spanish radishes: These were boxed up for CSA members
just last week. >
Thinking about starting
a CSA? Check out our recommended resources
for insight and straight talk on cultivating,
managing and marketing with a community approach.
I met Andy Griffin and Julia Wiley, pictured
above in a wedding photo, at the Eco-Farm conference
in Monterey, CA in late January. Like Linda Halley,
who’s column debuted last week, Julia was
on the same “Married to a CSA” panel,
and offered similar insights into the nuts and
bolts of managing a CSA. Later in the conference
I met Andy at a workshop on agricultural journalism.
Impressed with their passion and insight, I invited
the couple to provide CSA perspectives from central
coastal California, with its amazing climate and
The range of crops Andy and Julia grow each season,
in collaboration with their CSA partners at High
Ground Organics, is stunning. For a visual tour
of the fruits and veggies they grow, check out
the Mariquita web site at www.mariquita.com.
You’ll learn more about Julia and Andy
over time, but their web site also features stories
by Andy that give a history of their farm experience.
In addition, the couple publishes a beautiful
seasonal ag journal called ROOT, which is mostly
Andy’s entertaining musings on farming,
farm labor issues, farm history, food, cooking,
and more. For more information about ROOT, check
out the web site, at www.rootjournal.com.
Here are some of the topics Julia and Andy hope
to cover in future letters: Newsletter 101, Charity
Boxes, Marketing, Year Round?, Fruit, Different
Styles and Flavors with Different CSA Farms, Popular
Customer Policies, Marketing Revisted, Customers
Share the Risk or Not, Pick Up Site Etiquette,
Farm Days/Field Days/Farm Dinners, and CSA Farmer
Networking. Let us know what
topics you would like to see
covered in this column.
Chris Hill, Executive Editor
Posted APRIL 8, 2003: When people find out
that my husband and I have a small farm they often remark, “you
are so lucky to get to work in a garden for a living.”
Ha! I haven’t worked in a garden since I married Andy
and the farm. When farmers market customers ask me how to plant
carrots, I tell them to ask me instead about the QuickBooks
From what I remember, planting a garden was a calming and
rewarding hobby, a meditation and a time to focus on the beauty
of the natural world. Farming is a business where the activity
of selling vegetables has to take priority over the tranquility
of watching them grow.
We market our produce through one farmers market and our
Community Supported Agriculture Program, or CSA. CSA is a
business model with no set definition but, basically, the
idea is that a community of supporters will pay a farmer in
advance and have their investment repaid to them in shares
of the farm's harvest. Since communities differ as much as
the people who make them up, there can be no ultimate single
definitive way of managing a CSA -- but it does help to look
at the roots of the movement.
spring crops at Mariquita: TOP: Farm worker
Don Gerardo harvesting chard. BOTTOM: Strawberries
in the field.
The CSA concept started in Japan during the sixties. With
the dramatic loss of farmland to urban growth and Japan’s
increasing reliance on imported foods from overseas, some
consumers found it increasingly difficult to identify fresh
and locally produced sources for the traditional foods they
were used to. A group of Japanese homemakers approached a
local farmer with the idea of making a financial commitment
to the farm in exchange for fruits and vegetables grown just
the way they liked.
That said, it’s worth noting that America is everything
Japan is not: We are a huge, sprawling, multilingual, culturally
diverse land about as traditional as yesterday’s trend.
Food is cheaper here per capita than in any other nation on
earth, and we howl like baboons when it inches up a penny.
Not only is the CSA a fluid concept because communities can
be so different. CSAs in America also have to adapt to the
reality that ours is a nation that has “issues”
Our own involvement with the philosophy and reality of community
supported agriculture, California-style, started in December
of 1996. An enterprising young woman, Wendy Banzhaf, approached
Andy and his then-farming partner Greg with a business proposition.
There's a way of doing business called community supported
agriculture, she said, where consumers pay in advance for
weekly shares of a farmer's harvest. She liked the quality
and variety of vegetables that she saw displayed at our farmers
market stands and thought that she could create a CSA program
for our farm that could serve the Santa Cruz and San Jose
Greg and Andy knew nothing about community supported agriculture,
but they knew that their business plan, which relied only
on farmers market sales for income, was flawed. They were
attracted by the CSA idea as Wendy outlined it because it
offered the farm another way of earning income and promised
them a more stable cash flow.
