CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

Distribution – An important connection to your members
JUNE: Linda Halley describes the system of distributing share boxes each week that has worked well for them over the last 11 years . . . with some tweaking.

By Linda Halley, Harmony Valley Farm

 

A place for everything: A delivery arrives at one of the drop-off points--the garage of a member. Pick-up is self-serve and member "hosts" receive a discount on their shares for volunteering space and time.

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Farm-at-a-Glance

Harmony Valley Farm
Viroqua, Wisconsin

Location: About 90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south of La Crosse

Years farming: Since 1973

Total acres: 75 (approx. one acre per crop)

Crops: Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.

Season: Start harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.

Regenerative practices:
Extensive cover cropping
Annual applications of compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect predators
No-till vegetable production to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
Detailed record-keeping

Marketing: CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories

 

 

 

 

 

"It became apparent early on that our packing system of identical boxes had huge benefits in efficiency, but created some frustration on the part of members. The innocent herb, cilantro, became the first focus of frustration. It tends to inspire passion, both positive and negative."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Editor's NOTE

Visit Richard DeWilde and Linda Halley's first CSA Notebook installment: Two veteran CSA farmers share their insights

OR

Check out their website at www.harmonyvalleyfarm.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

" If boxes remain unclaimed, they get delivered to a food pantry, distributed to interested or needy neighbors or taken to church the next day, depending on the coordinator’s situation. "

 

June 23, 2003: Here at Harmony Valley we take delivery of our share boxes very seriously. We know that the delivery point (or pick up point) is the last moment our produce is in our hands. We want to make sure that everything up to and including that point is done well to maximize the quality of the produce and the quality of the CSA experience for the members.

Choosing a distribution system

Eleven years ago, when we were just venturing into CSA with our first 35 members we held a pre-season meeting and invited their input. Would they like a “farmers’ market” style delivery, or an “already packed” set up? After describing how both would work there was strong preference for everyone receiving an identical, pre-packed box. It seemed fair and satisfied the urge for “quick and easy.”

Without any previous experience to draw from (neither members nor farmers knew anyone personally who had participated in CSA before) the market style, pack-it-yourself option seemed fraught with uncertainty. What if the carrots were gone when the last members arrived? What if there were lots of leftovers at the end? Simple, straight forward, packaged shares held appeal for farmer and shareholder alike.

Beyond that, we decided to pack into standard waxed produce boxes instead of quaint baskets or environmentally friendly canvas bags. We looked to the future, daring to imagine more members, and realized stacking was going to be essential. We already had a source for such boxes and maintained several different sizes in inventory all season long for our wholesale sales.

We also resisted the urge, right up front, to name or code each box to a specific member, or to tailor each box with personal preferences. Once again, we were imagining how this whole new program would work if we grew beyond our handful of pioneer members.

Revelations

It became apparent early on that our packing system of identical boxes had huge benefits in efficiency, but created some frustration on the part of members. The innocent herb, cilantro, became the first focus of frustration. It tends to inspire passion, both positive and negative. A member told us she didn’t even want the evil smelling bunch in her kitchen.

Perception is everything: Letting members drop items they didn't want into a "swap box" made them feel like they were paying for more than they were getting. Removing those oft-swapped items from the regular line-up and setting them up in a "Choice Box" for members to pick from for free made everyone feel like they were getting something extra.

We set to devising a creative solution that would allow a member to remove the offender from their box without wasting it; hence, the birth of the “swap box.” I don’t doubt that many other CSA farmers have thought this system up out of necessity. At Harmony Valley, a member who doesn’t want an item contributes it to the swap box. Other members may help themselves to anything that has been left behind in the box.

The “swap box” led us to another revelation. Consistently, herbs, bunched greens and some less common vegetables were contributed more often than anything else. To find out if it was a problem, or if the swap box was meeting the intended need, we asked the experts, our members.

