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We’ve stated before that in order for natural farms to feed the world, we need a lot more of them. And in order for those farms to appear, legions of young people need to trade in their cubicles for pastures. Lots of people have been inspired in recent years to give serious thought to becoming farmers and fixing the big pile of broken in the nation’s food supply.

This article is my personal plea to those who are thinking about farming but are waiting for something. If you’re waiting for the right time, the right epiphany, the right financial situation, the right attitude from loved ones, the right business plan… take this advice from someone that’s made the plunge: DO NOT WAIT. Here are the reasons why:

1. You don’t need that much money to start farming

When people think about starting a farm, many envision a laundry list of expensive big-ticket items needed to get started. Land, bank barns, silos, combines, tractors, hay balers, diesel trucks, gooseneck trailers; we’re convinced (by sources unknown, maybe TV?) that starting a farm means an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The result is that would-be farmers write off farming as something to do in retirement after they’ve saved a small fortune working in a 50 square foot cubicle. But what if I told you there was a different way?

Are those pills gluten free?

Are those pills gluten free?

Believe it or not, you can start your farm without buying land, silos, combines, farmhouses, and all those other prohibitively expensive things. First let’s talk about all the things you DON’T need to buy: combines, hay balers, silos, bank barns, chain drag harrows, seed drills, bush hogs, heavy duty tractors, irrigation systems, gothic-framed glass greenhouses, soil test kits, high tensile fencing… I really could go on forever talking about what you don’t need.

Let’s say you want to break into the business doing pastured poultry (1,000 birds) and a market garden (2,000 sqft intensively planted). Here’s what you’re looking at for your expenses in the Virginia area, as an example:

Poultry processing equipment and portable shed: $5,500
Poultry feed: $4,000
20′ x 100′ hoophouse/greenhouse: $2,500
Basic tool budget (table saws, leatherman, chainsaw, drill, etc.): $2,000
Misc. expenses (brooder, compost carbon, broiler pens, feeders/waterers, seed, rain capture equipment): $2,000
Poultry Stock: $1,000
20 acres rented pasture: $40/acre/year, $800

You’re reading that right: for less than $20K you can be in the farming business with two enterprises (see this article to see how this estimate held up two months later). Of course that amount of money isn’t nothing, but it certainly isn’t the quarter-million dollar behemoth you’d have to scare up (usually by going to the bank with your first born child as collateral) if you were going into the conventional farming business. Between your own savings, family, friends, or even Kickstarter, you can scrape together $20K in under a year.

2. The country’s aging farming population is a tragedy. And a unique opportunity

America’s farmers are graying rapidly; the average age of a farmer in this country is 57. When these guys decide they’d like to retire, they face a grim reality: their children have often abandoned the countryside for jobs in the city (or, increasingly, a never-ending run on the grad school treadmill), and the only people knocking on the door to relieve them of their responsibility are the real estate developer or the rep from a factory farming outfit.

Farmers hate to see their lives’ work turned into fifty McMansions piled one on top of the other, and they’re all but begging for some young folks to get themselves into their fields and keep the land productive so they can enjoy their golden years secure in the knowledge that the land they’ve loved for decades will continue to be a farm.

All over this country, farmland can be rented from retired farmers for next to nothing. The $40/acre/year quoted earlier is on the HIGH end of the spectrum in central Virginia; it’s what you’d pay for premium hundred-cow-day grass that’s been established pasture for decades. If you’re willing to adopt some neglected, worn-out pasture and restore it with animal impact and managed grazing, you’ll pay about half that. And woodlots? A lot of farmers will throw that in for free.

Except farmer Dean, apparently.

Except farmer Dean, apparently.

What this means for you is this: the biggest capital expense for starting a farm – the land – just got thrown out the window. Instead of waiting 20 years to save up a nest egg that you’ll pour into a $500K plot of 100 acres, you can start farming that 100 acres today and the next five years for the same price you’d pay for a used Honda Civic.

3. You don’t have to move to the boonies. In fact, you shouldn’t

Lifestyle comes in a close second to finances as a barrier to young people becoming farmers. Farming means selling your condo or leaving your apartment right in the middle of all the action, and moving to a place where there are more cows than people and getting to the nearest decent restaurant requires a plane ticket.

Also, you're pretty sure the town's police force looks like this

Also, you’re pretty sure the town’s police force looks like this

But actually…

If your goal is to procure 1,000 acres, mortgage yourself and your mother to buy all the livestock in the world, and sell your corn-fed supercows wholesale to ConAgra, then you are probably going to have to move to a place where the mayor, the sheriff, and the postmaster general are all the same person.

Natural farms, on the other hand, are small because we’re focused on intensive management of every square foot of the property to produce world-class food. Small scale farming is viable because we sell directly to consumers, and ONLY because we sell directly to consumers: it gives us 100% of the dollar spent on the food we produce. By comparison, conventional farmers selling wholesale receive only about 12 cents of every dollar spent on the food they produce, which is why they must produce in such large (and ecologically irresponsible) quantities.

