Way back in 1999 I started Early Morning Farm with a shoe string budget and a big blue rototiller. We began the operation by getting a neighbor to plow a few acres for us, and drawing from the experiences I had working on small scale organic vegetable farms in the upper Hudson valley we managed to get through the first season without losing our shirts. That first year was a tough one with plenty of sweat and toil, but just as tricky was selling what we grew. We sold at the farmers’ markets, we tried a roadside stand, and we delivered to local restaurants. The plan all along was that we’d have to make adjustments going into our second season – and so we looked at what worked and what didn’t. Our strongest sales came from the farmers’ market but the idea of connecting to our community with a CSA program had always appealed to me. Maybe we could do both at the same time – and just like that in 2000 Ithaca’s first free choice CSA program began at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market.
The free-choice CSA was a huge success and by 2008 we had over 250 members picking up at our farmers’ market location and our CSA was bringing in far more revenue than our retail sales at farmers’ market. But despite the popularity of the program we still weren’t generating enough profit. Our best workers were barely getting paid over minimum wage, we had no health insurance for our family and our family vehicles were a dozen or more years old. That whole summer I spent one day a week visiting other farms in our area and beyond, trying to figure out how we could turn the support our community was showing us into an organization that turned enough profit to pay at least it’s key employees and owners a living wage. I learned a lot from my farm visits, I discovered new tools, learned more about soil health and tillage, and I saw how farms around the northeast are incorporating a variety of marketing approaches into their CSA programs.
Growing our CSA
One of the most important lessons I learned was to evaluate the overall mission of the farm by asking a really crucial question – How do we want to serve our community? When we asked ourselves that question the answer was clearly to provide CSA shares to as many households as we could while farming our land sustainably and organically. By growing the farm, we reasoned there would be more revenue and we could pay ourselves and our key help a living wage! In Ithaca though, we were one of many farms trying to serve that mission, it seemed that if we were to grow our farm by any substantial amount we would end up fighting with our local farming friends for the same group of customers. But a mile or two into Lansing, Dryden, and Cortland – or drive north from our farm to Auburn and there were substantial communities of people with no easy access to a CSA program. We thought about ways to expand our free-choice options into these markets but there was not a practical way to do it. During my 2008 farm visits I had watched a few farms packing shares very efficiently into boxes to deliver on a route to pick-up locations – it was a leap of sorts, our market pickup was so popular what if the boxed share idea didn’t work out? But it seemed if we were going to try and serve more of our local communities – this was the best way to do it.
In 2009 we delivered our first boxes to a pick-up location in Aurora a small village on Cayuga lake, just a few miles from our farm. We learned a lot that year about what to put in the boxes, and what not to: People are generally happy to get lettuce every week, but Swiss Chard, eh, not so much! We only had a dozen or so members in Aurora but we looked at first year as a “pilot project” and took every opportunity to think about how scaling it up might work. The next year we added 3 new pick-up locations in Lansing, Auburn and Cortland. The new sites were very well received, people were thrilled to have us delivering to a site near where they worked or lived – we were on to something!
The farm had a van that was purchased to deliver the CSA boxes, but except for our one delivery day, it was just sitting there. So in 2012 we added a delivery to Syracuse and expanded our Ithaca area route a bit. By the time we got midway through the season though, we ran into a new challenge – the van was full and people were still signing up. So we had to buy a bigger van, business was booming! By the end of the year we had over 700 members and our boxed share option had grown larger than our farmers’ market free choice membership. The next year we added pick-up locations in Binghamton and more in Syracuse and Lansing and our membership grew to over 1100. And this year – a few more pick-up locations and we’re at 1500 members!
By the end of 2012 the farm was finally paying a reasonable living wage to our returning employees and to the farm owner (me). The operation also started to run more efficiently and we were doing a better job of “staying out of the weeds” – both literally and figuratively. Finding really amazing people who believe in our mission and want to give their muscle, sweat, and love to achieving it has come surprisingly easy. And we have managed to connect with some very supportive local land owners who are willing to lease us the additional acreage we need. We’ve figured out how to create systems for managing larger harvests and deliveries, our management team is strong and productive, and we’ve been able to add a CSA member coordinator – who also manages the blog, website, and social media communications for the farm.