We discovered that some members perceived a contribution to the swap box as paying for something they didn't want. I suppose, if they took out as much as they put in, it would have been different, but contributors to the swap box tended to be less flexible about what they ate and less adventuresome, liking mostly common vegetables that rarely found their way into the swap box.

We began to deliver the most frequently swapped types of items on the side to be added to the share box if the member so choose. We christened it “The Choice Box.” Generally it contains enough of a single item (like cilantro) for about 2/3 of the members at a delivery site to take some. Now the perception was one of getting something extra, rather than giving something away.

Ten years later

After more than a decade of experience, our delivery system of pre-packed, returnable waxed boxes and choice and swap boxes on the side, has remained very much the same. Small but important improvements, of course, helped tweak the system. They include:

  • Consistent layout of delivery site each week
  • Lots of clear signage
  • A table for distribution of newsletters
  • A notebook for communication between members, farmers and site hosts

These improvements are necessary because the site is mostly self-service. We deliver most of our 440 vegetable boxes to 12 sites on Saturday mornings in a city 2 ½ hours from our farm. To make that happen we have to be efficient and organized.

Richard or I run our route with the help of two CSA member volunteers each week. We drop off the boxes, set up signs and supplies, pick up the flattened, returned empties left from the week before, and move on. Then members have several hours in which to drop by and pick up their share.

Quick and easy pick-up: Members volunteer to "host" the drop-off/pick-up site, but don't need to "tend" the place. Linda and Richard set up a self-serve station so pick up is a breeze for all involved.

We find that a clean garage provided by a CSA member family is an ideal site. The first week or two of the season, the site host, or coordinator, meets and greets the members, passes out a letter of welcome containing any special rules that may apply to their site, and runs new members through the pick up process. After that they do not have to “tend” the site during pick up hours.

At 5 p.m. they close down the door and, if there are unclaimed boxes, make reminder calls to members who may have forgotten. They refer to a check off list to determine which members haven’t yet picked up. If boxes remain unclaimed, they get delivered to a food pantry, distributed to interested or needy neighbors or taken to church the next day, depending on the coordinator’s situation.

Finally, sometime during the weekend they e-mail us a report about the delivery results. We especially like to know if the choice box seemed adequate or excessive, and about problems that may have come up. In return for all their help and the use of their garage weekly, we reduce the cost of their weekly CSA share by $10 per box picked up at their site, or up to half a weekly share value.

As a precaution against mistakes, we leave a couple extra CSA boxes in town at different site locations for the first few weeks. All the site coordinators know where the boxes have been left and are prepared to direct a member to them if a shortage occurs at their site.

Our feeling is that we need to do whatever we can to assure that a member who deserves a share receives a share, no matter the cause, be it our mistake or a mistake caused by another member. Once we are back at the farm, 100 miles away, it is impractical to get produce back to town to correct a problem.

Pros and Cons

Our method of delivery would not be practical or desirable for all farms or situations, but it has worked incredibly well for us over quite a period of time. The best parts are:

  • Efficiency of delivery: A 4-1/2 to 5 hour route, with 400 boxes, covers the whole city of Madison and an outlying community. Drive time to the city and back adds another 5-1/2 hours though.
  • Maintenance of quality of the produce: Delivered cold, and enclosed in the wax produce box in the shade, the contents remain cool for hours.
  • Ease of accuracy in quantity delivered: All of the above allow us to be reliable, timely, consistently high-quality.

Shortcomings in this system:

  • Lack of member to farmer contact: However, we really have a great opportunity for contact and interaction with the member volunteers who help us deliver--two different members each week means we see about 60 members per season.
  • Limited individualization of the share: Variety is fairly adequately addressed with the choice box. We haven’t solved the problem of some members feeling like they got too much and some feeling like it wasn’t quite enough. In recognition that some households are small and not everyone can find a satisfactory household to share with, we offer an every-other-week option. It has been well received and hasn’t caused us to pull out our hair making the logistics work.

What ever distribution system you settle on for your farm, be sure that it best helps you meet your goals and speaks to your philosophy.