Since the natural farm is small it can afford the higher per-acre cost of being near a major town or city. The closer your farm is to a significant population center, the easier it is to market your products, which leaves you more time to spend turning your little acreage into an ecologically productive paradise. The farther away it is, the harder it is to market, which gives you less time to farm your great big acreage that’s quickly turning into a neglected, overgrown wasteland.

And speaking of direct marketing…

4. Yes, you can make a decent living

Natural farming means low startup costs, low operating costs, and selling at retail prices. These are the basic ingredients for a fairly decent business. You’re probably not going to get rich doing this (and that certainly isn’t the point), but in a few years you will very likely work up to what would be considered a decent salary even in the city.

Though we may disagree on how to spend that salary. Above: The Correct Way.

Though we may disagree on how to spend that salary. Above: The Correct Way.

Sylvanaqua Farms recommends Joel Salatin’s advice to avoid farmers markets as retail outlets, and instead devote that time to setting up buyers clubs. These arrangements are much more flexible and profitable for the farmer, and infinitely more convenient and high-touch for the consumer.

Whether you go the unconventional route with buyers clubs or the more well-trod path of farmers markets, the bottom line is that there’s a good living to be made in natural farming as long as you’re willing to put in the effort to direct market. Beyond making a decent living, there’s also:

5. The benefits of the farming lifestyle

These are almost too many to list, so I’ll just talk about what I’ve encountered personally.

I was plagued by health problems related to stress and sedentary lifestyle when I worked as a technology consultant, even though I worked out regularly. Insomnia, moodiness, nutritional deficiencies, immune weakness, erratic appetite, chronic fatigue, allergies, occasional weight loss, and (TMI warning) insurrections in my GI tract were all problems I had to contend with routinely. Since moving to the farm they’ve all disappeared – literally every single one of them. Here’s why:

I eat three real, cooked meals, from scratch, every single day. No more shoveling boxed cereal or some other breakfast charlatan into my face so I can beat traffic for an 8am meeting that no one’s going to remember the results of anyway. And speaking of traffic and meetings: I don’t have to deal with either anymore. I haven’t driven my truck in four days, and we have a special word here for meetings: Dinner. Oh, and I don’t hate Monday anymore.

One of the first things I did when I moved to the farm was adopt a “European” work schedule, wherein I’ll work early in the morning till about noon, take a four or five hour break, then go back out until just after sunset. I don’t work Saturdays except for routine morning chores, and Sundays are devoted to fun projects. Fresh air and exercise are built into our lives by simply being outside for several hours a day and doing things by hand: we turn compost with pitchforks, hand-till garden beds, stack hay by clean-and-jerking it (we’ll wait for you to stop giggling), and we walk about 2 miles a day just being at work.

1000547_562157457165817_1761707435_nWe keep our animals in great health with plenty of fresh air, sunshine, good food, low stress, and the ability to live their lives as nature intended. When you apply these practices to your own life, you’ll be amazed by how great you feel.

6. You’re not getting any younger

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting where Chuckie convinces Will to do something with his genius (warning – language): “Tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50. And I’ll still be doing this shit. And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit.”

Though if this guy had played Chuckie, I'd have started the farm as an infant.

Though if this guy had played Chuckie, I’d have started the farm as an infant.

That statement was certainly true of me a couple of years ago as I thought of my agriculture project as something to do after I’d advanced even further into my current career, saved up a giant pile of money for ten years, and become comfortable enough to switch careers.

When you think about it, it’s rather silly to think that doubling down on your current habits will make you more comfortable with changing them later. That’s like trying to quit smoking by moving on to heroin. Silly as it may be, it’s exactly that type of thinking that’s keeping most people out of farming. The financial commitment isn’t that bad and the lifestyle changes are actually positive. It’s that horrible thing called comfort that keeps people from taking a leap of faith.

Based on conversations I’ve had with lots of older folks who’ve commented on my wife and I starting Sylvanaqua Farms, I can tell you that only one of two things will happen if you decide to wait.

1.) You will never farm. You will wake up tomorrow, in your cubicle, 50 years old. The nest egg you were building to switch careers? Gone, paid in tribute to the rat race. Lost in the bigger house you “needed” when your second kid came along, the new car you “needed” to replace your ancient 5 year old BMW, the occasional unexpected medical bill (yes my fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings, these happen when you get older), years of daycare and tutors, the meals from all those restaurants you can’t even remember…

"This watermelon is a little dry. I'll have your hopes and dreams instead."

“This watermelon is a little dry. I’ll have your hopes and dreams instead.”

2.) You will farm, much later in life than you’d anticipated, and you’ll wish you’d done it when you were young. This isn’t me guessing here. Three older couples at the Polyface IDS seminar I attended in July told me the following: As young people, they thought their lack of financial cushion would make farming too stressful and risky. But, as young people tend to do, they didn’t think of how they’d be looking at the world as graybeards. So now they want to get into farming, and they have money… but they’re still risking it all. The only difference between now and 20 years ago is that they have much more to lose, less time to learn, less physical and emotional stamina, and less time and ability to recover if disaster strikes.

