TALKING SHOP: NOFA–NY Conference, January 30, 2004
Thomas Harttung’s humongous CSA: Growing by 10,000 households per year
How a forester’s inspiration, venture capital, a chef, savvy marketing, open bookkeeping, and a radical agenda combined to create—oddly enough— economic success.

By Steve Gilman

Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Inc. (NOFA-NY)

Purpose: NOFA-NY is a membership organization made up of more than 1,100 farmers, gardeners, businesses and individuals in New York State. They work together to create a sustainable regional food system by promoting land stewardship, organic farming and local marketing.

Programs: NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC provides USDA-accredited certification services to organic farmers and food-processors; the NOFA-NY website lists hundreds of organic farms and their farm products; to educate and encourage its members, it organizes regional workshops, farm tours and an annual conference; its newsletter helps members and others to connect food and farms. NOFA-NY offers the “Farmer's Pledge” document and protocol to assist farmers who wish to communicate details of their sustainable organic farming practices to their customers.

Contact Information:
NOFA-NY, Inc.
P.O. Box 880
Cobleskill, NY 12043
(518)734-5495
Certification: certifiedorganic@nofany.org
(607) 724-9851
On the web at: nofany.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Unlike most conventional business practices where transactions are kept as hidden from view as possible, all the books are completely open and posted in the public domain. Prices paid to participating farmers are listed along with customer income data."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reasonable ideas, radical application

Aastiderne went through many internal changes as an agent of social and economic change. It remains open to further development.

The expanding network of new producers and customers helped to evolve everything from the core partnership and shareholding structure to the way the organization organizes itself. Those active in the process adopted a philosophy of leadership rather than hierarchical management.

Throughout, however, Aarstiderne has been grounded on seven purposeful principles, the “household words” that govern all its endeavors: empathy, quality, creativity, conversation, growth, transparency and ecology.

The group also holds a major aversion to using the “C” word, for “consumer”. They consider it a derogatory term because it separates and segments people from their food supply, turning them into passive end users. “Citizen” is used as the word for the non-producers at every opportunity and is considered the group’s 8th principle.

Deeply embedded in the organization’s thinking is the desire to provide as many food goods as possible to keep members from having to go over to the “enemy” – the supermarkets and other outlets of the conventional food system. Milk is the only food product they don’t carry because there’s already a smoothly functioning milk cooperative in Denmark that serves a large customer base.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. farmers in touch with the global organic scene know that European farmers and consumers are way ahead of the U.S. when it comes to ground-breaking food-system alternatives.

Keynote speaker Thomas Harttung of Denmark artfully showed just how far European models have developed in an hour-long, mind-boggling presentation to the crowd at the 2004 NOFA-NY conference. This 22nd conference for the group was held at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Liverpool NY.

For comparing the U.S. “out-of-the-box” ag effort, start with scale. The largest CSA in this country is in the neighborhood of 2,500 subscribers. Harttung described how he oversees service to 44,000 households who receive a bi-weekly box of fresh organic veggies, eggs, meat, fish, bread, cheese, fruit and just about everything else (except milk) delivered right to their door.

Starting in 1999 with 2,000 households, this Aarstiderne project has been growing at an astounding rate of 10,000 new subscribers a year.

"The focus was on a positive food future, so there was no effort to make people feel guilty about unsustainable food choices."
Describing his personal voyage, Harttung cites his “profound encounter” with the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) paradigm during a farmer group visit to California in the early 1990s. Coming from a sustainable forestry background, he took over his parents’ farm in coastal Denmark in the 1980s and was ripe for the alternative concept. His farm’s alternative effort began in 1996 with the help of a government grant. His goal was to grow for 250 households.

The CSA structure only lasted 2 years before “things got out of hand” and Aarstiderne was born. It was based on one key idea: reconnecting urban households and farms utilizing a box scheme patterned on the British model, where members receive a box full of fresh vegetables along with numerous other farm products from a consortium of organic farms on a weekly basis. The concept clicked and the project has experienced phenomenal growth ever since.

A predominantly urban clientele prepays for a year’s share. In the 2003 season Aarstiderne moved 25,000 boxes each week to half the customer base on an alternating, two-week schedule. Initially, the group used numerous central drop-off points but has found it more effective to deliver right to each customer’s door.

Trading fairly from plow to plate

Establishing their more ambitious version of a box scheme project required some fresh thinking. The planners set out from the beginning to create a fair and equitable trade model based on cooperation rather than competition. The overall concern is managing the planet in a sustainable way through organic agriculture.

Harttung said he relished the opportunity to be a farmer, a foodie, a philosopher and a revolutionary all in one and was thankful to find kindred spirits who shared the vision – and the ability to realize it.

Along with its bold founding principles (see sidebar “Reasonable ideas, radical application”), Harttung credits transparency bookkeeping for a large part of the organization’s success. He refers to these open-for-all-to-see practices as the “Organic Full Monty.”

