmers become middlemen for other farmers. Let's be realistic: there's got to be a bit of an incentive for me to take care of the task of marketing someone else's produce, bread, honey... Organic farming is all cozy and friendly, sure, but the bottom line is: it also has to be a living. Sure, it could be a co-operative effort: I give you vegetables for your boxes, you give me honey and bread for mine. But in that case, we may be competing for the same market (or incurring onerous transport costs, if we're far apart, on a regular basis). Furthermore, maybe I'm a bit jaded, but I tend to think that, the more producers you rely on to put together your box, the greater the likelihood that somebody has a problem of some sort - be it a family emergency, a broken truck, or ecologically unsound practices. In that case, you've lost more than direct contact between producers and consumers: you've lost the control over the quality and production of the contents of your box that you, as a producer, personally guarantee. For example, recently an Ontario apple producer was de-certified - and his apples, before the de-certification, most definitely found their way into some of these food box programs. An advantage of a CSA is that you build trust in your farmer; this is not possible in this model. This sort of model is too far from a true CSA to even be considered a hybrid, really. CSA in name only.
It is for all these reasons and perhaps others that Lorenz discontinued the Switch Farm CSA a few years back. The Switch Farm CSA was my first introduction to a "real" CSA (as opposed to the CSAs in the US that I'd only read about). It maxed out at 120 after a few years. By this time, CSAs had become common in this area (one of Lorenz's former apprentices even has her own CSA in this market now), and growth was not happening at the pace it needed to. I remember people really liking it, and he made it convenient for them: deliveries to Guelph and Burlington, and farm pickup. That meant three afternoons a week, somebody had to take care of the CSA, though. Now, Lorenz is focused on farmers' markets and wholesale orders, with some direct sales to food box programs and the very occasional restaurant order. It means that he can get away with a smaller number of crops, and doesn't have to worry about getting enough members every year. In some ways, even though he no longer gets cash at the beginning of the growing season, it makes planning easier. The decision to discontinue made sense from both ecological and economic standpoints: at 120, it was about 280 households short of being economically sustainable, and the pressure of putting boxes together in June meant that Lorenz frequently found himself planting earlier than he wanted to. The fields at Greenfields have no tiles, and they stay wet longer than those on sandy soils or with additional drainage do. You can do a fair amount of damage, in terms of soil compaction, if you go in too early.
Lorenz's current business model relies on farmers' markets and wholesale orders. Greenfields does four markets a week: Guelph on Saturday, Dufferin Grove in Toronto on Thursdays, and the roadside stand on Wednesdays and Fridays. At this time of year, almost all that is taken to these markets is grown right here at Greenfields, but during the winter months and before anything can be harvested in spring, this is supplemented by produce Lorenz buys from distributors and other farmers (and, although it is not a CSA model and thus less based on personal contact and trust with and in a farm and farmer, the quality of the produce is very important and Greenfields will only carry certified organic items). In the winter, I sometimes ran into the guy who dropped off his own lettuce mix, he delivered right to the walk-in cooler. Distributors' trucks come to the farm regularly. This way of operating has a major advantage for customer relationships: you are able to service the demand for organic produce year-round. People are able to establish more regular patterns than if they bought their stuff at the market in summer but the grocery store in winter. Consistency is important when it comes to repeat consumption behaviour - consistency in location, presentation, quality and yes, price and personnel. The vast majority of consumers isn't all that crazy about unpredictability: they still exist, but the food shoppers who see what's available and then plan what they will cook around that are a rare (and precious) breed. I venture forth with my list which says broccoli, onions, apples, peas and beans. Similarly, if I get wonderful broccoli from the same vendor each week, I may be willing to let the need for a consistent price slide a bit because I know what I'm buying. However, if the broccoli is wonderful and fresh one week, and woody the next, I'll be disinclined to keep buying it. So, to recap: now you need to spend time and energy ordering produce to supplement your own, doing a thorough check for quality when it arrives at the farm, and lugging endless crates and boxes to various markets. Retail is a time and capital-intensive proposition, and thus takes consistent dedication. The retail markets have become Tara's full-time job (though she contributes in other areas as well).
This past weekend, though, Tara was off, and I tagged along to Guelph with Lorenz and Vanessa. I like the Guelph market: I worked there with Lorenz for years, and I enjoyed the experience. I liked our customers, I liked the rhythm we got into, I liked watching the seasonal consumption patterns and making my own observations for price cutoffs for key items (like broccoli!), and I *really* liked the cinnamon buns. I don't do it anymore, and the rhythm is gone: I spent most of Saturday morning while we were setting up frustrated because I didn't know what to do, and in a few instances, when I independently made a decision on how to set something up, Lorenz re-did it because it didn't fit with the overall vision. Truth be told, I felt redundant (but the cinnamon buns were as good as ever!). The advantage of that for you, though, is that it freed me up to take pictures. Not only that, but being the superfluous third person (I volunteered to come, I wasn't needed) meant that I could wander the market without feeling like I was deserting anyone, and thus I'm still enjoying the peaches and plums I bought. No peaches or plums at Greenfields.
There are, however, things at Greenfields that the usual farmers' market customer never sees: either because they are too much work to pick all the time at the prices people are willing to pay (like edamame beans and asparagus peas) or they're just too irregular a crop to build a demand for when it won't be available much (like, say, the apple cucumbers that are up there right now. See how much Vanessa likes the apple cucumbers?)
The yellow flowers are sunchokes. I uploaded a picture of the root tubers a few months back, and I mentioned that they are a member of the sunflower family. You can hardly doubt it now! And while I'm into detail photography, this is one of the irrigation heads - the squirting action against the metal plate knocks the metal plate back, which in turn advances the pivot an increment. Pretty cool, huh?
Oh, and, because you didn't get a tractor picture this week yet (I don't have any! I got all self conscious about being snap-happy every time someone climbed on a tractor!), you get my latest tractor picture without Lorenz in it. The cool thing about this one: that's moonlight! I took it the night after the harvest moon, balancing the camera on some vegetable buckets and propped up with some snips, after a friend sent me his wonderful moon picture.Posted by Johanna at September 29, 2004 09:02 PM