No doubt about it, farming is risky. But stalling for a decade or two only makes it worse, or guarantees you’ll never do anything. Take a year or two to plan, (re-)educate yourself, prepare for what’s coming, then dive in!

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There are plenty of great things about being a vegetarian or a vegan. According to vegansociety.com and PETA, vegans/vegetarians are healthier, live longer, are more compassionate toward animals, have less impact on the environment, and are even better looking. Much of this is true, if the comparison is to conventional factory farming and the folks who patronize it.

But the vegan/vegetarian creed is a stiff reaction to industrial agriculture – a system of food production that’s harming ecological diversity, mining soil, abusing animals, and tricking people into eating things that can barely be considered food. So how does the veg(etari)an creed stack up against the “third way” of food: natural farming and being a locavore? Here are several good reasons why, if you want to be healthy/compassionate/eco-friendly, you may want to consider going locavore instead of veg(etari)an:

1. You will still consume lots and lots of plants

It’s fairly common knowledge that the overwhelming majority of human kibble should be plants. To be sure, there are specific cultures and populations that have subsisted healthily on a meat-only diet for centuries or longer, but most of these are hunting cultures where the ultra-protein diet is accompanied by an interminable exercise program wherein one chases down said protein source, under human power, all day long, in the world’s most extreme environments.

2seal hunter

“Broccoli? I’d rather eat this kayak.”

For those of us who don’t live in the arctic circle or the scorchingest part of the Australian outback, rest assured that a locavore diet consists overwhelmingly of plants and imparts all the attendant health benefits. And part of the benefit comes from something veg(etari)ans don’t necessarily hold sacred…

2. Eating locally-sourced, in-season plants is best for the environment

Veg(etari)ans pride themselves on their relatively small environmental footprint, and those who eat locally and in-season should. But it’s not uncommon to see other veg(etari)ans eating oranges in Maine, asparagus in December, and tomatoes in March. Most folks forget that it takes an outrageous amount of fossil fuel to store and transport fruits and vegetables. When you’re eating lettuce in Canada in the middle of the summer, you’d might as well be drowning baby ducks in crude oil. And this brings us to the harsh inverse of #2: eating plants out of season wrecks the environment and kills absolutely all of the things.

Pictured: Things

Pictured: Things

It also incentivizes morally dubious agro-giants like Monsanto to develop genetically modified crops that can survive shipping. This practice encourages monoculture and reduction in plants’ genetic diversity; diversity described by plant geneticist Jack Harlan as the single resource that “… stand[s] between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine… the line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner.”

I known many vegetarians in my life, and there are a few things common to all them: 1.) they are always eating all sorts of different plants all year long, and 2.) none of them bother canning in-season plants or buying canned plants from others. This boils down to non-seasonally-eating veg(etari)ans gut-punching the environment just as hard as the factory farm boys, except they’re replacing nitrogen runoff and toxic lagoons with the gory environmental effects of fossil fuel exploration and extraction.

Being a locavore means, of course, eating locally sourced plants, preferably getting it directly from the producer at the farm, or via buyers club, farmers market, or CSA. Sourcing locally defaults the locavore to eating in-season all year long, increasing the nutritional content, taste, and diversity of the food while providing a net benefit to the environment. And before you think to yourself that being a locavore-veg(etari)an is the best of both worlds…

3. Meat is critical to environmental restoration

The rallying cry of vegans around the world is “Meat is Murder,” and when they’re referring to factory raised, CAFO-finished animals, they’re right. No cow, pig, chicken, or any other animal has any business in a confinement house or a feedlot.

But they often extend the argument to natural farming operations, because there’s still a slaughterhouse at the end of the line. In response to this, I invite the veg(etari)an to consider a world in which everyone has decided that meat, even naturally raised, is murder. In this world there is no longer a practical need for domesticated livestock of any kind. Their populations then decline to almost nothing, except for a few kept as pets or in zoos. Thus, in this ham-fisted solution to Buddhism’s admonition that life is suffering, we make sure the animals don’t suffer by making sure the animals aren’t alive.

The vegan approach to this problem involves a cruise missile.

The vegan approach to this problem involves a cruise missile.

And all that might be fine were it not for the fact that the landscape impact of LARGE NUMBERS OF DOMESTICATED LIVESTOCK IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL TO THE ACHIEVEMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY.

At one time, extensive land management by Native Americans that provided vast pristine habitat for large numbers of wild animals (especially bison and their predators) and secured an ecological stasis that could simultaneously support both large numbers of people and a healthy environment.

"You're welcome."

“You’re welcome.”

Europeans thought this was so great that they drove both the bison and the Indians to near extinction, founded America, brought the plow, and proceeded to absolutely, positively destroy the country’s millennia-old natural resource base.

"Thanks."

“Thanks.”

Since this happened, domesticated livestock – again, herbivores in particular – are the only animals that exist in numbers large enough to recreate the conditions that made un-Pilgrimized America into one of the only places in history where you could have your cake (ecological productivity, e.g. bison burgers for all) and eat it too (ecological sustainability, e.g. bison burgers for all, forever.)

