TALKING SHOP: Biodynamic Farming Conference, Nov. 14 to 16, Ames IA
Angelic Organics manages the economics
of a 1,000-member CSA
The owners of the Illinois-based CSA shared their mission statement, organizational chart and business plans with attendees at the recent Biodynamic Farming Conference in Ames, Iowa

By Darcy Maulsby

Editor's NOTE:

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association held their 2003 conference November 14 to 16 in Ames, Iowa and focused on “Place-Based Agriculture: The Economics, Ecology and Community Ethics Behind Self-Sufficient Farms.”

The Association invited staff from Angelic Organics in Illinois to discuss the economics and ecology behind the 1,000-member CSA, an excellent example of a self-sufficient, biodynamic farm operation with a unique economic outlook.

For more about Angelic Organics, visit their website www.angelicorganics.com. Or, contact the farm at 815-389-2746, e-mail CSA@AngelicOrganics.com.

More on Biodynamics

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association was formed in the United States in 1938 and continues to offer conferences, workshops, seminars and research for farmers and gardeners.

Biodynamics is a method of agriculture that seeks to actively work with the health-giving forces of nature. It developed from a series of lectures given by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

Biodynamics is the oldest non-chemical agricultural movement, predating the organic agriculture movement by nearly 20 years.

Visit www.biodynamics.com for more on the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association and on biodynamic farming in general.

Coming soon from the Biodynamic Farming Conference


Part 2
In a dynamic, insightful & well-received keynote address, Leopold Center director Fred Kirschennmann talkes about what it will take to keep America's mid-sized farms alive and healthy.

Part 3
Highlights one of the conference workshops: Tips for managing weeds on a diversified farm.

 

 

December 3, 2003: A limited liability company, a mission statement and an organizational chart might sound like they belong more in a corporate boardroom than a biodynamic farm. But for the Illinois-based Angelic Organics CSA, they have become keys to success.

“The book ‘The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It’ by Michael Gerber influenced our business decisions,” said Bob Bower, general manager at Angelic Organics. “It shows you need to identify what you are about, identify what your business is about, and find out how to make the business support what you are about.”

So what is Angelic Organics about? It’s a 100-acre biodynamic CSA vegetable and herb farm located in north-central Illinois near Caledonia, less than two hours from downtown Chicago. The farm switched from conventional to organic production in 1990 and has operated as a biodynamic farm and CSA since 1993.

The CSA’s 1,000 participants, known as shareholders, receive a weekly 3/4 bushel box of fresh vegetables and herbs. The boxes are delivered to more than 20 Chicago-area sites. Shares last for 12 to 20 weeks, from mid-June or mid-August to late October. The farm specializes in root crops, herbs, onion crops, leaf crops, fruiting crops like sweet corn, peppers and tomatoes, and cole crops like broccoli and cauliflower.

Shareholders buy rural land

Angelic Organics grew out of the farm crisis of the 1980s. John Peterson, the CSA’s founder, had farmed conventionally for years. When financial calamity hit in the early 1980s, the farm was nearly wiped out. But Peterson hung on to a few acres—enough to move in a new direction and build Angelic Organics.

By 1998, Angelic Organics was charting new territory again. “Twenty Chicagoans combined over $180,000 to acquire 38 acres of farm land adjacent to our farm,” Bower said. “The investors granted Angelic Organics a 15-year lease on the land, with the assurance that the farming operation will manage the land according to prevailing organic standards.”

These shareholders wanted to provide the farm with land security and keep the parcel from being developed. A limited liability company was formed to hold the land, Bower said. But completing the deal posed a major legal challenge.

“The legal documentation that went out to each investor was about 85 pages,” Bower said. “We did everything we could to keep the documentation friendly and CSA-like, but every attorney we consulted said we had to comply with the regulations that governed these transactions, or Angelic Organics would be vulnerable to lawsuits and breaches of securities law.”

For other CSAs that may want to try something similar, Bower stresses the importance of getting good legal advice first. “People are welcome to examine our documents about the deal, and hopefully we can make the process easier for you. But there are legal protocols that must be followed, and the right attorney can tell you what they are.”

