Viability of CSA models in bad times

kanute
By kanute on Tue, Jan 27, 2015 - 3:57pm

My wife and I are embarking on a small farming adventure.  We have several acres of fruit trees and garden space we are working on building into a small organic, permaculture based, market farm.  We are both working full time jobs that pay well and are slowly buying equipment and installing fencing and irrigation and starting a small food forest.  

My question is, how viable is this model during times of real economic stress?  I know a lot of people who enter into hard times and suddenly stop buying organic because of price.  Most of the financial models I've looked into require charging a premium for produce in either a CSA style model or on-farm sales, farmers markets, or restaurants.

When times get rough, that really expensive raw milk herd share will be one of the first things to go for a family that suddenly just needs to focus on getting enough food on the table, regardless of quality.

I was always of the opinion that a properly designed farm which limits off-farm inputs and dependence on large scale machinery would fare better than its large ag counterparts.  My concept was that my costs would stay static while the large ag costs would continue to escalate.  It's a good theory, assuming I can still charge a premium for my products.  It's a bad theory if I can't charge that premium and the government prints money to subsidize the industrial ag model to 'feed the people'.

 

24 Comments

Thetallestmanonearth's picture
Thetallestmanonearth
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Great question.  My wife and

Great question.  My wife and I are both working as well and working on establishing a small food forest and a large garden as well as a small nursery for perennial veggies and trees.  Right now the project is a money pit which is ok well we can afford it.  Our thought is that, aside from it being the right thing to do, it will give us a lot of options if/when things go bad.  We'll be able to supply a portion of our own food and have enough left over to sell/barter/share with neighbors, family and friends.  As far as a profit model, I think if it works now and allows you to continue to invest in natural capital and infrastructure improvements, that is good enough.  When the next crisis comes the fall out will be unpredictable.  If fuel and fertilizer becomes expensive, that will drive up costs of Monsanto corn you will still be able to compete with your lower input costs. In that scenario, I plan to get fabulously rich off potatoes....take that wall street! If everyone looses their jobs and millions of people are homeless and hungry, there will be a lot of people willing to trade/work for food. (Also might be a few willing to kill and steal for it).  The premium may not be there and you may not denominate your apples in dollars any more, but they will still have value.  Becoming a primary producer is, to my mind, the single most important thing you can do to improve your resilience.  You may never make enough money off your venture to fund your 401k plan, but is that really the goal?

What part of the country are you in?  I might sign up for a herd share from you if you're in the NW.  Way to go on working towards a positive vision of the future btw! Permaculture is where we're all going if we're going anywhere.

 

Heinzi's picture
Heinzi
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AG in tough times

I think you can't go wrong starting this. If you can make it work in the current economic climate, that's a good place to start. You can always adjust as the times change. It's always good to produce in the most cost-effective way, and that's usually in sync with nature. That way your margin will be that much bigger in "good" economic times, and hopefully still OK in less good times. I think though, that when things really go south, people might be happy, if they can get any milk at all. I think current industrial AG & Food industry is doomed  along with its supply chain... I think everyone who can continue to produce food, without massive fossil fuel based inputs is going to do well!

robshepler's picture
robshepler
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Community Supported Ag

Way to go on your new venture!

The CSA model seems to be working for growers and producers now. God only knows what the future looks like and where we will all be in relation to it.
The chances of our current food supply being impacted by an unknown future event of some sort is pretty good, the consequences of being impacted are pretty high. We think it is a good place to put a little time and money, the pay off tastes great too!

Last year was our first farmers market and it was wonderful to see the support of our community for what we are trying to do. We have about an acre of veggie production and an acre of orchard. We are getting a bit of a premium for our organically grown product in the next town over. This year we are starting a Farmers Market in our own community and hope to put up a road side stand. We are using the methods of Eliot Coleman and we find that they produce a BUNCH of food. We are working on producing our own compost. All of our chicken, cow and horse manure goes into a bin with all the dried vegetation we can gather, hope to compost it for two years.