And speaking of bison burgers…

4. Meat is healthy, if you eat it right

When people say the veg(etari)an diet is “healthier,” the implied comparison is with the outrageously meat-heavy diet of the typical American. Most of us expect to eat meat at every single meal, and we usually realize that expectation, so it’s little wonder that the no-animal diet would be healthier than this insanity.

But ask any doctor – natural/holistic or conventional – and they will tell you that a little meat is good for you because it’s high in protein and a few key nutrients that you simply can’t find in plants. The key is to eat the right kind of meat at the right time and in the right amounts, and again we have Native Americans to thank for providing a model for doing this.

"Whatever."

“Whatever.”

Let’s take as an example my ancestors, the Choptico Kanawha from present-day D.C. and southern Maryland. As far as meat went, we didn’t eat terribly much of it until summer when the fish runs started. Throughout summer nearly all the meat we ate was fish or shellfish, while during the autumn we took wild deer, birds, other small mammals, and at one time even bison. During winter we ate meat from the summer and fall that was preserved either through smoking or natural refrigeration/freezing. Spring was light on meat because of the overwhelming abundance of sweet, green wild plants.

In short, Native people ate 1.) relatively little meat to begin with, but we ate it from 2.) a wide array of animals that were 3.) taken in accordance with the seasons and 4.) were highly nutritious owing to their natural diets. This is precisely the diet advocated by locavores and provided by natural farmers. It is also the diet that does a better job than veg(etari)anism of meeting the goals of veg(etari)anism.

Sylvanaqua has adopted an unusual marketing model in which we forego the traditional avenues of Farmers Markets and CSA, instead focusing consumer sales almost exclusively on buyers clubs. This is the third part of a three-part series explaining the pitfalls of Farmers Markets and CSA, and the benefits of Buyers Clubs.

Links to the other articles in the series:
Part I: Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets
Part II: Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA

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Buyers Clubs are an increasingly popular means of direct marketing from farmers to consumers. It works like this: buyers select the club they want to join (there might be a club for your subdivision, office, school, gym, etc.), select the food items they want from the website, then pick up their orders every month or so from the club’s designated pick up location. It combines the best elements of farmers markets and CSA without any of the pitfalls. Here’s how:

1. It saves everyone time

Buyers clubs introduce a great big convenience that neither farmers markets, nor CSA, nor even supermarkets offer: the ability to avoid markets entirely.

Going to a market, whether its a supermarket or a farmers market, is pretty much the best way to suck two or three hours out of your weekend; and that’s two or three hours you’d rather spend doing practically anything else. You have to fight traffic to get there, find parking, deal with the shopping cart traffic jams in the aisles, wait an eternity in line to check out, then actually check out, lug the stuff back to your car hoping you don’t get run over in the process, and then fight traffic all the way home. And God help you if you have to do all of this with kids in tow. It’s just plain awful.

Buyers clubs make this process infinitely easier. You pick the foods you want online throughout the month, then at the end of the month you just pick up your order right at the office, gym, church, neighbor’s house, or apartment lobby. Most of the time it’s just an extra five minutes tacked onto something you were already doing anyway.

It saves the farmer time, too. When produce is added to inventory, it’s added to the website and made available to the clubs to purchase. From there the website handles inventory. No more guessing what should and shouldn’t go to the farmers market, no more dividing product between hundreds or thousands of shares, quarter-shares, double-shares, etc., and no more 60+ man-hour odysseys to prep for, set up, run, take down, get home from, and account for farmers markets.

2. Producers can (and must) partner with one another

After reading #1, you’re probably thinking that the buyers club for a single farm can’t possibly match the variety offered by supermarkets and farmers markets. While that’s probably true of the supermarket, producers can easily join forces to offer variety rivaling or even surpassing that of farmers markets. Sylvanaqua, for example, will partner with a local grass-fed dairy, a grass-fed beef producer, an organic bakery, an organic spice shop, and even a natural apothecary to compliment our own core offerings of poultry, pork, eggs, honey, and produce.

This method allows farmers with the technical skills and marketing ability to act as a food hub without turning distribution over to non-producers. The producer-only clauses that pervade farmers markets generally keep this from happening. They reduce both the variety and quantity of goods available to consumers, and give the supermarket yet another advantage when competing for that all important “culinary swing voter.”

3. The price premium of naturally raised food finally gets a short term justification

One of the great things about natural food is that its price is holistic. It doesn’t have its price artificially lowered by burying hidden costs in your health bills, tax assessments, and inflation. Unfortunately, we’re both culturally and biologically wired to think almost exclusively in the short term, and to think that a magical firewall exists between food/food-production, and health/environment/society. We look at a $2/lb broiler at the supermarket, and a $4/lb broiler from a natural farm, and we think the only difference is the price.