Wendy spent three months doing a tremendous amount of research
about how successful CSA programs functioned. She began with
thirty subscribers and two bosses in May of 1997. Wendy had
to learn from the bottom up how to run a new style of small
business with an unusual business plan. Her chores ranged
from formatting a newsletter and making up the share boxes
from the farm harvest to marketing the new CSA concept to
both the public and the press.
That first year Wendy succeeded in signing up 150 shareholders
while negotiating the steep start-up learning curve and trying
to reconcile the ample but often conflicting "input"
from Andy and Greg. I was no more than an interested onlooker.
But I did turn out to be a perfect example of our CSA’s
target customer. I had given birth to our daughter, Lena,
in February, and our son, Graydon, was three years old.
Small Farms CSA:
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
K ey 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
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover
cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year
Years farming: Stephen and Jeanne
have been farming for 7 years
Total acres farmed: 18
Key people: Stephen, farmer,
tractor driver, farmers marketeer; Jeanne, computer
whiz, CSA wife, mom, head cook; Aurelio, head
flower harvester and arranger
Range of crops: flowers, berries,
lettuce, greens and roots
Marketing methods: CSA and 3
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation,
fallowing, hedge rows
Length of season: all year
Because it is possible to grow vegetable crops all year around
here along California's central coast, and because the farm
was struggling financially, Greg and Andy decided to push
the CSA delivery program through the winter. That effort was
a failure. We experienced months of pounding rain. California
was undergoing one of its occasional bouts with "El Niño,"
the aberrant warm oceanic current that pushes up from Peru
and Ecuador and sends storm after storm spinning onshore.
The farm was flooded, the farmers markets were washed out
week after week, and Greg and Andy's cash flow went down the
drain. They split their business partnership up and Wendy,
Andy and myself continued the CSA alone.
The second season of our CSA program was a nightmare. The
farm had spent the money Wendy had taken in the previous fall
but the crops had been ruined in the rain. The harvest crew
had been paid to harvest crops that went unsold in rain swept
farmers' markets. Andy and I had to spend out savings to fulfill
the obligations we had taken on with each subscription. Shareholders
were discouraged with the steady diet of the chards, kales,
cabbages and leeks that could survive the winter mud -- and
many folks quit.
A lot of people express an interest in ‘sharing the
risks that a farmer takes,’ but for most they only want
to ‘virtually share’. CSA is not a way to share
failure. To avoid going broke, we had to let Wendy go and
substantially adjust the scale of our ambition. With an infant
in one arm and a three year old pulling on my leg I went to
work as a CSA coordinator/farm wife.
Over the first three and a half years that I took over the
management of our CSA, it went from being a money drain to
providing a modest income for ourselves and our employees.
From supporting 150 families, we grew to a network of over
400 families. We went in from experimental efforts fueled
by cash and enthusiasm to practices and polices that have
been defined by experience.
One of the nicest developments was the opportunity to get
to know other families in our area that had CSA farms and
to compare notes. With several million consumers in our back
yard, we don't regard each other as competition. The big chain
stores that only buy from the big farms are our real competition.
Our neighbors, with their own little struggling farms and
their own kids pulling on their pants legs, are the closest
people we have to a peer group. They are our friends and our
CSA's operating policies have often been informed through
conversations with them.
In the 2002 season we started fully cooperating with one
of our neighboring peer farms, High Ground Organics, forming
a joint operation called Two Small Farms CSA. This has proven
to be an effective way of improving service to our subscribers,
and minimizing risks and increasing the variety of crops that
we can offer because with a greater land base we have access
to more microclimates and potential planting dates. We will
cover some of the details of that successful cooperation in
a future letter.
In this current era of corporate retail consolidation and
the death of the small local market network that once sustained
us, CSA has helped to save our farm. But it is not for everyone.
When we started our CSA we already had well over 10 years
experience in farming. The produce quality was consistently
good and Andy could easily fill the boxes each week with a
||To read Linda Halley and Rich de Wilde's
column on their Wisconsin CSA, click
My friend Linda from Harmony Valley Farm made the point to
an audience this winter at the Eco Farm conference when she
said that CSA farming is graduate level farming, it’s
not for beginners! I couldn’t agree with her more. You
need to phone, network, and use computers as well as you plough,
seed and cultivate. And you better be able to plough, seed,
and cultivate well. With CSA farming it’s not only the
vegetables you have to learn to grow and nurture but a whole
human community as well.