The Tricky Business Of Farming — CSA Style

Jul 9, 2013
Originally published on July 9, 2013 2:46 pm

Within the local food movement, the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model is highly valued. You buy a share of a farmer’s produce up-front as a shareholder, then if all goes well, you reap the rewards at harvest time.

But running a CSA can bring with it some tricky business decisions.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Harvest Public Media’s Luke Runyon reports.

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Well, staying with business, within the local food movement, the community-supported agriculture or CSA model is highly valued. You buy a share of a farmer's produce upfront, you become an investor or shareholder. And if all goes well, you reap the rewards at harvest time. But running a CSA can bring with it some tricky business decisions. From the HERE AND NOW Contributor's Network, Harvest Public Media's Luke Runyon reports.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Megan Williams bounced across a grassy hill towards several rows of green shoots coming out of the ground.

MEGAN WILLIAMS: Well, I just want to check out this garlic.

RUNYON: Williams and her boyfriend, Michael Baute, began this small vegetable farm in Fort Collins, Colorado last year. Both had farmed as apprentices before but wanted their own space and their own business.

MICHAEL BAUTE: People ask if we're married and we say, oh, no, we're way beyond that. We own a small organic farm together.


BAUTE: We you spend a lot of time on the farm and shown a great margin, profit margin. So in the beginning, it's definitely a struggle.

RUNYON: A struggle many small business owners will understand. But running a small farm comes with unique challenges. Baute and Williams decided to split their business in thirds. Two-thirds of their produce goes to the farmer's market and local restaurants. The rest feeds their 35 CSA shareholders. Local folks sign up at the beginning of the spring, write a check to the farm and hope for a good year.

WILLIAMS: And like the stock market, like, you can have a good year or a bad year, and sometimes it pays off. And, you know, it doesn't pay off in money. It pays off in food.

DR. DAWN THILMANY: The CSA model is probably the deepest commitment a customer can have with the farm. But it's also very difficult to run well.

RUNYON: That's Dawn Thilmany, a professor of agriculture, economics at Colorado State University.

THILMANY: It's just a richer relationship. And anytime there's a richer relationship in any form, but mostly in business, it's going to mean you have to do a lot of planning to make sure can honor all of your promises.

RUNYON: That's one of the biggest concerns when running a CSA, the promise. Here's why: CSAs allow a farmer to spread out the risk of running a small farm. Customers share a portion of the risk, whether it be in the form of late season frosts, pesky bugs or hailstorms. Thilmany says small farms can usually communicate that risk to members, a tougher task for bigger farms. One bad season could sour even the most loyal members.

THILMANY: Once you have a ding on your record that someone was disappointed, it's really hard to get your reputation back.

JOHN HENDRICKSON: There are very serious challenges as you scale up any kind of farm.

RUNYON: John Hendrickson studies small vegetable farms at the University of Wisconsin. He conducted a survey of farms that were using the CSA model back in the late '90s. He says farmers came across problems when they started to grow the farm to begin making more money. It's tempting to expand quickly when the weather is cooperating and customers are clamoring for a CSA share.

HENDRICKSON: It's fairly easy to fall into a trap of growing larger than you intended even in the very first season.

RUNYON: Another problem is the lack of reliable data on what works and what doesn't. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is starting to take notice of innovative local food systems. They've commissioned a nationwide survey of CSA farms with forms going out this year.

BAUTE: A little clover coming in.

RUNYON: Back at their farm in Fort Collins, Meghan Williams and Michael Baute say they're taking the slow growth approach. They just barely broke even last year without giving themselves a paycheck.

BAUTE: There is more ways to quantify success than just maximizing economic gain. And so for us, to be out here with our dogs and to make our own decisions, you know, that's success.

RUNYON: Baute says as long as they're making ends meet, a small CSA works just fine. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.


YOUNG: And Luke's story comes to us from the Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project on agriculture and food production issues. Coming up, Margo Howard from America's advice column dynasty in one minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.