Sunday, July 20, 2008


It is crazy how much we have learned already this summer.  I would take the garden and blow it up and start over if I could.  I would plant rows farther apart.  In long rows.  I would use more mulch.   And Id space the rows so I could drive the tractor among the plants.  I would have caged the tomatoes.  And...well, you get the picture.  This year was always intended as a learning year, especially since we werent living at the farm in the spring. 

Now that we are getting used to the lay of the land, we are already thinking about next season.   We have many questions to answer; how many families to invite into the CSA, how many chickens can we process at one time, do we buy sheep for meat or fiber, what kind of breeding stock do we buy for beef, do we buy breeding pigs, where do we put the cattle barn, do we need facilities for the vegetable and fruit processing, how big of a walk in fridge do we buy, etc..

I have plenty of ideas myself.   I think I can answer most of those questions, but I also need to find out what my customers might want.   Perhaps what I want is not in line with what my customers need.  

It is interesting that one of our current customers is also involved in a different CSA.  They have told me that the other farm barely gives them any vegetables every week.  A small handful of snap peas.  A couple of small bunches of herbs.  Maybe.  And excuses.  Oh, there wont be much this week.  The heat is bad.  The bugs are bad.   I was told that they are getting more from us, and we arent charging anyone this summer!  

I think we have a future.  

Really, we need to be able to charge a premium for our produce and meats and eggs and fiber, but we also want to give our core customers not only a premium product, but also a greater quantity than they might get elsewhere.  The benefit for us as a farm is to bring in the guaranteed income that a CSA provides.  The model calls for the customer to pay up front.  It lets us see our budget up front and helps mitigate some financial risk because the customer shares in the risk.  Its not all on the farmer.  In order to pay off on that insurance, I think it is a bit like paying a dividend on that policy by providing a bit extra for the customer.  Like an extra helping of green beans, or a few more tomatoes than you might get from a traditional CSA.  Or providing some extra produce if the customer wants to pick their own on any given day.

So please, feel free to post suggestions in the comments section.   What do you want from your local farm?  What is important to you?  Is organic important?  Or is knowing your farmer more important?  Is USDA certified organic important or is simply knowing that your farmer isnt using pesticides or chemical fertilizers or herbicides the more important factor?   Would you be interested in other farm fresh products like breads, jams, jellies, yogurt, cheese, dairy?  Or other farm products like organic straw or hay?  What about pond raised catfish?  Do you want to pick your own produce?  Would you prefer a work-share?  

Oh, so many questions...

But hey, time to start planning!


Chatham Gardens said...

I have had a very good experience with a local CSA this year, my first year. Deliveries began on June 18 and will continue until the last week of October. My CSA is a co-op of 6 area farms so it spreads some of the risk but they were very upfront in managing expectations, knowing that June deliveries will be lighter then July and Aug. Each week I have also received 1 or 2 loaves of fresh baked bread. I know it is filler for the lighter weeks but it was enjoyable. There have also been berries in each week's share and I must say that if the quantity was any larger, there would be a lot of waste. I think quality is the more important factor.

Blue Heron Farm said...

I think -- and take this or leave it as you will - that you need to decide what kind of CSA you want to be. And it seems to me like the answer is produce.

I think that trying to add chickens, beef and fiber yourselves is asking for a lot of stress, heartache and pain. And the investment of both time and money to meet the regulations on those things? Ai!

If you want to add those items occasionally to your shares, it should probably be in a co-op fashion with farmers who specializer in those products. You will be spread thinly enough just trying to grow vegetables.

Our farmer friend Brad does a lot of diverse plantings of heirloom and more traditions vegetables for his CSA. ( You WILL have crop failures. He's been at this for a while, is extraordinarily knowledgeable and experienced, but he still has failures. The drought we are having wiped out his eggplants. All of 'em. But he had plenty of other things planted, so his customers (members) will still get fed. Planting enough variety to make up for it will help avoid the situations you have heard about. But it will happen. To you, too. Just stay realistic and it will help avoid many tears down the road. Take it from a farmer who has wept plenty over spilled milk. :) said...

Im actually more excited about pastured poultry and grass fed beef than I am the vegetable CSA. My idea is to have a very small CSA, perhaps 10 families, and then have a herd of grass fed beef cattle. Perhaps followed by a small herd of sheep and goats in order to help cut down on parasites. The CSA is sort of a means to produce veggies for ourselves and a few other families and to provide a customer base for the beef and poultry. The farm doesnt have to make us millions. In fact, if the only thing it ever does is feed us and make us some really good friends, then it will be a huge success.