Unlike most conventional business practices where transactions are kept as hidden from view as possible, all the books are completely open and posted in the public domain. Prices paid to participating farmers are listed along with customer income data. Pricing is based on the actual cost of production along with a fair profit and some resources going toward investment and human development on the farm. Selected farmers receive premiums for high quality, special varieties and exceptional environmental conservation efforts.

The underlying intent is decidedly revolutionary. The planners regard the company as a living organism – a self-organizing ecosystem that is open to total scrutiny. A goal is to nurture the cooperative spirit within company relationships to unleash the creative energy of all involved. The group seeks to set a new standard in the overall food business: to promote closer links between farm and kitchen, and to move the food industry toward more open, ethical trade practices.

To accomplish this within the Danish food system, those leading Aarstiderne first had to develop trust on all levels within the group. This meant resolving internal conflicts before going public. Harttung says you have to live values to communicate them.

Department of Conversation

The principles of empathy, creativity and growth were exercised at various points as the organization faced issues in its rapid ascent. Thomas says they have managed to achieve a true sense of community in the process.

One example is how customer service was transformed by applying the principle of conversation. Early on, the group’s staff couldn’t handle all the incoming phone calls from members with questions and requests to get more involved. The initial reaction was to establish a major presence on the internet as a defensive move. Then the benefits of potentially expanding rather than reducing customer contact sunk in.

"Harttung credits transparency bookkeeping for a large part of the organization’s success. He refers to these open-for-all-to-see practices as the “Organic Full Monty."
Realizing that many companies pay considerable money to gather feedback from their user groups, Aarstiderne created a Conversations Department, staffed with employees who love to relate to others. It now handles some 6,500 phone calls and more than 10,000 emails per month. Since word-of-mouth is the primary recruiting tool, this personalized outreach component has proved invaluable for numerical growth and course-corrections.

Also at the heart of the project is a strong educational component with a demonstration farm at its core. Here members can walk through the beautiful grounds and see all the crops they will receive in their boxes growing in garden patches. School children come 3 days to a week to experience lessons in permaculture and natural ecosystems.

The demonstration farm’s gardeners test vegetable varieties under Danish conditions. They partner with Seeds of Change in the U.S. to develop heirloom varieties and expand their offerings.

Taking it to the capitalists – and to streets

Harttung said that having the right creative partners was instrumental to the company’s success. Finding the right financial backers took some doing, however, as the local banks were quickly scared off by the radical aspects of the project. The organizers found a Dutch venture capital fund willing to cooperate which now holds a 20 percent stake in the company. In the process they created a model for ethical equity financing that has been helpful to other alternative groups, including a new sustainable forest products organization.

A prominent Danish chef was a key player from the beginning. He stayed in touch with what the involved citizens wanted to eat, balancing the group’s food-selection decisions with farmer input. He also initiated a concerted effort to connect with urban audiences to make the process work with their busy lifestyles.

While on-farm visits were important early on, the group discovered it was more effective to go where the people were -- in the streets. The group set up temporary street kitchens/restaurants outdoors under tents for 4 or 5 days in a row in different locales. They cooked great meals and gave them away to passersby.

The idea was to meet potential customers on a personal level, give them a positive fresh-food experience, and demonstrate the high quality of the organic food offerings. The events generated considerable enthusiasm, leading to an explosive growth in new members.

The organization also developed a contemporary tone in their advertising. They felt an old-fashioned, down-on-the-farm approach was condescending. The focus was on a positive food future, so there was no effort to make people feel guilty about unsustainable food choices. The promotions featured a vision of high-quality food in sync with nature, communicating a mindfulness that seeks to provide the highest quality possible with the greatest ecological good.

Something’s not rotten in Denmark

Could something like this happen in the U.S, the home of hefty government props for conventional agribusiness-as-usual?

Attending the NOFA-NY conference all the way from Alabama, Jerry Spencer thinks so. As founder of “Grow Alabama” www.growalabama.com he’s already begun organizing farmers in the state to produce for a state-wide, farmer-to-consumer cooperative based on a blended CSA/box scheme model. (As of press time, Spencer said about 25 farms (veggies to dairy to meat) had committed for the 2004 season, along with 300 customers. He’s eying 1,000 customers by Sept. 1.)

Public support is stronger in Denmark, to be sure. The country has the highest per capita spending on organic produce in Europe in 2000 – some 5 percent (more than double rate in the UK). Denmark also levies a 25 percent value-added tax on food, with proceeds going directly to support Danish agriculture, organic farmers included.

In this respect, Aastiderne has managed to marshal its considerable and highly committed customer base into a potent political force. Its model of a flexible, living organization committed to cooperative and ecological principles has created new opportunities for farmers and new food connections for citizens. The organization joins them in shaping the economics and politics of a new food system that breaks lots of new ground.

http://www.aarstiderne.com/ (English and Swedish versions of the site available)


Steve Gilman is a long-time organic farmer/writer, currently waiting for the April snows to melt in Saratoga, New York.