This week is the final week of the winter share season. I want to thank all of you for your support and encouragement this winter. Some of you will not be continuing with the CSA program, and we will miss you and hope you know that you are always welcome. The CSA is an open membership process, and we believe that its value to members, farmers, and the community will continue to increase as we move forward with the work of re-building a local and regional food system. If there are barriers to your continued participation that you think we ought to examine, I hope you know that we stand ready to do so. Our goal is to continue to make the CSA program as accessible as possible while also operating in an efficient fashion so that we can deliver the greatest value to members, farmers, and other stakeholders. We hope that you have given us a chance to address your concerns and other barriers to continued participation.
It has been quite an adventure, developing this program for you, and we have made many improvements and learned a lot. Many improvements will be evident in the summer season, and even more as we approach next winter. The winter season has a challenge, some of which I would like to share.
One of my long term goals for the CSA is that it transform into a new kind of cooperative that truly knits farmers and citizen eaters (“consumer” is such an unattractive word…) together, not only through the transactions around food, but also organizationally and even socially.
In my years of experience with COOPs of many different shapes and sizes, I can attest without question that NO COOP (and perhaps no business) reaches its potential if it is not large enough to afford professional management. One of my goals for the CSA has been to build it to the point that its operational scope and scale supports professional staff and management. It was a stretch, going into winter without a large membership, to keep moving forward with our outstanding CSA manager Pattie Ravenheart, but thanks to her consistent and diligent work, and your response and support, we achieved steady growth through the winter. We were able to use our winter experience to plan and strategize for the summer season, and bring aboard our next staff member, Amy Hetager, as marketing and outreach coordinator. Amy’s outstanding work to create our blog and to network the CSA with other local initiatives made it obvious what an asset she would be to the CSA. So the first major accomplishment that I want to point to for the winter is the development of a strong management team to lead the CSA forward this season.
Another accomplishment worth noting is the continued development of relationships with farmers who offer products outside of the primary fresh produce season. This is a most important process toward the CSA goal of providing year round local and regional food, including fresh produce wherever possible. As challenging as it is to produce fresh fruit and vegetables in our climate during the growing season that challenge multiplies in the late fall and winter and early spring months. We face significant “capacity building” issues in this regard. A major barrier is access to capital: Winter production, storage of fall harvested crops, and processing of summer and fall crops for winter use ALL require capital: dollars for equipment, dollars to acquire the raw products, dollars to support labor. This is a time when access to capital, which was never easy for small farmers, is only becoming more difficult. Since the goal of this CSA is to support many farmers, it becomes critical that we somehow address capital issues so that partner farmers who are interested in and able to do so can provide us with winter product and make a decent living in the process.
We have a struggle balancing the need and desire for variety with the commitment to support regional and local food producers. We can ALWAYS achieve variety by going out of region to major production areas, but that decision moves us away from our goal of supporting ourselves by supporting our local economy. I suspect that lack of variety has been a factor in the decision of some members not to continue in the CSA, and that is understandable. At the same time I want to emphasize that from season to season, we become better able to help our farmers address barriers to extended seasonal production, and our strengthened relationship with those farmers will give us more variety each season than the season before.
As we look ahead to the summer season, we see similar opportunities and barriers. In order to be economically viable, and increase value to members and farmers, we need to grow the CSA membership from its winter peak of about 70 shares to a summer peak of 175 shares or thereabout. This level of membership will give us sufficient economies of scale in operations as well as sufficient cash flow, to really begin to support our core farmers so that they can better support us. Our strategy of forming alliances with several farms, rather than limiting and focusing in one just a single farm is important to the resiliency and flexibility of the CSA program. It also reflects a commitment to diversity and small business development and rural economic development.
Demand for local food is increasing faster than supply. The economic shocks of the last 6 to 9 months, as well as increasing interest in food source verification even in larger scale food businesses, and the overall recognition of the need to re-localize our economy ALL drive more and more interest in local food systems. In our area, local farmers have many options for selling their food. Prices tend to run high, in part as a result of the limited supply and tremendous demand. It is a challenge for the CSA to offer our stability to our farmers, as well as outlets for a wider range of product coming out of the fields, in order to assure our supply of food, as well as to increase value to members. It is not a success in my book if we gain our access to local food by “outbidding” other purchasing venues, thus pushing the local food further away from the average person, and further into the realm of an elite, upper class alternative. It is an important goal of the CSA to return value to the members, and none of the methods of accomplishing this are easy if we are too small to present significant resources, and assurances to our farmers. It is an important goal in 2009-2010 to determine exactly what our farmers needs from us in order to commit to provide us with the widest diversity of foods possible and prices that are not “exclusive” and yet still meet farmer needs. Growth to an appropriate scale is crucial to the improvement of the CSA program, for all of its participants.
In a fully developed, resilient local food system, personal or collective, the CSA will compliment the backyard and community gardening of its members. It will provide a gateway to many resources and experience in the re-localization of our food supply. It will facilitate access to seeds, plants, supplies, information, training, as well as dialogue and exchange of ideas, social activities, farm visits, and a wide range of restorative activities centered around the most fundamental crucial act of our species: feeding ourselves in an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable fashion. Eventually it can even become a true cooperative, responsive to its members and stakeholders, and impactful in our community as well as our lives in many important ways.
Thank you for the part you have played in this winter’s big step forward. We especially thank those of you who are continuing forward with us to the next step, and of course we welcome all who wish to continue. Please spread the word, and help us make the next step, by eating locally and regionally through the CSA this summer, together we can benefit ourselves our farmers, and our community.