Food or lack there in, is one of those basic needs that can drive a perfectly good person to do things they would not normally do. I am a pretty honorable guy and if I am honest with myself, I do not know what I am capable of doing to feed my kids. In the worst case scenario I would sure love to have an abundance of food to share with hungry neighbors, I would sure rather feed them than shoot them.

It is great to see the number of postings increasing in this forum! As important as wealth preservation is, I was a bit worried that there was too much chatter about gold and silver and not enough about DIRT.

KEEP POSTING. Tell us how your project is coming along!

sand_puppy's picture
sand_puppy
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More support for community ag

Franklin Sanders has a great quote:  

"The worlds economy may crash.  But the next morning 7 billion people will wake up and want breakfast."

kanute's picture
kanute
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Wow

I'm overwhelmed by the number and quality of responses.  Thanks everyone.  I'll respond to these and post a little more information on our plan when I get a chance today.

kanute's picture
kanute
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Thank you for mentioning

Thank you for mentioning 'natural capital'.  The 5 forms of capital, as a concept, really resonates with me.  I do often forget about it though after being caught up in the world of dollars and paper assets.

I do believe there is much more investing I can do on the social capital side.  I happen to live about a mile from an active grange hall and my wife and I have been planning on joining and participating but just haven't found the time yet.

I'm in Oregon's Willamette Valley about 20 miles from Eugene/Springfield.  We don't have the land currently to start a mob grazing style cattle operation.  We are currently members of a herd share with a farm that is only a mile down the street from us, which is why I mentioned it.  It is expensive, I think with some better financial management it can be much less expensive, but if times got rough for me personally I might have to say goodbye to my raw milk although it is pure heaven.

I have been judiciously studying anything that Allen Savory or Greg Judy put out.  I'm continually amazed by the more conventional (old school?) farmers around me who still buy an incredible amount of hay and turn over and replant pasture year after year with ginormous green machines.  Because I live in in the grass seed capital of the world, where I can't kick over a piece of dirt and not have grass growing on it in a matter of days, I don't understand why so many of these fields are managed this way.

 

kanute's picture
kanute
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Thanks Heinzi, I tend to

Thanks Heinzi, I tend to agree.  I watched a great BBC series not long ago called Wartime Farm.  I think its easily available on YouTube.  One of my concerns in a collapse scenario is actually losing my land because I'm not farming it the way that the USDA wants me to farm it to maximize yield.

I think there is some historical precedence for governments stepping in during food crises and micromanaging farms under the banner of a food crisis.  It definitely happened in England. 

That being said, that is something tough to plan for.  

I'm a huge fan of permaculture, even got my permaculture design certificate from Geoff Lawton a few years ago.  I am, however, worried about the term being targeted in the future and have learned since that when talking to some of the farming extension services or researching or applying for grants using terms like agroforestry is much more ideal.

Another thought that occured to me would be to keep the farm split up in separate legal entities owning smaller blocks of land assuming that if regulations did filter down there would be a cutoff based on acreage.

kanute's picture
kanute
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Thanks Rob, I agree, some of

Thanks Rob, I agree, some of the local farms who seem to being doing the best have a large part of their revenue coming from CSA.  A farm about an hour from us, Working Hands Farm, does an incredible CSA and they also happen to do a fantastic job of leveraging social media as well.  

I think a diversified model consisting of farmers markets and other revenue streams has got to be the most ideal.  

I do agree that food is one of those things that will take even the highest minded individual and turn them into a savage.  I don't think there is a realistic limit to what I might do if I was forced to look at my two children as they starved.

For Christmas, I received a book I'd been wanting for awhile by Joseph Tainter called The Collapse of Complex Societies.  I was particular interested in the evidence from some of the early Egyptian dynasties where the farmers had to wear shields and carry weapons while working in the fields.  I believe we are all conditioned to the last 50 or 60 years of unbelievable abundance and have a difficult time thinking seriously about the alternative.  

