2017: Looking forward, A Whole New CSA World

Changes in CSA across the board

CSA as a movement, a marketing stream, and a way people eat, is in trouble region wide. 2016 saw many local farms (ours included) continue to struggle to meet their membership goals. We have been 15-20% down on our hoped-for CSA memberships the past 2 years. Many friends of ours who farm are giving up on CSA as a marketing model altogether, while others are making large scale revisions to how they will execute their programs in the coming years. Fairshare CSA coalition (a group of farmers out of Madison) is down at least 6 member farms this year, due to farmers giving up on the model.

What’s causing this? Many many things have been pointed at, none of which is likely the main culprit. Shrinking household sizes, non-gmo and “natural” products absorbing some of the organic dollar, more take home money spent on take out, “aggregators,” or companies co-opting (and severely diverting from the original intent) the CSA model in high numbers, the end of home economics as compulsory education, who knows? Maybe it has all just been election year jitters? There have been some of those, I think.  One thing for sure, is that we are seeing a shift in customer commitment to CSA, and we as farmers are needing to listen and respond.

These trends are affecting farmer’s market returns too. Many long standing vendors at your favorite market might not be there in a few years. There has been a great push over the years for more and more and more farmer’s markets. Every neighborhood having a market is convenient for eaters, but doesn’t currently concentrate enough eaters in one place for a farmer to be able to do well enough selling produce at any one market to justify the many expenses of being a market vendor. Many market farmers I’ve spoken with can no longer afford to vend at the farmer’s markets they’ve been at for decades.

LotFotL in 2016

This is the context in which 2016, our 9th season in business began. We knew it would be a challenging financial year, but hoped we could push hard on marketing and get enough folks together to have strong cash flow. Still, 20% down from last year’s 20% down. Then our landlord, Ralph Quinney, passed away. His passing has necessitated the selling of the farm that we currently rent. As renters, you are always a little unsure how the future is going to look. Is your landlord happy? Will they develop different plans? Knowing this, we have always had our ear to the ground for any alternative options that develop, just in case. Still though, having this certainty that we would and will likely have to move again soon, has added much weight to our shoulders, and probably taken a couple of years off my life.
2016 was a hard year.

Our Farm Plans for 2017 and beyond

With all that said, I’m very excited for 2017, our 10th year in business!!!!! April and I have never been the types to stand still very long. We’re always trying to anticipate where this farming thing is going, and increasingly in the last few years, trying to steer the business where we want it to go. We have not solved our cropland situation as of today (though have some interesting prospects nearby), but do have 1 more year on our lease. We’re also in negotiations to try and purchase the 5 acre footprint that the house and primary buildings rest upon. Should everything work itself out there, we will have some time to figure out the cropland side of the package. We feel good about this option. Owning our first home is an exciting prospect for us, and will stabilize and put to rest some of our worst held fears and insecurities.
We are also very excited about some rather sizeable changes we are making to the CSA model for the 2017 season. If our plans work as planned, in time, April will be freed up from the office a bit more, which will give her more time to develop new products (lavender honey and herbal tea blends to name a couple) and gain a bit more of a well rounded experience of the farm. The new systems will simplify everything for us, though changes of course bring with them plenty of new efficiencies to iron out. We are optimistic though, more so than in past winters. We think you will like the changes all and all.

