Buying the Farm
Subscription produce boosts sustainable agriculture
By Bruce Robinson
THE FIRST TIME I brought home a basket, the stuff was so fresh it was just glistening,” says Betsy Timm, recalling her initial experience on the receiving end of a fresh produce subscription from Leonard Diggs’ Organics in Forestville. Her family was quick to share her enthusiasm. “My son is a total convert,” Timm laughs. “He doesn’t want to eat anyone’s carrots but Leonard’s.”
Lawrence Jaffe, co-owner of Left Field Farm southwest of Santa Rosa, recognizes that pattern, chuckling as he recalls a customer whose young daughter “wouldn’t eat anything that didn’t have a cute name.” He provided the indulgent mother with small globe-shaped Thumbalina carrots, and everyone was satisfied.
Freshness, unusual selections, and mutual satisfaction are the hallmarks of subscription farming, an innovative form of agricultural marketing that is fast finding a home in Sonoma County. Also known as “community-supported agriculture,” subscription farms offer customers a weekly box of fresh-picked produce–whatever’s ripe that week–for a fixed price, typically between $12 and $30 per week. Boxes can be picked up at the farms or at central drop-off points that require less driving. Customers subscribe for an entire growing season, getting a collection of produce that, in any given week, might include salad mix, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, beets, broccoli, berries, herbs, apples and pears.
“The CSAs are a really terrific alternative to farm markets and a real opportunity for people to get to know the farmers and feel more connected to the land of the different farms,” agrees Timm, who is also the executive director of Select Sonoma, the Sonoma County Agriculture Marketing Program. “It’s a good opportunity for the farmers that don’t want to do the farm markets and don’t have the quantity for retail. This is like a third market.”
“It makes a lot of sense to know who your customers are ahead of time and know that what you’re growing is going to be needed at the end,” agrees Jaffe, a former composting instructor. “It’s even better than having regular customers at the farmers’ markets.”
While the farmers’ markets remain a vital outlet for many small farmers, the logistics of having a stall at two or three each week require a lot of time and effort, “including lots of packing time,” notes Lee James of Tierra Vegetables in Healdsburg. After 16 years of those weekly trips, “everything is getting heavier,” she says wryly, adding, “I’m hoping it will be less physically demanding” to service subscription customers instead.
Selling subscriptions allows James and her brother Wayne to maintain the personal contacts they have established with longtime customers while devoting more of their energy to actual farming. “A lot of our things require some salesmanship, because they’re unique and different items,” continues James, whose farm is known for its prodigious variety of peppers. “If we’re selling it to the box deliveries, we can write it down and run it through the Xerox machine and only do it once.”
Jaffe sees the distribution of less familiar crops as one of the big pluses of subscription farming. “Anybody can grow a regular russet potato, and we will. But we’re also growing purple potatoes and red potatoes and white, yellow-skinned potatoes and blue potatoes. We’re taking the ordinary vegetables and making them exciting. This year we’re going to offer not just white cauliflower and green broccoli, but purple cauliflower and purple broccoli and green cauliflower.” And to take the edge off the unexpected, Jaffe adds that he and his farm partner, Ann Austin, also provide recipe ideas, “so that even though it’s kind of unfamiliar, you can make it into something that, even if maybe it’s not a favorite, makes you glad you put in the time.”
ACCORDING TO JAFFE, the concept of subscription farming was pioneered in Japan and was later brought to the United States from West Germany via the Biodynamic Association. “A few people started trying it only as recently as 10 years ago in this country,” he reports. “Since then it has literally doubled every year. This year there are 54 farms doing subscriptions in California, and last year there were only half that.”
“We’ve been doing it since before we knew that they were called CSAs or subscription farming,” says Lee James, who counts eight years of experience. “I don’t remember how we first came up with it. We must have heard about it someplace. We just did home deliveries on a small, small scale.”
Summerfield Waldorf School, which boasts a sizable organic farm at its campus near the Laguna de Santa Rosa, was another early practitioner. They have prepared as many as 100 boxes a week, “not entirely within our community, but mostly,” says school administrator John Jackson. “We used to deliver baskets to other Waldorf schools” in Marin, San Francisco, and the East Bay. “That’s our easiest community to serve. We don’t do a whole lot of marketing outside the school.”
Farmers who do need to market themselves more actively have joined together to form the CSA Alliance, an affiliation of six to eight local farms offering subscription produce. Not only are they promoting the concept collectively, but James sees the fledgling organization as a vehicle for cooperative packaging, too. “Many farmers can’t do it alone, because they’re not diverse enough,” she explains. “I think we could come up with a fabulous box that would be very diverse, with mushrooms and fancy fruits.”
At the same time, James says, it will probably require someone who is not a farmer to organize and implement such an ambitious concept. “It’s non-farmers we have to get interested in the CSA movement,” she says. “Sustainable agriculture involves not only ecological farming, but economics. It’s useless to maintain a good farm if you’re bankrupt.”
Anton Farms: Todd Gettleman, P.O. Box 395, Sebastopol, CA 95473. 829-8865
Laguna Farm: Scott Mathieson, 1764 Cooper Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472. 823-0823
Left Field Farm: Ann Austin and Lawrence Jaffe, 4220 Walker Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95407. 829-8102
Leonard Diggs Organic Farms: P.O. Box 1552, Forestville, CA 95436. 838-8912
Ocean Song: Eric Anderson, P.O. Box 659, Occidental, CA 95465. 874-2442
Pauline Bond Community Farm: Richard Dale,19990 Seventh St., E. Sonoma, CA 95476. 996-1807
Sweetwater Farm: 417 Furlong Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472. 829-3203
Tierra Vegetables: Lee and Wayne James, 13684 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448. 433-5666
From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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© 1996 Metro Publishing and Virtual Valley, Inc.