CSA NOTEBOOK: Mariquita Farm, Watsonville, CA

Reflections on the 2003 CSA season
Giving thanks for a season with no disasters, good partners, a great new staff member, and—overall—more sanity.

By Julia Wiley
Posted January 27, 2004

Editor’s Note

I met Andy Griffin and Julia Wiley 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.

On November 25, 2003, we sat down with family and friends around a table spread with food we grew and said thanks. We meant it.

Year seven was a good year for our farm and a strong validation of our Community Supported Agriculture program.

I’m making chai tea now, pondering the stacks of papers that plague my office, and pondering what movie I will choose if Andy and I can get a sitter for Thursday night. That’s pretty good considering that in past years the Monday after Thanksgiving has been spent fretfully poring over the books trying to decide how many weeks we had before our money ran out and the credit cards were exhausted.

One year we sent out a winter update letter on January 2, begging CSA members for checks. Barbara B. sent in a check for the full season’s vegetables—more than $600—that very day and we made payroll. I still thank her for that when she shows up at CSA events. This year it looks as if our second winter update letter will focus on how the spring production schedule is taking shape in the fields.

So what went right?

Partnership is perking

For one thing, our CSA partnership with High Ground Farm, which we call Two Small Farms, has started to fulfill its early promise. For the second year in a row, instead of having all the work of managing a CSA farm fall on two people—Andy and Julia—it falls on four people—Steve, Jeanne, Andy and Julia. Having two farms in different growing areas cooperate on production has evened out the ups and downs that are inevitable with farming. Having four mature, experienced people confronting problems instead of just two harried, over-worked people has meant we are all more able to make thoughtful decisions.

One good decision we made this year was to hire a full-time CSA coordinator, Katie Peck, to do lots of the customer contact which keeps little problems from growing into big ones. With Katie’s help, Jeanne and I can concentrate on bookkeeping and marketing, and we can pay more attention to our children. Now that we are clear-headed enough to focus on our lives, we are amazed we made it through the first six years of a CSA without a full-time coordinator or a nervous breakdown.

Having room to think allowed us to be creative and have more fun with our farm, too. Having farm events like a strawberry u-pick or a pumpkin patch has always been an important facet of our CSA program, but this year we broadened the concept with some positive results.

Yes, the most well-attended events were the strawberry u-picks, the farm 'kids day,' and the pumpkin patch, but this year we also had a fava bean 'u-pick-nic,' a u-dig potato day and several tomato days. What we found is that while there aren’t a lot of people who want to walk through a fava patch and pick beans, the folks who came loved it. An event like a fava bean open house is something people just are not going to find anywhere outside a CSA.

The people who came to the potato dig were likewise sent home very satisfied. Not only were they content with their totes of fresh potatoes, they were sore, dirty, and really happy they don’t have to dig them all the time. The tomato events were very popular, too, proving that if you grow heirloom Italian canning tomatoes and offer them at a reasonable price, the people will come.

All in all, in 2003 we did a better job reaching out to the community that supports our two farms and people were appreciative.

Virtual farm-experience enhanced

A big part of a CSA’s promise to the public is that a connection with the farm can be established that allows consumers to learn more about their food. In the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas, where we operate, our customers can be pretty far-flung and many folks have a hard time making it to our events. Then, too, not all people actually want to go to a farm. For our busier shareholder—or for those people who want to learn more without getting dirty—we improved our on-line communication. All our e-mail newsletters now go out with photo links, and we are stockpiling the images in an A-Z photo gallery. People who can’t tell what the vegetables are in their box can look them up on line.

Our daily count of web traffic tells us many people are checking in. We have even gotten reports that some folks are using images of our farm for their screensavers. Andy continues to write many essays for our newsletter because he is so prolix (that’s Latin for can’t shut up), but we’ve been varying the voice by having Jeanne and Steven and me write more too. People like hearing things from different points of view and each of the four of us can reach a different audience.

Our audience is going to have to get bigger and our reach extend further if year eight is to be better than year seven. Costs just never go down. Soon the four of us will be meeting to plan how to prepare for next year. I’ve got a few ideas about how we can make our CSA even more relevant and interesting to the people who support us.

Julia’s Swell Ideas for 2004

Neighborhood food events -- We did a pick up site-specific potluck in September at a home in San Jose and it was a wonderful event. I learned how to make real Israeli hummus from our host. The folks who pick up their veggie box at that site got to know each other better and learned they have more in common than just belonging to our CSA. I want to do more of these neighborhood events because they build community.

Invite students and Slow Foodies -- I hope to lead more farm field trips for elementary schools. We had a few visits in the spring but none in the fall. The kids enjoy being outside, and I think teaching children about farming is a great way to contribute to our community at large. We also opened up our CSA events this year to the local Slow Food convivia and that was a success. Big people like to get out, too, and it is important to interface with groups, like Slow Food, that share so many of our values.

Pizza Night -- Pizza Night was an idea we never pulled off this year but has promise for next year. A local pizzeria is willing to help us host an event in town. We bring a boatload of fresh organic vegetables to their wood-fired pizza oven and CSA members bring their appetites and questions for the farmers and chefs. This is the kind of event that might appeal to shareholders who never have time to visit the farm but value their connection to our CSA.

Yes, it was a good year. It helped that none of the four of us got pregnant, gave birth, were diagnosed with cancer, relocated, or nearly died in an auto wreck. These things have all happened to one or more of us in the last seven years, and we are all grateful for a relatively smooth season.