2017 LotFotL CSA Options

So, without further ado, 2 types of CSA shares lay in wait for 2017. The first looks a lot like our main CSA shares from the past. We will have only 1 share size in 2017, kind of a hybrid between the petite and full shares, so 7-10 items/week or so. This main share will be available weekly or bi-weekly. We are shortening our season to 22 weeks and also taking the weeks of July 4th and labor day off from CSA distribution, to allow you to travel and get kids in a school rhythm without having to get to a pick up site or schedule vacation holds. Chicken and Egg shares will still be available. The Bridge share program will be discontinued.
Best of all, what we are calling Traditional CSA shares will now include new items, not seen before, micro-greens and mushrooms being two potentials.  In addition, in-season fruit will be right in the shares; blueberries, cherries, peaches, apples, are some of the items we will be hoping for. Those wanting larger quantities for preserving or heavier eating, we plan to still offer the bulk fruit on our online farm store.
Some sites we have historically delivered to are not in play for a number of reasons. We will be adding some new sites, and also launching a sister drop site program, whereby a motivated individual can set up their own site in their own community by picking up shares at a primary site. We will compensate these folks for their time. So, if you’re motivated to do this, we want to talk to you.
The second CSA option for 2017 is a radical departure from any CSA programs I am aware of in the upper Midwest. We are calling this the Choice CSA program (after days spent pondering names, we gave up and settled on simple, go figure). This is not your usual CSA program at all. Not only does this program provide veggies, mushrooms, and fruit, but also grass fed beef, certified organic eggs and chicken, pork from our farm, fruit of all kinds, cheese, bread, dry goods, maybe even fermented foods, and many other things sourced from businesses with the values we have always upheld; organic and/or sustainable, whole, local, and small scale.
Here’s how this program works. We pilot in 2017 two pick up locations: the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park(east side Milwaukee) on Tuesdays from 4-7pm, and Tippecanoe Church in Bayview on Saturdays from 9-noon. You sign up for the full 33 week season (31 distributions, no July 4th or Labor day). Each member of your family signs up. There is different pricing for different age ranges. When you come to the drop site, we will have 14-20 different types of vegetables and herbs, 6-10 different cuts of meat, items such as fruit, bread, mushrooms, etc in bulk bins. You take what and the right amount of what your family needs for the week’s eating ahead. Some items will be monitored a bit, say only 2 pints of blueberries per person, so the last people that pick up have enough left for them too. We will approximate the right amount of meat animals to raise or purchase based on some expected rates of usage (1/3 pig/person/season for example), and communicate what that looks like so that we, as a group, can maintain a meat supply for the entire season.
We envision closer communication with members, before and during the season, to help make sure that we understand your individual needs as eaters, and are better prepared to meet them as your farmer. This will centralize the waste that can happen in a CSA season to being something that only we have to account for. No more crisper guilt for you, better returns on investment, and happier eaters for us. Everybody wins!
Here’s the genius of this model for us. When this takes off, we won’t need to lightly feed 1000 members to make a living, but will instead feed 100 families, to a deeper, possibly more meaningful level. Harvest and training of workers will be easier too, since now bunching beets or bagging salad mix to exactly .3# will be unnecessary. The hopes are to take this program year round as soon as we have good, heated facilities in which to wash, pack, and store products year round. This program will also allow us to develop more of our own specialty production of things on the farm, like krauts, perennial plantings like rhubarb, berries, and fruit and nut trees, and possibly bring more livestock rearing back into our operation. Growing veggies is great, but like many of your visions of the perfect farm, mine includes more than just a field full of vegetable crops and a couple pigs. This model gives us great motivation to develop a well-rounded farm, wherever that ends up being! Details about all of this are available right on the website, lotfotl.com. Check them out.
Lots of changes ahead, but really that’s no different than in any life. Everyone has challenges that are sudden or creeping in their time here on Earth. Our hope is that the way we intend to turn ours into opportunities works well for us and you, and puts us on a trajectory to meet 2020 as 40 something’s with a stronger, more exciting farming model, with deeper relationships to the people we feed, better paid workers and farm financials, and happier days, period. In year 10 of LotFotL Community Farm then, we are not standing still, but massaging this great relationship we have developed between us, working out the kinks, trying to make something great. Hopefully you’ll come along. Don’t listen to what you hear on the news. 2017 is gonna be something special, especially in your kitchens, and on the rolling fields of LotFotL Community Farm.
All the best and with gratitude,

Your Farmer,