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August 10, 2016
The Way of CSA
A Note from the Farmer's Wife...and the Farmer
Many of you have already heard the Farmer and I wax philosophic on the future of CSAs in our region. Maybe I should say, we wax anxious about the issue. Surely everyone knows by now that the term CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” The question, then becomes, what exactly does that mean?
Red Earth Farm began operating under that name in 2006, when the Farmer and his Wife purchased their first farm. Before that, the bachelor Farmer leased ground and saved every penny out of his $17k annual income with the hope of buying a farm. Within 2 years of settling on Red Earth Farm, Orwigsburg, our customer base was burgeoning and the need to expand seemed clear. It was our enthusiastic CSA that enabled us to buy the 90 acre farm that is now home to our operation, and soon to be home for our family.
The future of our farm still depends on a healthy CSA membership.
A recent article in the New York Times, summed up what we have been sensing over the past few years. The concept of CSA is morphing.
Originally, the CSA model was designed to accomplish two objectives: first and foremost, it provided farmers with the assurance that their product would be sold throughout the season. Growers who previously relied only on farmers' markets and wholesale outlets, such as produce auctions, might experience dramatic fluctuations in sales, depending on fair weather and customer turnout. The upfront commitment by CSA customers removes this uncertainty. Second, the unadulterated CSA model eliminates the "middle man.” This is a win-win for both customer and farmer, allowing the customer to receive a fair deal on the freshest produce and the farmer to get full retail price for his labor. This has made all the difference for small family farms such as ours.
Isn’t there an old saying, “Where there is blood there are sharks"…or something like that? The success and profitability of the CSA enthusiasm has attracted larger organizations, ready to cash in on the opportunity the local food movement provides. From large cooperatives of farmers, such as Lancaster Farm Fresh to Amazon and Target, the range of organization and good intentions surrounding the delivery of local goods is now mesmerizing and maybe confusing for the consumer.
As the NYT article put it, “The opportunity for confusion is of enormous concern to many farmers in the New York [and Pennsylvania, we might add!] region. Depending on how and where these new businesses buy their produce, consumers can receive all the benefits of C.S.A. membership, while the farmers get only a fraction. Some farmers say that after years of steady growth, their C.S.A. memberships have dropped since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo….But the drawbacks can outweigh the benefits. Some say that these hubs have siphoned off their members, partly by offering a more convenient product, but also by blurring the definition of terms like ‘C.S.A.' and 'farm share,' so that customers believe they are directly supporting local farms with their purchases when they might not."
Our production has expanded greatly, and our growing skills sharpened since we started more than a decade ago. Those of you who have been long-time customers have weathered through some ups and downs with us. Do you remember when we had virtually no cucumbers? Or when the list was so short in August, when our squash conked out and the tomatoes were blighted out of existence? The Farmer has bull-doggedly forged on, year after year, honing his skills, creating systems around seeding, planting, weeding and harvesting. All to bring variety and quality consistently to your table. Consequently, we have more produce than we have ever had. Even with the addition of wholesale relationships, we still have plenty of food left. Some goes to the Greater Berks Food Bank.
In spite of the apparent strength and progress of our farm in the past few years, our CSA membership has plateaued, and then this year, actually declined. At first, we felt this was a natural shift as the market grew saturated and diverse opportunities were presented to our customer base. We felt that we needed to diversify, which is why we ventured into wholesale. But wholesale is a new game. The profit margin is smaller and takes a much larger production scale to achieve the type of security we so easily found in our CSA. The need to expand into new markets has also required we make changes to meet more stringent food safety standards. This summer the farm is becoming GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified as part of this process.
GAP is a new term to most of our customers, in fact it was to me before we started the process. GAP is a USDA voluntary audit that "verif[ies] that fruits and vegetables are produced, packed, handled, and stored as safely as possible to minimize risks of microbial food safety hazards.” To meet GAP standards we have had to invest in tens of thousands of dollars of new infrastructure. A separate building for employee lunches, hand washing stations, organic sanitizing system and new wash tables are just a few examples of the improvements we have made. Oh yeah, and those awesome plastic liners are part of the deal. If we want to re-use a box, we have to use a non-reusable liner. For those of you like me who are plastic sensitive, we apologize. Our audit is scheduled for August 22.
Does this bring our customers more peace of mind? We hope so. In the thick of the summer, with long days and longer weeks, it’s easy to get discouraged. There are times we reflect on our early years, when the CSA was small, and our crew ragtag. It was rough then, but in some ways it felt simpler. The added burden and expense of GAP can feel overwhelming, but we are proud this step forward for the farm. Our business has grown, and we now can reach more people who have a passion for local food. We aren’t certain what the future will hold for us, but we do know that our farm has never been stronger. We believe that the challenges of this summer are part of a growing process that will benefit both the farm and our customers. .
The concept of CSA was born from a passion for supporting small farms and for a grass-roots endeavor to reconnect with where and how our food is grown. I maintain this blog with the primary intention of helping our customers know us and our farm. I write with my heart on my sleeve, because I believe that our customers care about the welfare of their farming family as much as about the convenience of having their local food arrive in one box. I want our customers to know without a shadow of a doubt their dollars are supporting the livelihood of a small Pennsylvania farm and their support makes this farm a better provider of fresh, high quality, safe food for people throughout our region.
How can you help?
  1. If you are not a current member, please join today! Our CSA is the only one in the region offering weekly online ordering. Our produce has never been as lush and abundant as this year. And we are GAP certified…almost!
  2. If you are a member, refer a friend. Tell them about our farm - share this post.
  3. Sign up for our Fall Share. We are extending our season by 7 weeks this year and are opening our fall share at almost all sites. Your Fall Share commitment is a HUGE help to us this year. In addition to fall veggies this year, we are offering egg, apple/asian pear, bread and cheese shares.
  4. Consider making a donation to our GAP certification expenses. If every member paid an additional $0.37/item for the Main Season ($2.22/week for Partial Shares and $3.70/week for Full Shares) we would meet our initial GAP certification expenses. While any size donation is greatly appreciated, would like to offer a pint of our own Red Earth Farm Pasta Sauce to anyone who donates $40 or more, while supplies last. For donations of $275 and above, we would like to invite you and a friend to a gourmet dinner at the Farm, with the Farmer and his Wife. You can’t get much closer to Farm to Table than that! Donations can be submitted via PayPal or check to Red Earth Farm. They are not tax deductible. Links to donate can be found on your Extras account, as well as on your Fall Share registration page.
As always, we are grateful every day for the opportunity to feed you and your families. Thank you for your continued support.
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