NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Essex Farm, Essex NY

The greatest job on earth
Between balancing the books, juggling spring chores, and making sure paying customers are satisfied, these year ‘round CSA farmers find themselves running a three (at least)-ring circus.

By Kristin Kimball
Posted May 12, 2005

Farm-At-A-Glance

Essex Farm
Essex, NY

Farmers: Kristin and Mark Kimball

First season: 2003

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, dairy, beef, pork, eggs, chicken, dairy, wheat, rye, oats, corn, oilseed sunflowers, maple syrup, cherries, apples, plums, pears.

Location: On Lake Champlain, a little south of Burlington VT.

Marketing strategies: Year-round CSA for 25 families.

April, 2005. The ratio of things that must be done to things that can be done is growing increasingly lopsided. That--more than the shedding animals, budding lilacs or greening fields--is how we know it's spring. Today, we rushed to get distribution set up so we could hitch the horses so we could spread compost so we could harrow it in so we could mark rows so we could plant the onions before the rains start tomorrow. The forecast calls for wet weather into the foreseeable future. If we miss this window of dry opportunity and the rain overtakes us, we won't be able to get into the fields, and the onions may be late and small and difficult to store, and we will be kicking ourselves come December, sitting on a ton of mushy inedible onions.

There are about ten projects on the do-list that are just as time-sensitive right now, and just as important, and the weight of them on our minds keeps us working these days from five in the morning until ten at night. In ten years (if you're a pessimist) or two years (if you're an optimist), I know it won't be like this. We'll have an established rhythm, and all the machines will be in good repair, and we will have acquired all the tools we need to work efficiently, and perhaps have another hand, and we will certainly have a deeper understanding of this land and climate. For now, spring is an extreme sport and sleep a precious commodity.

Last week, before the fields dried, we spent some hours bent over numbers, working on our taxes. As we suspected, our 2004 bottom line wasn't horrible, at least for a first-year startup. We didn't end the year with any cash in hand, but neither did we want for anything serious, and we acquired roughly $15,000 worth of livestock and tools (and did not have to go into debt). I hope we also began to build some goodwill in the community, where we are newcomers.

As far as we can foresee, the financial year ahead looks similar to last, with a whole lot of unknowns. Will we need to buy in hay? Grain? Straw? How much, and at what price? Thanks to the beauty of the CSA model, at least the income side of the equation is pretty much known. We sold out the 23 shares we offered for 2005, and we have a short waiting list should we decide we can handle any more. Our shares (year round, per person, unlimited) cost $2,400, with a 10-percent discount for each additional member of a household. Roughly, we figure half of the $2,400 covers actual expenses of production, and what's left covers labor. Theoretically, we should be working with a budget of something close to $55,000, expecting to net about $27,500 between us for the year. But theory and reality are a little different. We offer two no-cost shares to the landowner, out of gratitude for the no-cost lease he gives us on the farm. We also offer a sliding scale to low income members. So this year, our actual operating budget is about $45,000. If each membership costs us $1200, we should expect to net $17,500, though the expense figure is so rough and unpredictable at this point, the projection is almost meaningless. If we get anywhere close to that figure, I think we'll be throwing high-fives.

Both the per-person share system and the sliding scale have been touchy subjects around here lately. Some households of more than one person purchased shares for each of their members, while others purchased one share to split among the members of their household, and are on the honor system to take only the amount of food each week that one person would reasonably eat in a week. The sliding scale is also based on the honor system. We ask self-identified low income members what they can afford, and take them at their word, even if it means we lose money. We decided to do this because it's important to us to have an economically diverse membership.

While we're comfortable with how these systems are working, there have been some understandable rumblings from one of our full paying multi-share members. He is forking out a lot of money each quarter for his shares and feels he might be getting a raw deal if others are paying less than he is. I worry that other full-paying members might feel the same way, without voicing their misgivings. Also, it's a lean time of year on the farm, with last year's stored roots gone a little soft around the edges, and this year's greens still a few weeks away. Mark, with ten years of CSA under his belt, is pretty much immune to shifts in member morale, but I get freaked out at the thought of any unrest. This is the stress that propels me out of bed, before the spring sun has cleared the horizon, to stare at the plants (who are taking their own sweet time a-growin').

In other news, we have our eye on a massive Scottish Highland bull for sale in Vermont. He's called Rupert, and he's majestic, in a testosterone-loaded, muscle flexing, dim-witted kind of way. He's a proven bull, father of a good looking herd of cattle. Until now, we've bought in or bred a mixed-beef herd--mostly Highlands, but some Highland/Charolois crosses, some Herefords, and some real “farm specials” with untraceable breeding. But this spring we decided to go with full-blooded Highlands from now on. The 2-year-old Highland steer we butchered last month was well-muscled and had a nice healthy layer of fat on him, even at the end of a long winter on hay alone. After we start making all our hay with the horses and stacking it in the field, we will winter the beef herd outside, where they'll need that heavy Highland coat and their famous hardiness to thrive in our cold climate. So we need a well-bred Highland herd sire, the sooner the better, and the question is, how much can we spend? We'll have to bend our heads to the numbers again, and try to tease something specific out of the great tangle of knowns and unknowables. If we can only make some time to do it.