The question for CSA farmers is not “How do I get one started?”, but “How do I keep it going?,” according to Jill Perry and Scott Franzblau, authors of Local Harvest: A Multifarm CSA Handbook.
Operating a CSA can be a tremendous amount of work. Building relationships with customers while providing them with a varied offering of vegetables throughout the season is enough to keep most farmers hopping from sun up to sun down (and maybe longer). Some farmers are choosing to increase the size of their CSAs so they can hire staff to lighten the load. But a recent book from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education), entitled Local Harvest: A Multifarm CSA Handbook, describes another option.
Perry and Franzblau describe the experience of Local Harvest, a cooperative eight-farm CSA founded in 2003 in Massachusetts. The farmers have developed a pre-season crop bidding system, which allows growers to focus on their strengths, while providing customers with a wide variety of produce. To ensure consistency and to ease logistics, they have standards which specify the cooling, washing and packing procedures required for each type of produce.
The early days of Local Harvest included long discussions ranging from the philosophy of CSAs and cooperatives to the practical aspects of running a multi-farm CSA, such as taxes and insurance. These discussions are important, according to Lynn Byczynski, editor of Growing for Market. She advises growers considering a multi-farm CSA to “Sit down in advance of actually selling anything and work out all of the rules, including how to deal with growers who don’t fit in the group. Take a year to do this, and it will pay off in the long run.”
Farmers throughout Canada are exploring numerous ways to collaborate. Some multi-farm CSAs are cooperatives, others are not.
Plan B Organic Farm near Hamilton, Ontario, provides its customers with shares throughout the year by working with numerous growers. After the first few years of operating their CSA, owners Alvaro Venturelli, Rodrigo Venturelli and Melanie Golba took a good look at their operation and found they “were growing too many different things,” according to Alvaro. They identified their “dependable strengths,” crops they could consistently grow well on their farm. Then they started building relationships with growers who have different dependable strengths.
In one case, this means renting a vineyard. The vineyard owner cultivates the crop throughout the season and Plan B harvests it. In other cases, the growers harvest and store crops for the winter months.
By working together year after year, both Plan B and the other growers can benefit. Neither side is dependent on volatile wholesale markets. “We aim for a 50% mark-up of costs, both for our own produce and for the growers we buy from,” says Alvaro Venturelli.
In New Brunswick, Reiner Zimmerman collaborates with Markus Carsson of Nova Scotia. The two found each other through the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN). Zimmerman contacted ACORN while looking for other growers that could supply him with produce. Carsson grows a wide variety of greenhouse crops that complement Zimmerman’s production.
So far, they do not do any preseason planning. Instead, Carsson gives a weekly update of what’s available and Zimmerman places his order. Zimmerman hopes to collaborate with more growers. Working together would help all the growers make the most of the market in Moncton, which Zimmerman feels is looking for more local, organic produce.
Take the time to talk with all the growers involved and clarify how the collaboration will work.
Also in the Maritimes, Taproot Farm is a young CSA (founded in 2009) that offers a full year (52-week) share and a summer (26-week) share. Patricia Bishop and Josh Oulton supply over 90% of the produce in their shares. When they need something extra, Bishop contacts local growers and orders produce as needed. Taproot is certified organic, but not all the other growers are. Each week a newsletter accompanies the vegetables and lets customers know The Kawartha Ecological Growers run a CSA as well as sell at a farmers’ market. what’s in their basket, who it’s from and whether it’s certified.
While there is no pre-season planning with the other growers, “Expectations regarding prices and quality are clearly communicated and documented,” says Bishop. This avoids misunderstandings and problems down the road. Pre seasoning planning would formalize these relationships further and that might happen in the future.
For now, Bishop is focused on managing what they grow and “getting our own production down pat.” She’s not quite ready to get closely involved with other growers. “For that, we have to be ready in terms of the organizational aspects, the finances and the production.”
In Ontario, the Kawartha Ecological Growers (KEG) have taken the cooperative approach. A core group of eight farms within 30 km of Lindsay offer a summer share (June to November) and a winter share (January to May). Four years ago, Mark Trealout realized it would be more economically feasible to drive to the Greater Toronto Area if he were taking other growers’ produce along with his own vegetables.
Today, KEG is a non-profit organization with three employees. Shannon Holton manages the CSA and farmers’ markets, Mark Trealout deals with restaurants and Emma Brant takes care of the books and farmers’ markets. Each receives a salary of about $400 per week, though at the height of the season they work more than fulltime hours. For every dollar sold through KEG, the growers receive two thirds and KEG gets one third to cover transportation, overhead, salaries and marketing.