If you have read any of Ferfal's accounts of the collapse in Argentina, it was the rural farm areas that were at serious risk because people eventually realized that that is where the food was.  What made it worse, is that the law enforcement pulled back to protect the wealthy neighborhoods in the cities and there was no response in rural areas.  This is basically true for the county I live in where there may only be one sheriff on patrol in the entire county, and its a sizeable one.

I do buy a little silver every month, but I do agree that an investment in some metal in my safe is not as good as investment in the BCS tractor and implements I purchased this year or perennial fruit and nut trees that produce a sizeable dividend every year.

I'm also a fan of Eliot.  I've bought several collinear hoes and have started building soil blocks (with mixed success) and standardized on 30" beds etc.  

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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seperate legal entities?

Another thought that occurred to me would be to keep the farm split up in separate legal entities owning smaller blocks of land assuming that if regulations did filter down there would be a cutoff based on acreage.

While there may be an acreage cutoff, there may also be a regulatory burden per farm. If so, that strategy will make things worse. But then, there is no way to know for sure. All I know is that the 8-page form the USDA sent me about what my "farm" grew was very, very invasive. (And it's not a farm, it's a suburban kitchen garden.)

There is more than one way to skirt the acreage issue. While we only have a kitchen garden in a suburban yard, there is a forest, pond, and grassland behind out property flanking and under a utility right-of-way. People are encouraged to grow things under the grassy are under the high tension wires, since it keeps the weeds and saplings down - just leave a lane for trucks on one side and the areas under the electrical towers clear. And while they don't want you cutting down trees, they have no objection to you planting them. So we've been replacing storm-felled oaks with Chinese chestnuts. Neighbors have rows of veggies there. This will only increase as times get tougher, but we prefer permaculture solutions: they are less likely to be stripped at harvest since they look like part of the landscape.

I'm continually amazed by the more conventional (old school?) farmers around me who still buy an incredible amount of hay and turn over and replant pasture year after year with ginormous green machines.

As to the grass, hay and pasture thing: I hear you. Here in SC we have two strategies for idle agricultural land: perennial Bermuda hay, or forested southern pines. There are numerous beef cattle ranches nearby and horse farms quite close, and none of them plow pasture; they just rotate their herds through various fenced pastures.  It's the same way in PA, where I was born.

I suppose it might be somewhat useful for farmers that turn over and replant pasture if they till something like alfalfa into the soil. But animal dung is a much better source of nitrogen, and it's no-till. So I share your confusion.

Finally, I am going to take Geoff Lawton's permaculture course this year.  Was it as good as it sounds?

kanute's picture
kanute
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That's a good point regarding

That's a good point regarding 'per farm'.  

I've never heard or seen anyone in my area planting under high tension wires.  I'm wondering if I should approach the local utility and ask about it.  

Lawton's course was fantastic.  It got off to a little bit of a slow start because he more or less mirrors the Permaculture Designers Manual and so you spend a lot of time in Patterns.  At first, I was antsy to get onto the more exciting stuff like planting guilds and especially earthworks but as the course progressed I realized how important the pattern chapters really are and how they can be applied.

Ultimately it was worth every penny and the time to go through it.  I was in the first online course he offered and they were kind enough to add additional sections like the earthworks course which was great.  Some of the best information is in the Q&A videos where Geoff spends hours sitting down and just answering questions from people all over the world.   

 

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
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many times its been said

on this site and others, "fully expect to be indentured to your farm, for the furtherance of the cause." I fully expect to be required to produce for the FDA.\

father, farmer......

 

robshepler's picture
robshepler
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Soil blocks

We tried soil blocks last year and were a bit skeptical at first....until we saw the results! We have become HUGE fans of the system, transplanting really works for us on many veggies.

Best onions we have ever grown, best lettuce, best dill, basil etc, etc. On down the line.

