spanish radishes: These were boxed up for CSA members just
last week. >
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
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.
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 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.
Small Farms CSA:
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
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
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
Range of crops: flowers, berries, lettuce,
greens and roots
Marketing methods: CSA and 3 farmers
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
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.