According to Holton, “KEG doesn’t dictate who grows what.” Instead, they loosely coordinate production at a winter meeting. The group discusses the past year in terms of crop diversity and availability, and requests from restaurants. Then growers decide what they’ll grow in the coming season and inform the coordinators.
In Local Harvest, Perry and Franzblau suggest that by forming a multi-farm CSA, growers can deal with the work and responsibility inherent in operating a CSA without having to increase their acreage to the point where they can afford to hire additional labour. And that can be a significant factor. Both Alvaro Venturelli and Zimmerman expressed concern about the difficulties of finding and retaining employees. According to Venturelli, “Most people who want to work growing vegetables can’t necessarily do the physical work involved. Over the years, we’ve lost our agricultural work force in Canada.” Zimmerman has had similar experiences with interns who gave up partway through the season.
All four CSAs have advice for growers considering collaborating with other growers. “Know what you are getting into,” advises Alvaro Venturelli. Both he and Bishop emphasize the importance of having goals and a plan. “Decide what you need from the operation and then work out a plan of how you’ll get that,” says Venturelli. Also, have a market for your produce before you start to grow it. “This can be tricky in practical terms. The two, your production and the market, have to grow together, but don’t start without a market!,” Bishop says.
Take the time to talk with all the growers involved and clarify how the collaboration will work. Where will the produce be delivered? When? How should the produce be packed? Who will grow what, when and how much? How are decisions made? What about insurance and liability? How are prices set?
Another key aspect of working successfully with other growers is establishing what you are good at growing. Take the time to analyze your records and identify the crop you consistently grow well and profitably. This depends on good records.
Good organization is vital. The entire operation, including production, logistics and finances, needs to be well organized. There is no time during the height of the season to deal with loose ends. For example, to ensure customers receive high quality produce and to save time, Local Harvest has clear guidelines for each crop, specifying quality characteristics, bunch sizes, packaging material and cooling methods.
All the Canadian growers I interviewed emphasized the importance of communication—with both customers and growers. Holton spends lots of time talking one-on-one to the growers throughout the growing season. Aside from discussions about availability of produce, collaboration also allows growers to share their experiences and learn together. Holton emphasizes the importance of community in sustainable agriculture and the value of learning with other growers.
Collaborating with other growers requires time and effort and can be challenging.
Zimmerman also thinks it’s important to keep in touch with customers. He recommends growers, “Ask what they like and what they don’t like and then respond to that.” If your customers tell you they don’t like lots of kohlrabi, then don’t drown them in kohlrabi!
Quality is another consideration. Pay careful attention to ensure customers always get quality produce. Clear guidelines on what is acceptable and what isn’t can make it easier to have deliveries of top quality vegetables. Poor quality can quickly lead to a loss of customers.
When it comes to purchasing from other growers, having solid relationships and staying loyal to them can help you get consistently high quality produce. “Be loyal and stick to your relationships,” advises Alvaro Venturelli.
Collaborating with other growers requires time and effort and can be challenging. But the benefits of working together can be substantial. Together, growers can access more and distant urban markets that would otherwise be out of their reach and not just because of the distance. Working together, growers can provide customers with a greater variety of produce, greater quantities and a longer season of fresh food.
With access to more markets, growers can increase their production and profits. Plan B’s collaboration with growers means those farmers can put in crops they might not grow otherwise. And because prices are decided before the crops are planted, farmers can focus on the growing and not worry about whether they’ll get the price they need at wholesale markets. Working with other growers also lowers the risks—if one grower has a crop failure, perhaps another can fill the gap.
Collaboration can lighten the workload of a CSA overall and offer new opportunities for all involved. And don’t be discouraged by the inevitable bumps on the road along the way. As Holton says, “Be prepared to learn as you go and be ready for change. Accept mistakes and move on!”
Kristine Hammel grew up on a dairy farm in southwestern Ontario. In 2008, she graduated from Hohenheim University in Germany with a Master’s in Organic Food Chain Management. She now operates Persephone Market Garden near Owen Sound, Ontario, and is active in local food and agriculture issues in the Grey Bruce region. In the summer of 2011, she will teach a pilot course in agriculture at Georgian College, Owen Sound Campus called “Alternative Opportunities in Crops.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.