Winter on the Farm
Happy (belated) 2020! It has been a mild winter overall, which will probably mean extra pest pressure this season, but we have really appreciated the ability to do some extra bed prep and other outdoor chores. It feels good to stretch those muscles - literally. For most of last summer and fall I was on maternity leave, and I seriously missed working the land!
Winter has not been without a few personal setbacks for our family. Chris was in a car accident a few days before his winter break from school. Thankfully he is 100% fine, but the car was not, so a big chunk of the capital we had planned to invest
in the farm this year had to be redirected to purchase his new vehicle. Naturally, living in an old 1850s farmhouse also has its fair share of surprises, so we had a few things pop up in that regard. Nonetheless, I have been really enjoying this time of rest, lazy evenings, and paperwork. The website is newly updated, the seeds are ordered, the succession planting is figured out, the planting schedules and harvest calendars are written out, and now I finally have a moment to write this long-overdue blog post.
One of the biggest changes for us in 2020 is that we are taking a break from CSA. This is probably a big surprise because this has been a big part of our farm plan for years now. As promised in our fall newsletter, I wanted to take some time to explain the reasoning behind this choice.
I love CSA. Although I originally embraced this crazy dream for some more self-centered reasons - being in charge of my own schedule, avoiding the hurried “9-to-5” lifestyle, having such clean and high-end food for my own kitchen, and being able to bring in some income while staying home full-time with my kids - I also came into it with a love of community-supported agriculture. In fact, many (maybe most?) new farmers come into agriculture with similar dreams. We share this idea that we can feed our community the best seasonal food without harmful chemicals and with as few food miles as possible, but with the added layer of the co-op mindset that you don’t necessarily get at the farmer’s market during those brief transactions. But now that I’ve been doing this for a few years, I see why CSA isn't a great fit for some farmers.
First of all, there is a lot of pressure to put together boxes with enough variety and enough caloric density. You give us a large sum of money before we even start to grow your food with the trust that we will deliver what you bought, both on time and of the best quality. When you grow for a traditional CSA, you must grow an extensive variety of crops in order to fulfill customers’ expectations. When we were CSA members, we shared these expectations and felt the same frustration and disappointment when the boxes were either underfilled or were filled with too many of the same category of veggies (i.e. leafy greens, which are high value but low calorie). It was a financial burden when we, the customers, then needed to spend even more money elsewhere to fill in the week’s menu. When we started offering egg shares a few years ago, we based the length of the egg CSA on previous seasons minus a few weeks to account for molting, late starts, and early ends. Imagine our surprise when 2018 had an early and harsh snow at the beginning of November, and the chickens nearly ceased their laying! We barely had enough for the last two weeks of shares, and we didn’t even get to eat any of the eggs we had raised. That’s why we shortened the duration of fall shares in 2019. This year was even worse, though, as there was a sudden drop into bitter cold temperatures in October, just days after sunny weather in the 60s. We had already shaved three weeks off of the CSA length, but we had two weeks less of regular egg-laying in 2019 than we did in 2018. It was so stressful. Each year we’ve lived at this property, the season has reduced in length either at the beginning of the season, at the end, or both. With vegetables, this becomes even more complicated. All farming in any style is a challenge because you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. Crop failure, pest problems, unseasonable/unpredictable weather patterns, etc. When frosts happen very late into the spring, as late as early May, it is sometimes impossible to get the ground prepared and amended for planting. This means that many crops are available later each spring and early summer. It’s tough to make “complete” boxes in those early months even with season.
Secondly, a traditional CSA is not a very lucrative branch of agriculture when you are farming on as small a scale as we are. Two of the bigger factors to consider when crop planning are (a) time in the field and (b) value per bed. If any readers are curious, I’d be more than happy to share this information in detail. But the short version is that often the crops that add calories, variety, and seasonal nuances to the shares are the ones that (a) remain in the field for the entire season and (b) are the crops of the lowest value per bed. Think of zucchini, winter squash, beans, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potato, potato, sweet corn, and peppers. They’re some of our family’s absolute favorite vegetables, and I’d bet they’re some of yours as well. If we grew on over an acre (I’d love to work up to that, or more, someday; a girl can dream!) then I wouldn’t think twice about growing these in marketable quantity. But when you’ve only got twelve 50-foot beds and you have to choose between a crop that is only in a bed for 12 weeks but grosses $150 (like sweet corn) and another crop that is also in the ground for 12 weeks but grosses $1000 (like Salanova lettuce), that difference is a really big deal! That’s basically a mortgage payment. Another thing that often surprises customers is that we don’t really profit from egg sales, and pretty much break even. I love selling eggs and I always will, at least a la carte. Besides covering the cost of our family’s egg use, they sell fast, they build connections to the other products we offer, and they’re such an inexpensive way for people to incorporate small-scale, local, pastured foods into their diet. The going rate in our area is about $3/dozen, and we don’t mind selling them at this rate because it is affordable for most families. We know a farmer in our area who is way better than us at raising poultry products and way more dedicated to selling eggs for profit, and she charges $6/dozen for her chicken eggs. And she deserves to earn that because her eggs (and all the other animal proteins she raises) are just that amazing, plus that’s the price point at which she needs to sell them in order to turn a profit. The problem is that even the most dedicated locavores wonder why hers are that expensive when they can get a really delicious egg for half the price elsewhere. Nobody goes into farming expecting to get rich, but on a small scale these decisions make a big impact on our business capital and our own livelihood.
Taking a break from our CSA program is bittersweet. It feels sad to put aside the system that inspired my initial transition from education to agriculture. I’m also excited to take the pressure off of farming now that we have our hands full with two small children. I don’t know when I’ll work it back into the business plan, but I know how good it will feel to have that option available again. I do plan to bring it back in some capacity in the future.
If you can’t get our veggies, flowers, and eggs in CSA shares, you may be wondering where to find them. We have been beta testing a new and exciting app called Vinder, which allows us to list our exact inventory. Private customers and business accounts can open the Vinder app on their phone and make purchases with their credit card with no fees for the business owner. Vinder automatically updates the inventory, so unlike traditional fresh sheets, there is less “damage control” if we run out of a product. There’s even an option for you to pay a bit extra for us to deliver your products to your door so you don’t even have to make the trip to the farm. I absolutely love this app and I think it is going to have a big impact on the way small farms market their wares. We will also be sending out a weekly e-newsletter with our fresh sheet and keeping a few things in stock at the roadside stand. Our approximate harvest schedules for vegetables and flowers have been updated on the website and can be found here and here.
Now that that is out of the way, we hope you are all enjoying a cozy winter! Stay warm, catch up on rest, and enjoy your time with family. We are trying our best to do the same. See you in a few short months!