Monday, August 5, 2013

How Does the Farm Stand Work?

Recently a shareholder who volunteers every week (Katy) was helping us weigh our tomato harvest. We were calculating how many lbs each shareholder receives. We were discussing the nuances of this calculation- the fact that it’s impossible to fit the tomatoes into exact units, the fact that some will go bad within the five hour pick-up because they are so fragile, and the fact that we open our CSA pick-up to the public with our “farm stand.” She asked about this last part. I’m grateful she asked because I value transparency and I want shareholders to be well educated about the workings of the farm they support. Her question led to a great conversation over lunch that I want to share with everyone.

In an effort to provide food that is accessible to a large range of people, we have always had a farm stand on site. This enables us to capture and nourish the customer and community member for whom a CSA model is not a good fit (maybe it’s not flexible enough, it’s too much food, it’s too much money to pay in one or two installments, or they are a student or teacher who is only at Saul in the spring and fall but not in the summer). For the past four years, our farm stand was on Wednesdays, and the food on the table was the leftovers from the Tuesday pick up, as well as the crops that grow so fast they need to be picked three times a week (for example, if we only picked zucchini twice a week everyone would have HUGE zucchini which are seedy and less desirable for cooking). This farm stand always limped along; never had huge sales and I stubbornly kept it open despite low sales on the principle that it filled an important niche in the local food system.

Finally, after four years of averaging $40 a week, I realized this was not a practical way for a valuable staff member to spend their time. There was too much work to be done in the field and sales were too low to justify keeping the farm stand going as it was.
Over the winter of 2012-2013, a couple coworkers and shareholders helped me brainstorm a new approach: Incorporate the farm stand into the Friday pick-up. Not only would this be a more efficient use of staff time, but the product will be of higher quality: it will be fresher (being harvested the day before), and out of the sun and wind and rain. We chose Fridays because Tuesday pick-up days are typically more popular than Fridays, so that meant we could harvest the same amount for each day, but the farm stand would absorb the small amount of harvest which was above and beyond the CSA needs on Fridays (otherwise, when you divide the harvest by a smaller number of people, each person receives a larger amount of the harvest). This seemed like a win-win: the farm stand would be better, the farmers would have more time in the field, and the harvests would be even between Tuesday and Friday, which means shareholders would receive more consistently sized shares between the two pick-up days. 

This plan was going well…until we looked at the numbers of Tuesday people vs. Friday people and realized they were almost exactly the same. That blew that rationale out the window! Another thing that happened was we submitted our farm budget for fiscal year 2013-2014. We came in at a loss, as usual. Weavers Way is tightening the belt on finances, and while the co-op is still interested in supporting and operating an urban farm, it was made clear we had to find a way to bring in more income…immediately. So, we creatively edited the painted farm stand sign on Henry Ave. and opened our Tuesday CSA pick-up to the public.

So now, when we calculate the lbs of tomatoes that each shareholder receives, we pretend there are about 5 more people in the CSA, and this covers the sales to the public. Given that we did a farm stand on Henry Ave. for four years, I’m confident in predicting the number of sales we might have to the public. So far, it’s been going well: the farm stand sales are up, shareholders are still receiving more than what they paid for in the value of their share (more on these numbers in an upcoming newsletter), the share has been on par with the size it was last year, and I’m happy to be even more accessible by opening a farm stand twice a week instead of just once. And on the rare occasion that there are popular items that are limited because of an unexpectedly small harvest, we simply say these items are not available to the public at the farm stand and they only end up in shareholder’s bags.

I wouldn’t say any part of this is system is terribly easy to manage or plan, but what in farming is?! It is only the latest rendition of a constantly evolving method of CSA distribution. Every CSA farm does it differently, which is empowering for a farmer who can create a system that works well for their individual farm, but it requires that the farmer also be clear with the CSA shareholder, so the shareholders know exactly what they are supporting, and where their money is going. In the end, in my fifth year managing Henry Got Crops I think this latest version of the CSA/farm stand model is the best way I have come up with to balance: staff time, the privilege a shareholder deserves for investing in a farm up front, being accessible to a wide customer base, and being as financially viable as possible.

If you have any questions about all this, please do ask me- just like Katy did when she was helping at the farm last week. This type of dialogue is exactly what I want to have with shareholders! This direct, transparent relationship with customers is exactly why I like CSAs, as opposed to the many other options for vegetable distribution. So please, take advantage of being part of a CSA, get to know your farmer, and don’t be shy to ask a question that you are wondering about your farm.

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