We don’t look “behind the chicken” and see that $2 is keeping your tax bill high because of the environmental cleanup required to deal with nitrogen runoff from confinement poultry houses. We don’t see that our water bills are going up because, with all the nitrogen and other pollutants from industrial-agro production flowing into watersheds, water is getting harder and harder to treat for human consumption. We don’t see that gasoline and electricity are getting more expensive because consumer use of the grid is competing with that water treatment facility that’s using more and more fossils to treat the water that’s poisoned by the factory farm so you could have your $2 chicken. And we certainly don’t connect that $2 chicken with the astronomical medical bills we’ll face when we’re older because of what we’re putting in our bodies. Human beings simply aren’t wired to think that way.

With buyers clubs, however, we’re suddenly able to justify the price premium with more than just long term benefits. Now we get to attach immediate benefits: The convenience and time savings of avoiding the supermarket; delivery of food at your home, office, or other convenient location; a food supplier that can respond immediately to the specific needs of your particular club. And speaking of responding to particular clubs…

4. Farmers can be very responsive to the needs of your club

The great thing about buyers clubs is that you can form them for practically any purpose or convenience, and the farmers can tailor the food selections to your particular club. While many clubs are created in neighborhoods, offices, and apartments just for the convenience, there’s no reason that you can’t form a specialty club.

Here are some examples: If you’re big into fitness and bodybuilding, your club could inform the farmer that you have a bottomless need for boneless skinless chicken breast, hyper-lean red meat (like bison), and veggies. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you may want to request an much-larger-than-usual selection of fruits, veggies, and baked goods. Or perhaps you’re starting a buyers club in a Jamaican neighborhood and need a constant supply of goat, stewing chickens, and hot peppers.

The bottom line is, if you can find just nine or ten people with food needs similar to yours who are willing to spend an average of $100 a month on their core groceries*, you’ll have a direct line to a producer who will either grow or procure whatever you want. No supermarket, farmers market, or CSA can match that level of service.

*In order for buyers clubs to be economical for us, they need to generate a certain minimum amount of business. We require that each buyers club purchase an average $1,000 or more worth of product per month, which is $100/month per person if there are ten people in your club (the average is computed every three months). The bigger your club, the easier it is to meet the minimums because we don’t increase them as the size of your club increases. Members also receive discounts for referrals and farm visits. Not a bad deal at all.

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Like what you see? More information on starting and joining buyers clubs will be coming shortly! Or check out the Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets, and the Four Reasons Sylvanaqua Doesn’t do CSA.

Sylvanaqua has adopted an unusual marketing model in which we forego the traditional avenues of Farmers Markets and CSA, instead focusing consumer sales almost exclusively on buyers clubs. This is the second part of a three-part series explaining the pitfalls of Farmers Markets and CSA, and the benefits of Buyers Clubs.

Links to the other articles in the series:
Part I: Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets
Part III: Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome 

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A few months ago, before we started the farm, we were looking into ways to direct market our products to consumers. It wasn’t long before we came across Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is wonderful in theory: consumers and producers share risk and a more intimate relationship, people eat locally and seasonally, and it gets folks out of the supermarket.

But coming from a consulting background (I know. Sorry.), I couldn’t help but notice that the actual implementation of CSA is rather awkward. And after attending a seminar at Polyface Farms and having by concerns with CSA seconded by perhaps the world’s most famous farmer, we decided to forego CSA altogether in favor of buyers’ clubs. Here’s why:

1. Inconsistency in Units

The central unit of measure in CSA is the share. It’s a pretty simple concept: you sign up for shares of meat, eggs, produce, dairy, etc., and every week a box of said product is either delivered to your home or picked up by you at a central location like a farmers’ market. Shares may involve X pounds of meat, Y pounds of fruits and veggies, etc.

The problem with shares is two-fold. First, figuring out what constitutes a share for a particular farm can be fairly confusing, and gets more confusing when you’re dealing with things like quarter shares, half shares, our double shares. Second, once you’ve finally figured out what a share is for a given farm… that definition almost never translates to another farm. For Farm A, a meat share might be 5 lbs of pork. For Farm B it’s 3 lbs of lamb and 6 lbs of ground beef. For Farm C it’s the same as Farm B, but it includes eggs and the price is twice as high.

None of these things are a problem for people who are truly committed to eating fresh, local, beyond-organic food. But they are a problem for people who are on the fence about where they get their food; the ooey-gooey middle of culinary swing voters who comprise the biggest opportunity of market share capture for natural farmers. These are people who would like to buy naturally raised/grown food, but aren’t fanatical about it, and will head to the supermarket at the drop of a hat if the alternative is too difficult. These are folks who don’t want to spend 10 minutes per farm figuring out exactly what a share is, and then another hour or two (or more) comparing apples and oranges of shares of different farms to figure out what constitutes a fair price.

In short, if we want to appeal to the largest potential market, we have to make it as easy as possible for them to buy directly from us. CSA can’t do that with its ambiguous definition of a share, and it certainly can’t do that when..

2. It’s surprisingly difficult to get into a CSA

Before we started the farm, my wife and I wanted to sign up for a CSA so that we’d have an incentive to go to the farmers market each and every week (sometimes, you want to do something else with your Saturday morning). That’s when I came across something disturbing: getting into a CSA can be more difficult than getting into an exclusive nightclub dressed in a burlap sack.