We like food. Good food. What drives me is the holistic idea of a well rounded farm. The managed grazing goes well with multiple species grazing, beef, lamb, pork, poultry, all following each other in the rotation. The parasite load is reduced, the pastures improve faster and better, and the variety of products is better. Eggs from pastured hens are better. They scratch through the cow pies and eat fly larvae. The increased stocking density helps beat up the pastures and spread manure around more completely. The pastures respond with greater complexity of species and increased dry matter and better quality forage for the animals.

I like the CSA model because of the financial security that it offers. What I am working on is figuring out how to do a meat CSA. There is a demand for grass fed, organic beef. Its going to take some serious work to figure out how best to make the meat CSA model work, but I think its something that very few producers are doing. And I liked processing the chickens. Plus, they taste so good...

Blue Heron Farm said...

Aaaaah...well, then a meat CSA is a fine starting place, too. Doesn't stone barns offer one? Remember that they have scads of employees each who specialize in skills.

I understand everything you are saying - and we are into MIG, etc. I am totally psyched for every new farm to choose this path.--- but I will tell you it is nothing I have ever seen anyone be able to do their first year.

We are building up to it here. Brad just added cows to his CSA farm 3 years in...but not meat to his CSA. It is much harder in practice than in a Salatin book. Trust me on this. But I think it's a great model.

My best advice stands - don't try to bite off too much the first year. This is what causes people to give up. Small manageable steps are going to be important to your sanity and your long-term success.

Christian and I wonder if maybe Farmer's Markets wouldn't be the way to go your first year, too. The stress of having pre-paid customers your first year, when you have never raised and slaughtered meat animals before, may cause a number of sleepless nights.

Again - I am trying to offer a slice of "been there" - not be discouraging in any way. I am totally jazzed for you guys.

--Lisa said...

Great advice. My thinking is that the process will take several years to get running. I will most likely start off with a dozen or so stocker cattle. I might not even get to the point of processing them. I may simply raise them for a year or less and then sell them. Just use them as a means to improve the pasture. I may even simply bring in someone elses cattle and rotate them through the pastures. I will concentrate on eggs and broilers next year. I will need the cattle to help get the pastures rejuvenated. They wont be ready to process for a good while anyway. We are planning on keeping things small for the near future, the next 3 years or so and see where it takes us. I dont have a problem with scrapping something and starting something else entirely if its more fun or more profitable.

But I am obsessed with MIG and pastured poultry.

I figure we will start out with a flock of maybe 25-30 laying hens. Whatever the minimum order happens to be from one of the local hatcheries. We will probably do 25 broilers in the first batch. Then if that goes well we will go up to maybe 50 in the next batch. Id like to do about 100 every 2 or 3 weeks over the summer.

We will do a couple-three hogs as well. We are going to start them this September or so. Should be ready to go before Christmas that way. Then get another handful of piglets ready in time for Easter.

And Im with you about building up slowly. The problem I was having was that the federal government CRP programs were going to require me to have a pretty large number of animal units for the farm. Perhaps as much as 16000 pounds of animals before I could get funding for fencing and watering. But that has been taken care of and Ill be applying for a different program now that will take into account how big the animals will eventually become and not how big they already are. I was worried Id need a huge herd of feeder cattle!

As it is, we will probably be able to get away with 6-8 stocker calves, 6-10 sheep and goats and a couple of pigs. We are going to have a great time. said...

You should really look into attending the next PASA convention at State College, PA. Its a wonderful conference. People from all across the country attend. Good networking. Only drawback is its in Pennsylvania in February. :(

Blue Heron Farm said...

Awesome. We are so excited for y'all. Can't wait to see your chicken tractors, etc.

Oh - and chickens LOVE cucumbers. Ha ha ha.

Andrew N. Carpenter said...

Mike, I don't have any business advice to offer to you, and certainly no technical farming advice, but I do have two comments:

First, the principle of sharing risks and sharing benefits strieks me as an important way for you to maintain an ethical and a healthy relationship with your customers.

Second, with respect to what to offer I suggest that you follow your own passions and interests, which may allow you to learn the most, to have the most fun, and to create the highest degree of quality. Since you are thinking about having only a few CSA customers at first, you don't have a strong need to tailor your decisions to others' preferences and instead can find a market that values your own choices.

Good luck with your planning, and we'd love to enjoy more produce whenever you wish to share again!