The big news on the farm this week is that we are starting a mini-CSA for the fall. Most farms with a CSA (community supported agriculture), enroll members in the winter before the growing season even begins. Members purchase a share of the harvest for the year upfront, and receive their portion of the harvest throughout the season. In this way, the shareholders help support the farm, especially by providing funds during a time of year when there are a lot of expenses on the farm (e.g., seed purchases, equipment upgrades and maintenance) but no income because there is nothing growing yet! At the same time, the farmer enters into a promise with the shareholders to provide the best of what the farm has to offer throughout the year. It is a fantastic way to build a relationship between a farmer and consumers and create a community that supports an individual farm and its farmer(s). As a shareholder, you are investing your money directly into a farm and farmer, and by doing so, you are supporting the farming practices that you want to occur on the land in your community, and subsequently the kind of food you want to eat. It is a great way to try out new vegetables and recipes, and to keep your kitchen stocked with the best produce throughout the growing season. As a farmer, growing for a CSA helps to streamline your yearly crop plan. You can plan out how many kale plants or heads of lettuce to grow to meet the needs of your CSA, and you can stagger out the crops so there’s always something new ripening each week. You can reduce the amount of time you expend on harvesting, transporting, and marketing your farm goods.
When I first moved home to Kentucky in January to start my farm, I really wanted to have a CSA. However, many seasoned and wise farmers advised me that doing a CSA in the first year is stressful. During your first year farming, you are learning about the soil on your farm, the growing conditions, the climate, the varieties of vegetables that perform well and those that don’t. You’re learning what people like to buy and eat from your farm. You’re learning which crops get hammered by pests and which thrive. All this “learning” is actually just you making mistakes and realizing what you need to do differently next year. The wise and all-knowing seasoned farmers cautioned me that it doesn’t feel good to look at your fields and realize that you don’t have enough vegetables to provide for your CSA members. Then you have to decide who gets a tiny or really awful looking head of lettuce and hope that particular CSA member doesn’t drop their share next year. So I heeded this advice and decided that the best option for selling vegetables during my freshman year of farming was to go to the farmers market. At the farmers market, I can take only the nicest vegetables from the farm and leave the ugly stuff behind to eat myself. It doesn’t matter if I have exactly 20 bunches of kale, I can bring as many bunches of kale I want! I can even come some weeks without kale if it looks horrible! This has been a fantastic way to get my feet wet this year. No matter what is happening on the farm, each week I bring the nicest, freshest vegetables and primp them up to look nice on my market table (If you’ve seen the multi-tiered burlap and wicker basket extravaganza that is our farmers market display, you know what I’m talking about). When you look at our stuff at the farmers market, you have no idea that we have a whole 150-ft bed of spinach that looks like crap back at the farm, because we don’t have to bring it to the market! You don’t get to see the 300 heads of radicchio that got eaten by deer, you only get to see the 7 nice heads of radicchio that survived. I have learned so much this year, and I am hopeful that my vegetables next year will be even better for all the mistakes I have made.
There is a drawback to selling at the farmers market, though, and I like to call it “The Bengals Effect.” To illustrate the “Bengals Effect,” let me just tell you a little story about two different Sundays at the farmers market in Cincinnati in September. On the first Sunday, the sun was out, it was dry, a few clouds in the sky. The high temperature was 79 degrees. Overall, it was the perfect kind of day to walk around and go to the farmers market. On this particular Sunday, the Bengals had a home game at 1PM, right during the farmers market. Now, if you don’t know much about the residents of Cincinnati, I will tell you that they love their Bengals. They love their Bengals just about as much as they love drinking beer and celebrating their German heritage. Well, it just so happens that Oktoberfest was also underway on this particular Sunday. So what was happening back at the farmers market? Even though it was a lovely day and our table was looking majestic, covered with colorful winter squash and beautiful leafy bunches of kale, and dozens of other fresh vegetables, no one was at the farmers market. We sold $342 worth of vegetables. The next Sunday, the weather was the same, sunny and beautiful, not too hot or humid. We had the same vegetables. We had the same set up. We sold $597 worth of vegetables. The Bengals had a bye that Sunday. Are you getting the idea here? Whatever the reason, a Bengals game, nice weather, crappy weather, a traffic jam, a big event in the city, it is very difficult to predict how many vegetables you will sell at any given market. No matter what, Chris and I go out and spend hours harvesting for the market and some days we come home from the market with armloads of vegetables, and others we come home with no vegetables and a nice wad of dollars in our pockets. On the bad days, you feel like you wasted a lot of time harvesting vegetables for the market that no one bought, and on the really good days, you kick yourself for not picking more!
With a CSA, a farmer knows that she has to provide enough vegetables for, let’s say, 20 families. Then she can go out in the field and pick 20 bunches of kale, 20 heads of lettuce, 20 bunches of turnips, 20 bunches of basil, and so on. She doesn’t waste any time picking too much or too little of any crop. She takes the vegetables directly to the customers and they pick it up, even if it is rainy or the Bengals have a game! There is very little waste when farmers and customers enter into a CSA together. It is a beautiful thing, and that’s why we have decided to do a little trial CSA this fall. I have been looking over my fields this fall, seeing the abundance there, and wondering if I’ll be able to get those vegetables into the hands of people hungry for wholesome, nutritious food, and whether that depends on the Bengals’ schedule. Therefore, I have decided that with vegetables a-plenty, and the growing season almost at a close, it is time to give the CSA model a whirl. Chris and I will be delivering our first set of CSA shares this Friday, and we will do another delivery on Friday, October 17. We already have in mind what we will be putting in the shares each week, we know that those crops are thriving out there in the field, and we are excited to hand those veggies off to our CSA members. We hope that it works so well that we’ll do the CSA for the full growing season next year. We aren’t giving up on the farmers market, though. Even though sales aren’t stable through the year at the farmers market, we love being there. We love meeting new customers, seeing our regular customers, sharing recipes with people, talking to other farmers, and eating lots of delicious baked treats while drinking sweet tea (me) and lattes (Chris). We love being present at the market, getting off the farm, and talking to people who love food as much as we do.