I’d assumed that signing up for a CSA would be a simple matter of filling out an online form. Put in your name, address, phone number, email, select your shares, pick a drop off location, put in a payment method, agree to some T.O.S. regarding seasonal availability and risk, and done. Right?

No.

There were rarely any online forms; you usually have to make a phone call or write prose to an email address. And once you do, you’re often told that there’s a waiting list. Again, the true-believers in the natural food movement will happily sign up for a waiting list or head to the next farm in the list on EatWild. But the swing voter is putting down her computer and going to the supermarket. Every time we natural farmers allow a swing voter to go to the supermarket, God produces another season of Jersey Shore to torment us all.

But say you finally get past the bouncer and into the CSA. Things actually manage to go downhill from there.

3. It forces consumers to roll the dice

Part of the reason CSA exists is to introduce the consumer to the seasonal, risk-based, unpredictable nature of food production. I get that, and I appreciate that. So do the true believers. But again, this feature of the CSA models casts the swing voter out to sea.

With CSA, there are a couple of important things you agree to. First, you agree to share the farmer’s risk of crop or livestock failure. If weather, bugs, or blight wipes out a percentage of the farmer’s production, then you take that hit in what you get with your shares, with no change in the price.

Second, you agree to take what the farmer gives you. This generally means that you have no idea what you’re going to be getting in your box from week to week. While that’s probably fun for a young single person with lots of free time to try a new recipe every single day of the week, it creates nightmares for everyone else, especially people with families who like to be able to plan meals for the next week or two with mostly familiar recipes.

While the idea of sharing risk sounds nice, it sticks in the craw when you occasionally get half or none of what you paid for. And people tend not to enjoy surprises when it comes to food. What if you hate pork chops? Or you’re allergic to the peanuts? Or the stilton in your dairy share makes you gag?

4. Too much change

I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about culinary swing voters because I truly believe they represent the future of the natural food movement. Our model is predicated on an increasing share of all food being produced naturally rather than industrially, and it’s not going to be long before the market of true believers is saturated. Once it’s saturated, the swing voters are where the action is, and getting those people to adjust their attitudes and habits is going to be critical to keeping the movement going.

When it comes to changing attitudes and habits, there’s only so much change a person can handle all at once. If we’re going to lead the swing voter from the industrial food space to the natural food space, it has to be done with as few deviations from that person’s routine as possible. So put yourself in the shoes of that swing voter for a moment. The swing voter that’s accustomed to driving to a supermarket with ample parking, being surrounded by infinite choice, and having year-long availability of absolutely everything at nearly rock bottom prices.

Now think of yourself as the swing voter who wants to give Natural a try, and comes across CSA. You’re bombarded with inconvenient changes: the units don’t make any sense, you have to make a phone call or write an email to sign up, there’s a waiting list, you don’t get to pick what you want, you might get food items you hate, you can’t plan for what you’re going to receive, there’s a chance you won’t get anything at all, the prices are higher, and picking up your share at the farmers market usually means finding street parking in a downtown area on a Saturday.

Too. Much. Change.

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Want more? See the final article in the series, Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome, where we talk about buyers clubs and why we believe they’re the best mix of convenience, seasonality, local production, and farm-to-consumer connection. Or see the first article in the series, Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets.

Sylvanaqua has adopted an unusual marketing model in which we forego the traditional avenues of Farmers Markets and CSA, instead focusing consumer sales almost exclusively on buyers clubs. This is the first part of a three-part series explaining the pitfalls of Farmers Markets and CSA, and the benefits of Buyers Clubs.

Links to the other articles in the series:
Part II: Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA
Part III: Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome 

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The farmers’ market has become the primary interface between the sustainable farmer and the buying public. Once a week, farmers and conscientious consumers come together to celebrate all things local, sustainable, and organic amid dozens of storefronts bristling with fresh produce, baked goods, meats, cheeses, and other delights. It’s a truly beautiful thing… that Sylvanaqua Farms rarely ever participates in. Here’s why.

1. Weather

Nearly every farmers’ market in existence is an outdoor market, which means that after you’ve spent months barely managing the weather to get your product raised/grown and ready for sale, you have to roll the dice against the weather again just to sell it.

Rain is the worst weapon in nature’s arsenal. If it rains (or if it looks like it’s going to rain, or if it rained recently), absolutely no one is going to show up at the market. Having a low turnout at a market is a disaster, especially if there’s a lot of overlap in what the farmers are selling.

Then there’s the weather when it’s not raining. Winter markets are freezing, so no one shows up. Summer markets can be atrociously hot and bug-infested, so no one shows up. Spring and Fall have good temperatures, but Spring and Fall are often rainy. A farmer depending on farmers markets can go the entire year without a single weekend where it isn’t raining, sweltering, freezing, windy, or swarming with mosquitoes.