Crafting a mission statement

With nearly 100 acres and 1,000 shareholders, Angelic Organics is large compared to most CSAs. The business employs 25 or more full-time workers during the summer, and four to five employees work at the farm year round.

Bower admits that managing the business would be tough without guiding principles like the mission statement, the organizational chart, and the Angelic Organics farm manual, which documents all these processes.

“A lot of these concepts came from reading ‘The E-Myth Revisited,’” said Bower, who worked as a certified public accountant and computer specialist for nine years before joining Angelic Organics. “This book has become required reading for all our interns. We emphasize that to be sustainable, you have to work economically.”

This is reflected in the CSA’s mission statement, which reads:

Angelic Organics is dedicated to creating and forwarding an economically viable, organic, biodynamic farm which nurtures its soil, plants, animals, and community of workers and enlivens the connection between people and the source of their food. We are committed to providing the freshest, most vibrant food possible to our customers.


Assigning responsibilities

To accomplish its mission, Angelic Organics follows an organizational chart that places John Peterson, the head farmer, at the top.

“We had struggled with who was responsible for what before we started assigning specific responsibilities,” Bower said. “This chart has made our lives much more manageable.”

John Peterson handles biodynamics, soil fertility and special projects. Bower, the general manager, handles the financials, human resources and computer information services.

Then the organization chart lists three realms, including human, plant and mineral. Bower handles much of the human realm, which includes customer service, marketing, distribution, and general services. Other managers handle the plant realm, which includes growing, harvesting, and landscaping, and the mineral realm, which includes machinery and buildings.

Along with the organizational chart, Angelic Organics also spells out its guiding principles regarding its managers and employees:

Providing employees with opportunities for growth, a balanced life, and adequate financial compensation.

Providing managers with a balanced work life that allows for creativity and reflection.

Providing an orderly succession of management.

Conducting business in a financially responsible manner.

Monitoring performance against standards.

Conducting all work in a timely manner.

Conducting all work as efficiently as possible.

“We want to take care of our workers,” Bower said. “We don’t want people to burn out or feel exploited. We’ve got a lot of workers who come back year after year. That says a lot about our system. It also means we don’t have to spend as much time training people.”

In 2004, Angelic Organics plans to change the workday schedule to benefit employees. “We want to get all the work done from sunrise to about 1 p.m., so managers have the afternoon to plan for the next day,” Bower said. “People need this space.”

Reaching out to the community

All this structure and planning helps Angelic Organics meet its goal of connecting people with the source of their food. Angelic Organics spells out this focus in its guiding principles:

• Providing our customers with the highest quality products and best service possible.
• Building community among our members.
• Sharing our knowledge and resources with the larger community.

With each delivery of vegetables and herbs, Angelic Organics’ shareholders receive a weekly newsletter. The articles educate them about the produce and keep them informed about what’s going on at the farm.

“The newsletters also offer cooking tips and recipes make it easier for our shareholders to get to know and like new foods,” said Bower, who reports that the CSA has already sold two-thirds of its shares for 2004. “Newsletters are a very important tool CSAs can use to take care of their members.”

Angelic Organics also invite its shareholders out to the farm several times each season. Guests can visit the vegetable plots and visit with the farm’s employees. They can also stop by the Learning Center.

“We couldn’t accommodate all the groups that wanted to tour the farm,” Bower said. “The Learning Center is not-for-profit spin-off of the farm that we created to handle the public’s interest in biodynamics and organic agriculture.”

Through the Learning Center, Angelic Organics staff members work with school children, Heifer Project International (www.heifer.org), and other groups to connect consumers with agriculture.

What happens if CSA customers aren’t happy with their experience with Angelic Organics? “We’ve created a business model that lets us work with our customers if they are dissatisfied,” Bower said. “If people join and find out the CSA isn’t right for them, we’ll refund their money. We usually find someone else to buy their shares.”

Customer dissatisfaction is not a big problem for Angelic Organics, though. “About 5 to 10 percent of our shareholders purchase multi-year memberships in the CSA,” Bower said. “This helps us build our infrastructure, since we can finance long-term projects like putting a new roof on the barn. We’ve found that people like to be able to help them farm succeed.”