Photos by Brent Harrewyn
Farmers have always been innovative. It should probably be a required skill set, especially for young farmers who have yet to discover the fickleness of Mother Nature or just how deep they’ll have to dig into their own physical reserves and determination to farm. Innovation on a farm is a daily necessity. Today Vermont farmers have to stretch their innovation muscles well beyond finding a quick “fix” for a broken tractor into new ways to connect local food with their community. That’s because the term community-supported agriculture— better known as CSA—is morphing. From the traditional model of on-the-farm food pickups to online distribution sites that source local food from multiple farms, community members have more choices than ever to buy local.
One might call Full Moon Farm owners Dave Zuckerman and Rachel Nevitt traditionalists with a twist. They serve a 200- to 250-person CSA membership each year, growing over 200,000 pounds of food at their 151-acre farm in Hinesburg. Both Zuckerman and Nevitt have farming in their blood and have a long list of farming experience.
Zuckerman, who splits his time between farming and politics in the Vermont Legislature, knew he wanted to create something unique when he began his farm in 1998 in Burlington’s Intervale Center. Today members of Full Moon Farm’s CSA don’t get a basket of pre-picked food each week; instead they shop for their local, organic produce at a “pop-up style” farmers market.
“Ours is sort of a hybrid model,” said Zuckerman. “We bring certified organic, locally produced food to a convenient location for people living and working in Burlington, and we offer them choice.” It’s a full-day process to create this type of shopping experience for their CSA members, which is why Zuckerman and Nevitt only offer two shop sites weekly. “We also have a lot of our members come to the farm to pick up their shares and it’s the same format. They have input on how many carrots or kale they want each week.”
Finding ways to offer more local food choices to consumers is the reason that Suzy Hodgson created an online solution for Charlotte. “I was really surprised at the number of people around me that would drive to Costco on the weekends to buy food,” said Hodgson. “We have farms growing vegetables and fruit, dairy products and raising livestock for meat, and people would choose a supermarket instead of a farm. I wanted to do something about that.”
Hodgson and her business partners, Mike Walker and Joe Messingschlager, launched YourFarmStand.com in 2010 to provide an online market of local food products grown and raised by independent farmers and producers. Their model requires a community coordinator at the helm of each online market—they now have nearly 20 markets—in order to secure a stable pickup location, work with local farmers and recruit community support to spend their food dollars here. People who shop the online market aren’t required to have a minimum order or even to buy each week.
“The flexibility that we provide in creating access to local food, we feel is another layer that we want to bring to the marketplace,” said Hodgson. “We are not a CSA. We are different. But both our model and the traditional CSA are rooted in creating a community that supports local agriculture.”
According to Full Moon Farm owners Nevitt and Zuckerman, when people are deciding to commit to local food they want to know the farmer and talk to him or her about the food and the growing process; to build a relationship. Transparency back to the source of local food can also happen online, says YourFarmStand.com’s Hodgson. “All people have to do is click on the farmer’s profile and send them an email. We think that all of us need more ways to connect to farms but our philosophy is to make the connections easier for people.”
Offering convenience is another battle cry for local food aggregators, as the marketplace for consumers’ local food dollars gets more competitive. With over 100 CSAs in Vermont, some farms and organizations have decided to team up to create more offerings, less risk for consumers and a convenient delivery to members’ places of business. That’s what the Intervale Food Hub has been doing for the past five years.
“We chose to develop a workplace delivery model to create a new market for farmers,” said Food Hub Manager Sona Desai. “We felt that this model was an open market and one that would be difficult for a single farmer to serve.”
Desai says that the Intervale Food Hub is more like a local grocery cooperative than a traditional CSA. “We are multi-farm, we eliminate member risk, we provide convenient delivery, we offer payment options, we encourage online shopping and we provide a wide diversity of products.”
Another student of the CSA model is FarmersToYou.com, an online market created by Greg Georgakalis in 2009. But instead of creating a community around local food in Vermont, they work to make the connections for farmers and consumers in and around Boston. “If sustainable agriculture, small-scale, high-quality craft farming is going to thrive we need a new model to connect the farmers to families,” said Georgakalis. The FarmersToYou.com team delivers fresh Vermont produce, meats, dairy and baked goods to Boston-area families at 11 pickup sites mostly located at schools, community centers, churches or businesses.
“We are dealing with farmers in Vermont who are looking for more markets in which to sell,” Georgakalis said. “They need more to be fully sustainable. The producers are extremely enthusiastic and want us to continue to develop the market in Boston.”
This online food market requires families to make a minimum financial commitment of $40 each week. Georgakalis says that this type of farmer-to-consumer partnership needs to have a commitment from both parties in order for it to be successful. “I am a farmer and have consulted with farmers,” Georgakalis said. “The CSA farms were struggling because it’s a very difficult business model. You have to grow an enormous variety of food and there are different types of logistics, including customer service, picking and packing. It’s a different skill set that many farmers don’t have. “
Full Moon Farm’s Zuckerman doesn’t see the business model as flawed. In fact, he says that CSAs were originally started to help farming become more viable. “Customers would receive the freshest food and stay connected to the farmer and the land. They would see the farm every week, experience the ups and downs of the reality of farm life.”
Today, the term CSA is used more loosely to describe many ways that farmers get fresh, local food directly to consumers. While this might make sustaining purely traditional CSAs more challenging, it forces farmers to start stretching those ever-important innovation muscles. Even Full Moon Farm has expanded on the classic CSA model.
“We’ve started a summer camp for kids on the farm, we are exploring on-farm dinners and have even started a Facebook page,” Zuckerman said. While the CSA landscape continues to diversify and evolve, the need for innovation endures.