In short, the weather is constantly conspiring to keep people away from the market. And it really stinks when no one shows up to buy your product when…

2. Participating in a farmers market is outrageously time consuming

For the average producer at a farmers’ market, the ordeal begins the day before with hours of picking, washing (or processing), sorting, and storing produce for transport. Then the farmer wakes up at 4:30am the day of the market, takes an hour to load (now 5:30am), drives two hours to the market (now 7:30am), takes another two hours to set up tents/unload/display (now 9:30am, when the market opens). Then the market is only open for about four or five hours. When the market ends at 2:00pm, it takes an hour to take the stand down (now 3:00pm), drive home for two hours (now 5:00pm), unload (now 6:00pm), account and tally (now 8:00pm).

So that’s 15.5 hours spent the day of the market, plus about 4 hours the day before the market, so that’s 19.5 hours for one person. If you have two people helping you (and you will, if not more), you’re closing in on 60+ man-hours total. Considering that most producers are lucky to net a few hundred dollars at the end of the day, it’s not a particularly effective use of time. And speaking of wasting farmers’ time…

3. Farmers markets are more social than commercial

There are people to come to the farmers market for the same reason others show up at a supermarket: to buy groceries for a week or two. They come armed with multiple totes or their own cart, a spouse to increase the amount the can carry, and fully intend on filling up their minivan with fresh, local, organic food.

Unfortunately, those people are exceptionally rare.

Most people at markets show up without bags. That’s because they’re there to buy part of the food for a single meal, or to buy a jar of local honey, or to try a cheese wedge they can’t find at Whole Foods. Or they’re just there to look around and take in the atmosphere.

But in the worst case, they’re there to argue with the farmers about absolutely everything. This last group of people comprises perhaps less than 10% of the customers at a market, yet they occupy 90% of the farmers’ time while accounting for 0.1% of sales. This is the person that will ask you to recite the entire Virginia organic code and explain how your chickens meet each and every one of the criteria. The person that will demand you “prove” you raised your own honey and didn’t import it from China. The person that, for some reason, doesn’t want to believe there aren’t nitrates in your bacon. The person that will buy one dozen eggs, and spend 15 minutes at your register creating a line behind him as he tells you why the three hens his aunt raises on her front porch lay better eggs than yours.

Bottom line is, people aren’t really at the farmers market to shop. They’re there because they’re entertaining that night and want to be able to tell their friends what farm the food came from. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, that kind of shopping can’t keep a direct-market farmer solvent.

4. The logistics and planning will make you hate absolutely everything

It’s hard to know what to bring to the market. You don’t know what the other producers are going to bring, and you don’t know what’s going to be popular that day. If you show up with pastured chicken on a day when everyone wants Applewood-smoked bacon, or a day when you’re one of five vendors selling chicken, you’re going to have a rough day.

If you know what to bring, how much do you bring? If you don’t bring enough you’re leaving money on the table. If you bring too much, you risk losses from spoilage and increased transportation costs. Getting the inventory wrong can cost you as much as a low turnout from a rainy day.

And for the eight or so hours you’re spending at the market, you’re not on the farm. If you have pens that need moving, cattle that need rotating, animals that need watering, plants that need tending, etc., you’ve got to figure out how this is going to get done in your absence… because it has to be done. And you can’t just get up at 3:00am instead of 4:30am; moving animals too early or off routine will affect performance, and nighttime horticulture work is prohibitively difficult.

Even if you stumble across a crystal ball and know what to bring, and exactly how much, there’s still the issue of…

5. Market rules

There’s a fee to get on the waiting list to sell at the market. Then there’s a fee to set up at the market. After that, the market may charge a commission on all your sales. Be ready to contend with the fact that most markets are producer-only markets, meaning that you can’t sell your neighbor’s pumpkins because you didn’t grow them, even though its Halloween. Next there’s the seasonality aspect – if the markets aren’t closed in winter, they’re so poorly attended that you can’t possibly make a profit. Then there are other little things that markets sometimes do: surprise inspections at the farm, certification requirements, and sales audits among them.

None of these things are bad. Markets have overhead they need to cover, and they need to make sure that people aren’t just buying food on the cheap from Costco and reselling it for a quick buck. But the rules, fees, time commitment, and headaches can add up to farmers’ markets ultimately being a losing proposition for the actual farmer.

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See the next article in this series, Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA, or skip right to the end and see the Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome.

By Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

1. You used tractors, track loaders, and even bulldozers to start your farm. How can you call yourself sustainable?

We’re sustainable because 1.) in our particular situation, creating the farm would have been impossible without tractors and dozers, and 2.) our long term holistic goal requires that we ultimately eliminate non-renewable energy from the farm’s operations.

While sustainability purists cringe at the notion of using fossil fuels, establishing a farming operation that restores the health of the land is the best use of fossils I could imagine. And when the alternative is to not start the farm at all (because clearing our land for pasture by hand would have taken longer than our savings would last), and instead keep up the 60-mile daily urban commute, using fossils to get the farm quickly up and running makes even more sense. And the fact of life is, sometimes you have to do a little “bad” to do a lot of good.

