Talking recently with a local dairy farmer who weathered the farm crisis of the 1980s, it was difficult to not make some comparisons between that time and our own. Kelly and I know, for instance, many small-scale producers who, feeling the pressure of market-based forces, have decided to stop farming. Others have responded in different ways, perhaps by innovating or scaling up or specializing. There are, of course, plenty of differences between now and then: those struggling now seem to be small-scale, localized, direct-market farmers, not necessarily the big dairies or crop farms.
CSA was born and began to grow at least partly in response to the farm crisis of the 80s; that it is struggling at this particular agricultural moment would seem to suggest the need for a re-visioning. Many farmers are actively engaged in this exciting task in ways specific to their own circumstances and inclinations. Here are just a few of the ideas Kelly and I have had and which we hope to explore further over the winter months.
A challenge many local, direct-market farmers have is securing affordable, longer-term access to land near their markets. Younger farmers like Kelly and me have to get very creative in this respect – working with landowners near the city is often our only option to have a viable business. It is not an option without risk; stories of hand-shake rental deals gone awry are increasingly common in young farmer circles. We’ve been blessed to have a great relationship and long-term lease agreement with the owners of Sauve Terre Farm in West Bend. We hope going forward to renew our lease, expand the acreage we farm there, plant more fruit, and update the irrigation system. This site is closer to the city than our small Campbellsport homestead (which we own). We’ve hoped that this proximity might attract members to come visit the farm, either as worker share members or for farm events or festivals. By making our field there more accessible and installing some basic infrastructure – and by doing a much better job than we have of letting you know about on-farm opportunities! – we hope we’ll lure more of you out to meet your farmers and see how your food is grown.
The land in West Bend, however, does not currently meet all our needs. For instance, an affordable and secure place to live is necessary, as is a place where we can build our costlier, less-movable infrastructure like a greenhouse and hoophouse, and our packing area and coolers. These items, currently at our Campbellsport location, have been in need of some serious updating as we’ve been waiting to see if we would be moving. Now, though (at least for the next few years), we’re excited about staying put and re-investing in our infrastructure and old farm house. With our focus mostly elsewhere the past few years, we’ve neglected these things and the small garden there (which is too small for all we grow). We plan to put up another hoophouse, and to expand the fertile garden space so that Kelly can focus more on intensively managing it to provide a continuous supply of high quality salad greens for CSA members. In West Bend, I will focus more on less-finicky, “tractor-scale” crops like potatoes, onions or squash which require more space (and investment in the appropriate equipment). We’ll thus be continuing to shuttle back-and-forth between these two properties (they’re about 25 minutes apart) but will hopefully do it in a more focused and efficient way than we have.
As Kelly and I divide and try to focus our labor, we’re also forced to confront the fact that there is just too much for us to continue to do ourselves. We have always been passionate about involving worker share members on the farm – those who come out to volunteer their time for four hours each week and receive, if they want, a share of vegetables. We love worker shares not because they are “free labor” but because it is a great way for eaters and farmers to connect for a short time while tackling some of the more labor-intensive tasks associated with growing and distributing food. Substantive change in our food system and larger society will not come if such disparate groups don’t talk with each other and try to understand their unique human needs and circumstances. The worker share arrangement provides an opportunity to do this; those who take part invariably describe it as a tremendously positive – and fun! – experience. We hope to double or triple our worker share program, but realize that we’ll need to put a lot more effort into connecting with potential helpers. We greatly value any ideas you might have along these lines: perhaps, for instance, you know of a specific group of people who might be interested in this arrangement.
Employees bring many more – and different – expectations than do worker shares, and we’ve largely tried to avoid having them on the farm. This hesitation comes from being one-time farm laborers ourselves, and from the seemingly constant challenges that paying people for their labor seems to bring to other farmers we know. Still, we are game to try hiring the right people to take our farm to a level where the work load is sustainable, the atmosphere positive, and where all are compensated fairly. This will necessitate a corresponding increase in scale and scope. We’re mindful, though, of the wisdom of elder farmers like our dairy farmer friend: he got through the 80s crisis by, in part, identifying clear goals for himself and staying small. We’ll be getting larger, but will do so carefully and slowly, and not if our other values and goals – like maintaining a direct connection to you, our members – are compromised.
Recent developments in the local and/or organic food world have had many CSA farmers worried and scrambling to respond. Meal kit delivery services like “Blue Apron,” and the many other services that buy produce from various sources and deliver it in a CSA-like box, have led some local farmers to attempt the same strategies. In the coming years you’ll no doubt increasingly see farmers offering pay-as-you-go options; many too have already begun mimicking the box services by buying and distributing produce grown by other farmers – often not transparently. Such efforts are not really in line with the original impulse of CSA, which was an attempt to address the fact that the business of producing food is fundamentally different than the business of marketing or distributing it – in the event of a loss or shortage, farmers cannot call up their supplier and order more. They are the supplier. You won’t see us moving in this direction, though we’re not averse to working fairly and transparently with local farmers we know and trust.
It is anyone’s guess what impact the Amazon/Whole Foods merger will have on small-scale, localized CSA farming. For now, we’re just focusing on the things such lumbering behemoths can’t possibly do: You’ll never, for instance, be able to call Amazon and talk directly to the farmer who grew your food and who can tell you how it was grown. You can’t visit the farms that sell to Whole Foods, nor take part in the harvest of your food. Amazon’s logistics are impressive, but they can’t deliver to you produce that was hand-picked-to-order the day before you receive it. Our guiding values are not profit and efficiency but sound stewardship of the land, the production of high quality and nutritious food, and maintaining a direct, transparent and human relationship with our supporters. Still, some humility is in order here: when we deliver to our member’s homes we’re playing the same game as Amazon (a fact brought home by the fact that we are often placing your box of produce right next to an Amazon package!), and it’s a game in which we’re hopelessly outmatched. This winter we hope to review and update our home delivery program. We will continue to offer this service, but it no longer seems tenable that the same people who grow your food will also deliver it to your house. Uber drivers? Worker share delivery driver trades? Let us know if you have any ideas.
We pioneered the “choice” CSA in SE Wisconsin, and the idea is catching on. There are a number of farms trying to figure out how to offer this option, and a new CSA software program will soon be available to facilitate the process. We’re always looking ahead however, and are currently excited about a further innovation – one which takes the CSA impulse and philosophy to its logical end point: take-what-you-need shares. No one in our area is doing this that we know; we’re inspired in this direction by farms on the east coast (essexfarmcsa.com in NY is one). We don’t plan on doing away with our normal share box, for those who like limits. But we do hope to explore the take-what-you-need concept more this winter, and would love to do so with the feedback and input of interested members. Additionally, we continue to be interested in expanding our season and offerings into the spring and winter – we miss you all from December ‘til June! Let us know if you’d like to lend your voice or ideas to these exciting new developments.
Kelly and I are, as always, grateful for the opportunity to grow good food for you and your family, and we’re excited about what the future holds in store for Three Sisters Community Farm. We wish you health and happiness this winter, and look forward to seeing you in the new year!
Jeff Schreiber has been farming organically for 10 years. In 2011 he started Three Sisters Community Farm with his wife, Kelly.