NEWS FROM MARIQUITA: A CSA Journal

The "three legged stool" school of farming
Andy sells his produce through a CSA, a restaurant delivery route and a farmers' market stall. These three legs of his marketing effort support each other--and him--in unexpected, synergistic ways, and keep him sitting pretty.

By Andy Griffin

Farm-at-a-glance

Mariquita Farm
www.mariquita.com

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

April 21, 2005: I can say that after twenty five years in farming I’ve been to most of the very best restaurants in San Francisco. Of course, I’ve entered those establishments through the back door, pushing a hand truck stacked high with drippy produce boxes and trying to maneuver my load around grease barrels and sacks of grubby linen. But that’s life, or my life at any rate. Growing specialty crops for restaurants has been one of the ways I’ve made my way in farming from the very beginning. Today my farm has three distinct streams of income; subscription sales to our CSA members, a restaurant delivery route and one farmers' market stall. Choosing which crops best serve these three very distinct groups of customers with their varied expectations is one of my biggest challenges. Luckily it gets easier every year.

My business plan is modeled after a three legged stool to afford me stability in the rough, uneven world that is farming. The CSA is by far the most important part of my business because these folks are my underwriters. They're essentially fronting me the money we need to farm and they need to be paid back with weekly deliveries of vegetables they can easily use; lettuces, cabbages, strawberries, onions, etc. Since I never know exactly how many shares I’ll need to fill (and I can’t predict how many insects, gophers and mildew spores I’ll “share” my harvest with) I always plant more than I’ll need. Surplus produce beyond what we require for the CSA deliveries is available for our farmers' market stall. Restaurants are another issue altogether.

The benefits of selling to restaurants go beyond just the checks they send. Unlike our CSA delivery program, our restaurant business is active year-round. Having a 12 month work schedule (and a 12 month cash flow) allows us to keep our entire crew employed full-time. Having steady work means we can attract steady workers and minimize the confusion and expense of constantly training new people. Since we’ve essentially had the same crew for the last eight years, they are now better than me at doing almost everything on the farm which frees me up to do marketing for our CSA program.

I’ve discovered, too, that the most successful restaurants often have their own in-house promotional tools, like newsletters. By working with them, I can extend the reach of our own promotional efforts. We’re always delighted to lend essays or photos from our newsletters for their web sites and they appreciate that. From time to time we’ve hosted special farm dinners with restaurants and those have been good for attracting attention for everyone involved. And it never hurts our credibility with our CSA subscribers when they go out for a night in the big city and find their farm’s name on the menu. We get instant validity and they take pride in having such great taste supporting a fine, hifalutin farm.

But restaurants don’t necessarily want the same vegetables as the general public. Take radishes, for example. Just about the only time our restaurants will buy red radishes is when they’re looking for something their Hispanic line cooks can munch on for lunch. And the kinds of vegetables that are popular not only change with the seasons, but go in and out of fashion. Vegetables that get stewed up in a pot, like cabbages, onions and kales, will never go out of style, but to appeal to a restaurant, even a fancy place, they’d better be cheap. We’re happy to sell cheap stock pot veggies but the real glamour (and promotional utility) of having your farm’s name on the menu comes from growing more novel vegetables that stand out on the plate. So we’re faced with a decision: Just how much time and land are we going to be able to dedicate to our restaurant program.

To minimize the inconvenience of planting for two different markets, I’ve adapted my planting schedule for the CSA to accommodate some of the restaurant’s needs. Take chard, for example. The rainbow chards like 'Bright Lights' with their pretty red, yellow, pink, and orange stems are popular with the general public because they’re pretty. Americans shop with their eyes. But cook those chards and the colors get muddy. Besides, the flavor is nothing special. So instead we grow lots of erbette chard which is very popular with the restaurants for its marine flavor. (In fact, a restaurant brought this common Italian variety to our attention.) Encouraging a restaurant to name a variety they want increases their interest in the crop, too, just as long as every other restaurant doesn’t have the same thing on the menu. When we tell our CSA customers that such and such a restaurants prefers the erbette and even brought us the seed from Italy, they forget they were ever dazzled by 'Bright Lights'.

Sometimes the restaurants request items that have little or no utility for the home cook, like the range of unusual heirloom chicories they encouraged me to grow last fall. (See The value--and the limits--of fantasy in any farming operation for more on the chicory and other requests.) But constantly trying out new crops keeps me interested in what I’m doing and lets me continue to learn about new foods which have value just on their own.

And sometimes all I have to do to make a restaurant happy is harvest an old standby, like rapini, in a different way. Instead of letting all the rapini mature to the point of budding the way we might for our CSA customers, we harvest some of it young as though it were arugula. Tender baby rapini greens are popular with the restaurants. Beets, turnips and leeks are three other mainstream crops we can harvest young for a different twist on a classic crop that appeals to restaurants. They look especially good served whole on a plate.

Which brings me back to the beginning. It’s getting easier to plan crops for customers as disparate as fancy chefs on the one hand and on the go home cooks on the other hand. Restaurants have changed the way people are eating around here. They are giving old fashioned crops appreciated for their flavor a new relevance. Fennel used to be a hard sell, now people understand it can be used like celery. Spring garlic, or garlic harvested at the scallion stage, is something our CSA customers look forward to each spring now, when just 5 years ago it was still something weird. Fava beans are even popular with CSA members as long as we don’t try to send them out too often. I love seeing greater acceptance of the unusual heirloom crops I like to grow. Having a general public develop with an appetite for distinctive seasonal crops evens the playing field for small scale growers and keeps a guy like me from falling off my stool.


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