CSA NOTEBOOK: Sunflower Fields CSA, Iowa

Collaborative CSA in N.E. Iowa successfully serves an all-rural market
Ten farm families contribute to the CSA, a buyers’ club, and a cooperative that markets produce to local institutions.

By Michael Nash, co-founder of Sunflower Fields CSA

 

Editor's NOTE:

The New Farm® editor Greg Bowman saw Sunflower Fields CSA on a list serve, and asked co-founder Michael Nash and his wife, Linda, if they’d mind describing their operation. It was such an interesting story that we decided to share it with you. If you think you have an equally interesting story to tell, please share it with us.

We also encourage you to join our discussion forums and raise questions about your own CSA operation with other readers. Just click on the TALK button at the top of the page, become a member and join in!

Sunflower Fields CSA has a wonderful web site, which introduces you to all the farmers who contribute, and to Rosie, their wonder dog, who is the figurehead for their innovative and imaginative kids program. Check it out at www.sunflowerfieldscsa.com

GROWN Locally, their community farming cooperative, also has a web site: www.grownlocally.com. The web site features a product list, an online, secure purchasing form, profiles of growers . . . and it will soon include recipes from participating institutions, and a list of institutions which purchase their produce.

Finally, the Sunflower Fields CSA will be holding a 5 day hands-on CSA workshop on August 9-13 this season. It is for future CSA farmers and, as Michael Nash told us, will include "everything you ever wanted to know" about CSA farming--and probably some stuff you wish you didn't know!

Chris Hill, Executive Editor

Posted April 23, 2003: Sunflower Fields CSA is a seven- year-old multi-producer group of 10 farm families in northeast Iowa--across the river from Harmony Valley. We offer three sizes of vegetable shares as well as flowers, honey, eggs, baked goods, apples, raspberries, strawberries, hand-made soaps, culinary herbs, home made herbal body care kits, home grown teas, chickens, turkeys and some delivered "Theme Boxes," such as ingredients for soup, salsa, pickling, fall baking, home made snacks and fall decoration.

We also have an "Additional Items Program" for shareholders which is a unit priced buying method that folks use to augment their regular vegetable share--for example, a standing order of extra sweet corn, a bushel of canning tomatoes or just an extra few cucumbers. The price on these items is about 80% of wholesale and we use the money earned to purchase "expendables" such as boxes, bags, fuel, etc., thus supporting the CSA organization.

We also offer a kids' club called Rosie's Growers--Rosie being the chief dog here on our farm. It is open to all CSA kids, and they enjoy special events, Saturday garden days and regular visits to all our collaborative farms as well as receiving their own kid's sized share four times each season. With their share comes their own newsletter full of farm news, Rosie's take on things in general and fun food facts and recipes that they can try with their folks at home.

There is no cost for the families to join Rosie's Growers, but we feel that the children need to understand that food does not just materialize on their plates each meal, so we ask them to "earn their shares.” They "pay" for their shares by earning "Rosie Bucks" through participation in the club--attending garden days and events, drawing pictures for our packing room, sending us recipes and pictures of them in their kitchens or home gardens, etc. What a blast!

It is rural here; the largest town is about 7,000 people, so our CSA is a bit different from others. Our shareholders are all within about 40 miles from the door which, of course, makes the CSA demographics rural as well. This, in itself, presents a unique set of challenges, but we find that serving the populations within the communities in which we live is the best return we can possibly need.

Because we do not market outside our geographic region--this region being rural, and income reflecting this--our prices seem low compared to other CSAs. We have found that, although the share price is lower, it reflects a realistic image of the local economy and allows our communities access to our foods without running us out of business.

We need the educational and awareness tracks that all other CSAs need, but we find that it takes a different spin here in our rural area. And, to answer the three favorite questions we are constantly asked: yes, there are enough folks to support us; yes, they have enough money if we are also aware of our unique economic situation; and no, they all do not have gardens. We served 225 families last year. Ten percent were families with identifiable limited resources. This number is not acceptable to us and we are developing a better and more sustainable program for this and future years.

Our front burner short term goal is to develop a "Buying Club" which will be for the many families who have food needs which the CSA does not match--those who are out of town for portions of the season, those who want to supplement their gardens, elderly and others who cannot eat all the CSA box brings each week, or those whose palettes are not quite as adventurous. It will be a web-based ordering system whereby growers can upload products and members can order as they need products. We are hopeful that we can have this in place next season.

We love our CSA and all that it is becoming.

GROWN Locally--basically the same producer folks--is a legal cooperative which sells our products to area institutions--hospitals, nursing homes, restaurants, caterers, schools, colleges, etc. We have an operational website such as described above for food service folks to use for ordering and for information. We deliver twice weekly and offer as much product as we have at competitive wholesale pricing. The unique part of this is that we do not deliver outside our 4 county area and are hopeful that others see the benefits of this small, local cooperative and want to form one of their own. We are in the fifth season and have had success in deepening our local markets as well as finding many institutional sales sources which we had not originally identified.

We are putting the finishing touches on a licensed processing facility and, when complete, it will give us the opportunity to offer our local farm produce in lightly processed forms. By custom processing our products, it will make them much more accessible to food service buyers who are faced with limited staffing and equipment in their kitchens and cannot always utilize our products in their raw state. We will also be able to, in future seasons, expand into freezing if we find that there is need for this.