Challenges and Changes
There are some challenges in front of us as well. We have around 100 acres in production now, but if we were to grow any further we’d need more land. The market demand is certainly out there for us, and we do see the benefit of growing the CSA a bit more, but we are starting to have a difficult time finding new land that we can use for organic production. Another issue we are facing is pending Food Safety regulation. We’re all for doing whatever it takes to make sure the veggies we send out meet high standards of safety – but some of the proposed new regulations seem a bit arbitrary. Also, the rule is still in the development and comment period, and every few months we get a new proposal from the FDA. So predicting the final status of the regulation and planning for compliance is like aiming for a moving target.
And then there’s the farmers’ market “free choice” share option – our beloved original CSA offering, the connection to our community that “got us up and running” 15 years ago. A few of our original members are still with us, but our free choice option hasn’t really grown. The most difficult choice to make as a business owner is when preserving the health of the organization requires a decision that will inevitably be disappointing to some long time supporters. After 15 years of offering a free choice style CSA at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market we are no longer offering this option to our CSA members.
Having the combined offering of boxes and free choice has been logistically challenging for a few years, but this year in particular it has put a real strain on our production and harvest schedule. Don’t get me wrong, we are keeping up – it’s just we are at full capacity. A free-choice farmers’ market CSA requires a different kind of harvest, we have to go out and pick more than we expect our members to take home and hope to sell the remainder to retail customers at market and pull it all off with perfect balance so that we don’t run out of items before our members arrive. This used to work really well, but the dynamic has changed at our farmers’ market. In the last 10 years dozens of new farms have sprung up in the Ithaca area, and many of them are at the farmers’ market carving out their niche, so our retail sales have gone down. At the end of each market we’ve been donating thousands of dollars worth of produce to a local soup kitchen. You know the old “devil on one shoulder, angel on the other” cliche? Well giving so much food to a soup kitchen sort of leaves me with an angel on each shoulder, and the angels are arguing! “How wonderful to just give away so much food to people in need ” says one angel, “you should make your operation more efficient so that you can raise the starting wage for the workers” says the other.
Our farmers’ market free choice CSA is now just 12% of our total membership – but we’d really like to extend some benefit of our farm being at market to the other 88%. This sounded like a pretty daunting proposition given the tricky nature of harvesting for the free-choice option that is at market. But without the free choice we can extend a 20% discount on all retail purchases to at our farmers market locations to all of our members. This is a big deal to us, because we want our CSA members to be in a sense “owners” of all that we harvest.
All of the reasons, of course, seem sound to us. To tell the truth, we’ve been ignoring the soundness of the argument for streamlining for several years now. For some of our CSA members the “free choice” option is a perfect fit, and there’s not a way for the change to be less than disappointing. That might be fine if we were a cold hearted corporation, but these “customers” have become our friends over the years. They bring us jams, and scones, and cookies, and pickles made from our veggies. Some of them have been with us from beginning and would be willing to pay double what we’re asking. So, needless to say, changing course was pretty heart-wrenching. In the end though, we know it’s what we had to do for the health of our organization.
The goal for the future is to continue to build a vibrant and resilient organization that can support our mission. We will continue to serve our CSA customers the highest quality organic produce, but for a now at least, we need to level off our growth a bit. There are communities along our existing delivery routes where we could add new CSA pickup locations but our land is producing pretty much at capacity right now. Because we’ve been growing we’ve had to re-invest most of our profits back into the farm, and we’ve also taken out some loans to pay for equipment and infrastructure. Taking a year or two to catch up and pay down some of that debt seems like a wise choice.
We’ve somehow found a way to increase compensation for our employees every season, and it’s going to be important to continue to do this. Our starting wage is still lower that we’d like to see it – and our top tier people pour their hearts and souls into this farm for un-countable hours. Labor is our number one expense and in general it plays a large roll in determining the price of produce. Unfortunately, it’s mostly very large operations in California that are dictating the price of produce – and therefore the labor rate. The rate of pay for an average farm worker is just way too low – especially considering how physically demanding the work is. Our challenge has been to break free from that and find ways to increase compensation inspite of “market forces”. By focusing on efficiency and ways to streamline our operation we hope to be able to continue raising the pay rate.
Continuing to connect with and strengthen our ties to local land owners is also going to be key to our success. At one end of the journey for our veggies is the CSA member’s stomach – but way at the other end is the soil that nurtures and brings to life the food we produce. We’ve been so fortunate to piece together a group of land owners (six people so far) that really care about how their land is used and want us to be the caretakers of the soil they own. But we really need to make a few more local connections so that we can work more rest and rebuilding periods into our land use strategy.
The future of the farm looks pretty bright. Sure, there will be some challenges, farming always has more than it’s fair share of those – but we have a vibrant community of CSA members backing us, an amazing dedicated staff, and a solid land base – What more could we ask for?