CSA NOTEBOOK: Mariquita Farm, Watsonville, CA
From money pit to economic provider for a
farm family and its employees ... in just 4 years!

Julia Wiley of Mariquita Farm says that to run a CSA successfully, you have to grow well. That’s a given. But you also have to know how to nurture a whole human community. Here’s the story of how their CSA began.

By Julia Wiley

Black spanish radishes: These were boxed up for CSA members just last week. >








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Editor’s Note

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 progressive communities.

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 accounting program.

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.

Classic 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” with commitment.

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 area.

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.


Two Small Farms CSA:

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
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 market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

High Ground Organics

Location: Watsonville
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 farmers markets
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 nice variety.

To read Linda Halley and Rich de Wilde's column on their Wisconsin CSA, click here.

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.