If we can help you at all, or talk you through issues please let us know.

kanute's picture
kanute
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Eventually toward the end I

Eventually toward the end I figured out that the compost I was using had way too much unbroken down woody material in it.  I started screening some of it but then lost most of the volume.  I think thats what I get for buying compost instead of focusing on making the high quality stuff.  Essentially the blocks didn't stay together very well.  Any input would be appreciated.

suziegruber's picture
suziegruber
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Riverhill Farm - Friend of the Farm Card

Hi Kanute,

Good luck with your new adventure.  While I was at the EcoFarm conference last week, I heard a talk by Alan Haight of Riverhill Farm that I found quite interesting.  He ditched the CSA model a number of years ago in favor of a "Friend of the Farm" card.  People purchase a card from him valued at anywhere from $150 to $300 and they use it to buy vegetables from him at his farm stand or at the two farmers markets he does.  He gets significant pre-season capital this way ($45,000 last year) and it allows him to grow only the most profitable, popular vegetables rather than having to grow a seasonal variety necessary for a CSA.  He emphasized that he really benefits from lower crop diversity.  He also tracks everything on the farm and on the financial side using very detailed Excel spreadsheets so he see the seasonal gaps in what he's growing as compared to what he's selling etc.  I just thought you might find this of interest.

--Suzie

kanute's picture
kanute
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Thank you so much!  I find

Thank you so much!  I find that extremely interesting.  Most of the market farmers I've talked to who don't do a CSA model and are numbers oriented say the same thing:  some crops just don't have the margins and aren't worth growing.  

But in a CSA model, you can't just fill the box with the high margin vegetables.

On our small test plot (23 - 100ft rows 30" beds), we plan on buying a quality scale and keeping extensive records so that we can crunch the numbers and get a really good idea of the costs and time per row/per crop.  I'm even putting in electric valves for drip tape at every row and controlling it all with OpenSprinkler so individual crops and rows can have very specific irrigation schedules and remove the labor of moving sprinklers or turning valves. 

I'm assuming he offers those cards during the off season to build his pre-season capital and includes some sort of discount over the market price throughout the year for card holders?

suziegruber's picture
suziegruber
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Yes.  That's my sense of why

Yes.  That's my sense of why he does it.  Here's a list of the spreadsheets he discussed:

Crop Harvest Schedule – Excel spreadsheet by week – allows you to identify gaps and shift plantings if necessary.

Planting Schedule – includes direct seeded, transplant seeded and field planting.  It also displays succession planting for appropriate crops.  Plantings depend a lot on market conditions.  Some things sell better at a farmers market than at the farm store.

Seeding Log – date seeded, quantity, number of cells, crop, variety

Planting Log – date planted, variety, transplant or direct seed, which field (crop rotation), row spacing, number of rows per bed, number of rows per bed.

Fertility Log – date field was amended, rate treated, field number

Pick List – priorities by time of day, what customer picked for

They record the volume they bring back from a market, so they can adjust the volume.  The goal is to sell everything that is brought to market. 

Alan emphasized that all of this record keeping makes it much easier when he has to show the organic certification folks what he does.  He can just print the spreadsheets.  There is no information to assemble.

robshepler's picture
robshepler
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Soil blocks

Kanute, the compost might just be it. We used both purchased and home made compost last year, all of it was sifted through 1/4 x 1/4 hardware cloth. Maybe you should try a bit of commercial blocking mix for comparison? Did they fall apart during watering? We used a "Wonder Waterer" wand that has laser cut holes in the head, seems to give a fine spray and is more gentile on the blocks.

Your growing area is about what we had in our first year, auto watering is the way to go! takes a bunch of work out of it. We used T-tape and battery operated timers to run zones. My biggest chore was weeding, we ended up having an infestation of Bind Weed that required weekly intervention.

Waterdog14's picture
Waterdog14
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Recommended soil block mix?

