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CSA

Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

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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.