2. How realistic is sustainable, non-industrial farming? Could we really feed the world this way?

The big boys like ConAgra, Monsanto, Cargill, and others like to claim that organic/sustainable/etc. farming are fine as “lifestyle choices” for a small segment of the population, but our model of production couldn’t possibly feed the world. This is a nice way of saying that the grownups have real work to do while we in the sustainable segment peddle our wares to bleeding hearts and those with guilty consciences. This, frankly, is nonsense.

When the big boys say that sustainable, natural farming can’t feed the world, they generally justify the claim by pointing out the enormous disparity in production between an individual conventional farmer and an individual natural farmer (e.g. a natural farmer like Joel Salatin produces 30,000 broilers per year on 100 acres, while a confinement poultry house produces that many in a space the size of one football field – or just over one acre). Here are the big problems with this justification:

  • On that 100 acres, the natural farmer isn’t just running broilers. She’s also running cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, ducks, and laying hens. This layered model may not result in the same production per acre as the conventional model, but it gets close, and does so without creating macro-environmental problems and planting time bombs in the public health.
  • The justification ignores the fact that natural farmers actively encourage others to likewise become smallholding, natural farmers. We think it’s ridiculous that less than 1% of the population consists of full time farmers. These corporate, thousand-acre mega farms should be replaced by 10, 20, or 30 farms at 100 acres or less. The big boys’ assumption that we natural farmers are simply failed attempts at becoming agro-behemoths is offensively incorrect.
  • To make up for possible shortfalls in natural production, and to restore the public’s relationship with the natural world, natural farmers encourage people to grow as much of their own food as possible. This is discussed in the next question.

3. If you encourage people to grow their own food, won’t that put you out of business?

The big boys have one thing right about natural farming: we can’t produce in the quantities they can, even on equal acreage. That’s because our farms aren’t juiced up on agricultural amphetamines. Even if every acre of conventional farm were replaced with one or two acres of natural farm, there is the potential (but not a certainty) that we would not be able to produce enough food for everyone.

The answer to the potential food deficit? Grow as much as you can yourself. It doesn’t hurt my farm’s bottom line when you grow food I can’t produce. Furthermore, it is widely known that worldwide food shortages are a result of problems in distribution, not production. People growing a bigger share of their own food reduces the consequences of national and global food supply chains. If American do-gooders traveling to Africa would help the folks there build farms and homesteads in the traditions of their pre-colonial ancestors instead of western-style schools where they learn to become cogs in the global industrial machine, their quality of life would finally start to change for the better.

4. Is organic or beyond organic food really better for you?

The answer to this question depends on its scope. If your question refers only to the content of calories, carbs, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc. that are found on the nutritional “facts” label, then I would have a difficult time arguing that any given sustainable food item is materially better for you than its conventional counterpart. But once the question goes beyond the nutritional label, the two major benefits of buying sustainably produced food show themselves.

The first benefit regards long term food safety, an arena in which the big boys claim that there’s no proof that questionable practices like feedlot finishing of cattle and confinement housing of poultry/pork have any negative health impacts on people. Technically they’re right; they’re as right as American Tobacco Company was in the 1940s when it claimed there were no negative side effects of tobacco use, all while the U.S. government packed Lucky Strikes into GI rations. It took a massive health crisis several decades later for most people to understand that smoking was actually risky.

Likewise, health problems resulting from industrial food production have taken decades to surface. But surface they have, in the form of exploding rates of chronic disease traceable to everything from chemicals to lack of diversity in the diet to over-reliance on processed food. Personally, I believe it’s only a matter of time before our chronic health problems are directly linked to the environments found in large-scale slaughter facilities, city-sized feedlots, and genetically modified organisms, among others. By eating food produced under conventional methods, you’re playing Russian roulette with your future quality of life.

The second benefit regards the effects of agriculture on the land. And before you roll your eyes because you’re not a Birkenstock wearing, granola crunching environmentalist, ask yourself if you’ve noticed a few things:

  • Where did all these gluten-intolerant people come from?
  • It’s getting harder and harder every year to catch good fish in the Chesapeake Bay on your annual fishing trip
  • The price of a bushel of crabs is absolutely freaking ridiculous
  • It’s either raining constantly, or not at all
  • Were there always this many ticks and mosquitoes everywhere?
  • Wild caught salmon is HOW MUCH per pound???
  • Why was sweet corn twice as expensive last year as it is this year?
  • Why is the cereal box getting smaller while the price keeps going up?
  • Pollen and ragweed in cities get worse every single year

All of these problems (yes, ALL of them) are fundamentally rooted in improper land management practiced by industrial agriculture. It would take a book to explain exactly why; if you’re interested in how poor land management leads to the consequences above, stop by the farm and I’ll gleefully give you an earful.

At $2 a pound, the confinement house chicken will always beat the price of our pastured broilers. That is, until you add in the hidden costs of putting that chicken in your mouth and supporting with your food dollar the flawed model that produced it: taxes to clean up environmental disasters and pay for Farm Bills, the price of allergy medication, your astronomical medical bills in 20 years, and that expensive fishing trip on the Bay coming up empty every year.