This will be our first year using the soil blocker.  Until now, we've gardened on a large scale and used newspaper pots and peat pots (and cow pots) for seedlings.  This year, we're upscaling from gardening to farming as we slowly phase 4 acres into production.  Do you have a recommended mix for soil blocker?  Or do you follow Eliot Coleman's recipe?

robshepler's picture
robshepler
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Soil block mix

It looks like Eliot Coleman has altered his mix slightly over the years. What works for us is

Using a 2 gallon bucket

Three buckets of sifted peat, two buckets of sifted compost, one bucket of sifted soil, two buckets of perlite. To that we add one cup green sand, one cup blood meal, one cup colloidal phosphate. This mixture is for 2" and larger blocks, we use a mixture of the same proportions for 3/4" blocks minus the perlite and the blood meal.

Mixing is a PIA, we have been carefully rolling a garbage can end over end while holding the lid in place, seems to work well for mixing but it is very cumbersome, might have to try a cement mixer this year.  

The mixture goes a long way if you are using the smaller blocks, once you start potting on to 4" blocks it goes away quickly! We have 3 Rubbermaid garbage cans full and ready to go for the season.

We are complete converts to this system and were a bit skeptical as we started it last year. I like that the roots "Air Prune", they really take off once the blocks are planted. We experienced almost NO TRANSPLANT SHOCK, which was a big surprise. The transplants did better than direct seeded items, being a little bigger and a little hardier they are not so prone to bug damage as young seedlings. In an area with a short season, transplanting gave us a harvest where missed out on one before. We are planning more heated greenhouse space to accommodate more soil blocks in the future. We hope that it will be duel use space as it only holds our seedlings for about 6 weeks in the spring.

Trays. We started out using a standard greenhouse tray for our mini blocks, four of those trays fit on our heat mat. When full there were almost 600 seedlings on that mat! We potted on to the 2" blocks and kept them in the same trays. Eliot uses wooden trays and we did too for the 4" blocks. 8 of them are about 15 pounds as I recall, too much weight for plastic trays. We cut small wood blocks to place against any side of a block that was not supported by a tray. It supports the block a bit during watering and keeps them from drying out as much. We are in limestone country and the PH of our water is very high, we water our seedling with captured rainwater the difference in plant health is huge. So much so that we have 13,000 gallons of catchment that we water our gardens with if we can.

POT ON EARLY! As soon as you get cotyledons put them in 2" blocks. Same goes for potting on to the 4" blocks, it is better to be too early than too late, it is just stunning the volume of roots these seedlings produce.

We love the system. We were asked to give a presentation to the local Master Gardeners last year after our success. We are a couple of newbies to commercial growing and it was a hoot to talk to the old pros!

 

 

Waterdog14's picture
Waterdog14
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Soil block mix

Rob,

That's excellent information - THANK YOU for sharing your expertise.  You're a Master Gardener in my book!

ronpoitras's picture
ronpoitras
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To mix potting soil,

To mix potting soil, minerals, fertilizers together consider this item.  Useful for many other small mixing jobs too.

http://www.amazon.com/Scepter-04239-7-Gallon-Odjob-Mixer/dp/B000BPK766

ronpoitras's picture
ronpoitras
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Posts: 23
To mix potting soil,

To mix potting soil, minerals, fertilizers together consider this item.  Useful for many other small mixing jobs too.

http://www.amazon.com/Scepter-04239-7-Gallon-Odjob-Mixer/dp/B000BPK766

kd6iwd@gmail.com's picture
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Posts: 25
wartime agriculture in Great Britan

On you tube there is a eight part program titled wartime farm, a bbc program showing the contribution of the agricultural industry to the war effort. I found this program very interesting for its accurate portrayal of 1940's technology and the importance of doubling the agricultural production for victory. One factor that I really appreciated was the fact that silage was used in Germany to make black bread. What really astonished me was that silage actually makes good if somewhat stringy black bread. Apparently the fermentation process produces a rather sweet bread. This might be something that could be of value in our effort to get the most out of a garden.

Best Regards

Jim

 

 

Bytesmiths's picture
Bytesmiths
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Posts: 220
robshepler wrote:Mixing is a
robshepler wrote:

Mixing is a PIA

We make our mixes in a wheelbarrow, with a hoe. Don't fill it over half, or you'll have to go over the edge. You can whip up a lot of soil fairly quickly this way.

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