Thinking out of the box
As any CSA farmer will attest, waxed boxes can be a major expense. Andy and his crew have found a local solution that reduces their dependence on box makers who may have to toast their profits with slightly less expensive champagne.

By Andy Griffin


Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

March 31, 2005: The wife of the cardboard box manufacturer cuts quite a figure at local social and charity events and I warmly wish that the bubbles never stop streaming up the sides of her crystal champagne flutes. Let’s all lift our glasses high to continued prosperity for our friends in the farm supply sector; we need them. But, I’m not pleased to always be paying more for waxed cartons. Happily, we at Two Small Farms have been able to dramatically reduce our use of cartons over the past several years and that pleases me on a number of levels.

First, our local carton supplier had such a lock on the distribution of waxed vegetable boxes that they allowed their customer service to slip to ridiculously low levels. Our farm is an hour south of San Francisco and Oakland, or, if you’re a football fan, we’re 90 minutes south of both the San Francisco 49'ers and the Oakland Raiders. I don’t follow football but plenty of my neighbors do, and most of them, to judge by their jerseys, bumper-stickers, flags and coffee mugs, are citizens of the “Raider Nation”. I bring this up only to tell you (this is really true!) that I once saw the senior clerk at our local carton yard refuse service to a farm worker who had come to pick up boxes simply because he was wearing a Niners windbreaker. After witnessing that affront, and after receiving years of sullen service myself, I began driving an extra 35 miles to Salinas to buy my cartons from the competition.

I also started trying to think my way out of the cardboard box. Watsonville is situated along the coast. While politics have not been kind to the local flower growers and almost all the rose and carnation farms are now out of business, the cool marine climate we have favors flower farmers who produce unusual varieties. Bulbs are big business around here, and almost all the bulbs that are planted are imported from the Netherlands in sturdy bulb totes. A commercial flower grower may buy thousands of these totes every year and be forced to discard them as soon as the bulbs are planted out. It is uneconomical, given transportation costs, to ship these totes back to Europe, so they pile up in huge drifts.

At first, bulb farmers were happy to give us the totes for free because we were doing them a favor by taking them off their hands, but now they’re charging a dollar or two apiece. I don’t mind paying because the totes are perfect for harvest and we can use them over and over and over again. We pick right into the totes and load them onto our trucks for delivery into the packing shed. The totes ride well. Each one is designed to rest on top of another in a stack. And the stacks of full totes are so easy to push around in the back of the truck or walk in refrigerator we don’t need a hand-truck to move them.

Our CSA packing shed is really a converted dairy barn with two levels: one upper level where the cows once stood to be milked and a lower level where the milkers worked. Once we’re at the shed we move the full totes up the ramp onto the upper level and line up the various vegetables we’re going to put in the harvest share boxes. Then we slip some full totes onto a tilted rack that has been designed to accommodate them and the pack out begins.

One worker makes up a waxed cardboard carton, inserts a plastic liner bag, and puts the box on the roller conveyer that runs the length of the packing line. Another worker reaches into the tote in front of them, removes a bunch or head or bag of produce, puts it in the box, and pushes the box down the line. The next item is placed in the box from a tote, and so on until each of the eight or nine veggies that makes up the box has been packed. A paper copy of the week’s newsletter is the last thing to go in before the carton is closed, stacked and wheeled off to be loaded on the delivery truck. As the share boxes are loaded, and the totes are depleted, someone stays on the upper level of the packing station to keep sliding new, full totes in to replace the empties. Pack out is fast, and the empty harvest totes are loaded onto a truck for a return trip to the field.

We still have to use waxed cardboard cartons for the actual deliveries because we haven’t figured out a way to get enough of the plastic totes back to make using them economical (our customers have discovered bulb totes also make wonderful laundry totes). Also, since bulb totes don’t fold up, we don’t want them cluttering our pick-up-site host’s yards every week. Still, the bulb totes have reduced our carton costs dramatically. Now we’re working on convincing our shareholders to treat their cardboard boxes with great care so we can use them nine or 10 times. One of our pick-up site hosts even constructed a great little frame to contain the boxes in his yard so they aren’t messy and they don’t blow away.

On a final note, the local carton company finally fired their rotten-spirited clerk who made doing business with them such a drag and replaced him with a pleasant woman who is only too happy to take my money. Because I’m saving so much by purchasing less boxes, my checks are even good at the bank, and that’s something both me and the carton maker’s wife can drink to.

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