CSA NOTEBOOK: Mariquita Farm, Watsonville, CA
How do you define YOUR CSA?

CSA is such a loose concept that you can make yours whatever you want it to be, as long as there's a community to support the concept. Try to characterize what you're about in 5 short phrases. It will be the beginning of a press release about your farm.

By Julia Wiley

Artichoke harvest: Mariquita CSA offers 5 different varieties of artichoke, which they start harvesting in May. Pictured here: Purple Sicilian. >








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




CSA Resource List:

Thinking about starting a CSA? Check out our recommended resources for insight and straight talk on cultivating, managing and marketing with a community approach.



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


Interested in checking out Mariquita Farm's online newsletter?
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Posted May 12, 2003: State and federal governments have not yet jumped in to regulate, license, certify, or otherwise gum up CSAs, so those of us who practice community supported agriculture still have lots of liberty to define for ourselves what community, support, or agriculture can mean.

To a potential CSA customer who may be used to the generic uniformity offered up by the big box retail world, such an elastic concept as CSA may seem disturbing ... or liberating. To any of you thinking about starting up a CSA--either as a farmer or as a community activist--defining a workable program starts with understanding the community you are hoping to serve.

The support, financial or otherwise, that the target community can provide will be a function of their expectations, their imaginations, and their pocket books. In the end, the supporting community will not measure the harvest solely in units of pounds, bunches, bushels, or bales but also in terms of how well their values were cultivated.

Describe your CSA ... in 10 words or less

It would be an interesting exercise to ask CSA farmers to describe their CSAs in five phrases or less. Comparing these little pseudo-haiku-like thought fragments one to another might tell a bigger story about farms and society and the possibilities that lie latent. The briefest synopsis of a CSA approach can suggest wider avenues for promotion and growth.

I’d say of our Two Small Farms CSA program that we’re “organic, educational, seasonal, fresh bounty, and service-oriented.” (Then again, I’m only 1/2 of the two small farms in this CSA. I wonder what my other three partners would say?) Just for fun let me shoot off some quickie impressions of a few of the other CSAs in our area.

May at Mariquita

In the field (from Andy):

In May we are transplanting out peppers, eggplant, basil (abaove), charantais melons, cucumbers.
We will stake tomatoes and cherry tomatoes. We are direct sowing summer squash, arugula, radishes, carrots, green onions, and broccoli.
We are erecting an acre of movable hoop houses to cover our mid-June late pepper planting.
We will be sowing our third planting of tomatoes, our third batch of melons and our second planting of peppers in a neighbor's hot house for transplant later.
We are harvesting artichokes, favas, spring garlic, arugula, herbs, lambs quarters, nettles, radishes, and broccoli di cicco.
Fertilizing is over for the moment but we used Cal Organic 12-0-0 and Cal Organic 8-5-1 as preplant. We will folier feed some crops with phytomin 800. Also, summer cover crops will be sown as soon as winter broccoli is turned under.
We are hilling potatoes, hand weeding onions and roguing a seed crop of orach.

With customers ( from Julia):

Check email twice a day 6 days a week
Try to get a few more CSA members on our under-populated route
Host the fava bean u-pick and Kids Day at the farm (two different days)
Host 4 different field trips in Spanish with our local Spanish immersion school
Host the farm/chef dinner on Memorial Day
Attend the farmers' market and convince shoppers stinging nettles are good to buy! (pictured above)
Order hats and bags with our logo
Write a column about learning Spanish in the field
PLUS, us all the regular stuff I do every day with Quickbooks, newsletters, etc.

There’s a CSA farm neighbor that might be poeticized as “fruity, biodynamic, connection to farmer, waldorfy moms, and fresh bounty." (Don’t sue. We love you.) Another CSA farm in our area could be called a "city limits, non-profit, educational, university demonstration project." I’ve heard of CSAs that are quite literally meat and potatoes and others that dance around the fire pit to honor the solstice. The options are almost endless.

A perspective from the other side of America was illuminating. My friend Judy moved to New York state last summer after living in the greater bay area of northern California for over 12 years. She and her husband started looking for a CSA program to join the day they arrived in their new home. They found one at localharvest.org. Here were their two options:

1. Join as members and drive forty plus minutes to pick up their box at an already established pick up site.


2. Start a pick up site at their house, which is located on the campus of a Lutheran church.

Great! they thought, since they had had a pick up site at their church back in California. The farmer then made it clear that what he does is grow the stuff, and that’s it. The pick up site host has to get the members, keep the data base, take the money, distribute the produce after the farmer delivers the various crates.

It would take at least eight to ten hours a week of their time as volunteers to start a new pick up site. Andy and I were amazed. Here in our part of California such a concept could never fly. People have far too many produce choices here and far too little time for us to depend on that much shareholder involvement.

Don't think of
other CSAs as
"the competition"

There are already a fair number of CSA programs in our area compared to some parts of the nation, yet we don’t feel like we’re in a competitive environment. First of all only the tiniest percentage of the millions of people here in the San Francisco bay area belong to, or have even heard of, a CSA. Secondly, each CSA program seems to be working at attracting different communities, defined by geography or expectations.

Because there is a little knot of CSA farms close by us we’ve occasionally gotten together and informally discussed what we do. These other farmers are our true peer group, in one sense, and it’s fun to get to know them. It’s also good business to exchange information and strategies. Precisely because CSAs are undefined, we have an obligation to ourselves as a tiny community to help out our fellow competitors.

The middle path between the needs of a grower and the desires of the community supporting them can be a difficult conundrum to solve to everyone’s satisfaction. When a farm makes a stab at the concept but misses and, say, delivers to its community little more than a bill, some grubby beets, and hot air, all the rest of the struggling CSAs get their reputation tarnished by virtue of a small, undefined acronym. Most CSA farms presently are so small that word of mouth, besides being the best advertisement available, is often practically the only advertisement that’s affordable.

Whether you are already a CSA farmer, or thinking of becoming one, or a CSA member, try encapsulating the values you hold in a few words. Now you have the beginning of a press release. We’ll talk about that and other promotional ideas in our next column.