Part 1 of 3: The Origin of Wayward
Part 2 of 3: Our CSA History and Business Outlook
As our CSA membership grew over the years, we hired more seasonal workers and started to see an outline of how we could employ many more farm workers year around. To create a local food system, we must turn low-paying, 5 month positions into living wage jobs. We needed to expand, but how? Our first choice has always been to expand our CSA numbers to around 350 members or more. This would ensure that we could have a year round management team. CSA farms need very skilled operators due to the diverse crop selection and demanding delivery schedule. And by 2011 we had established ourselves as a dependable producer and were attracting lots of wholesale inquiries. The CSA had grown to about 200 members, and we felt it was possible to market more shares. Conversely, the market had changed immensely in those five short years that we had been in business.
Except for the last couple of years, CSAs had been steadily growing throughout the US during the last two decades. They accomplished a number of things for farmers, mainly increasing the public awareness of local produce in terms of quality, and then stoking the demand for our products across all marketing portals. When we started to grow the operation, our marketing outlets were farmers’ markets, CSA and restaurants. The rapidly growing demand then turned to small specialty groceries. Also during that period, Whole Foods Market moved into our region, widely expanding consumer access to organic products. Their success of selling certified organic products and “buy local” marketing raised the bar, creating perhaps a new potential outlet for local, organic foods. We saw a real need for local farm businesses to scale and meet more commercial standards.
Broadly speaking, our farmers’ markets are wonderful, providing the farmer and customer with unparalleled interaction. This creates direct relationships in the food community and has always been the incubator for small businesses. However, the volume of wholesale associated to the grocery store business absolutely dwarfs the potential sales at farmers’ markets. Could we do both? Can local farmers service the highest quality to a wider range of consumers? This is difficult due to the finances associated with operating an organic farm that maintains a 40 percent labor budget. We have the capital and human resources to maintain a smaller business framework. Simply stated, the CSA investment essentially finances the CSA production with extra produce being sold to farmers’ markets and small restaurants.
To grow large quantities of food for the wholesale market, an operation must have a fairly large pool of operating capital to maintain and manage. Organic farming was and still is considered a very risky venture by traditional banking institutions. The stock market crash of 2008 has really created an even more risk adverse mentality with investors in regards to start-up ventures, negatively impacting many local farms’ ability to receive significant and affordable capital. CSA was and still is the primary financial mechanism of the local food movement. We are in a chicken or egg environment currently with the advent of the “natural grocery store.” Columbus will be getting its third Whole Foods this year and a Lucky’s recently opened in Clintonville. All of these stores and the entire grocery store system are salivating to carry local produce. Listen to a Giant Eagle, Walmart, or Kroger commercial these days and you will hear promises of local produce and food. Our little dream of regional food sovereignty and culture is here and present in 2014, the demand is here, and collective consciousness is here? Not so fast my friends.
Search the aisles of these beautiful, clean, bright stores and you won’t find hardly a lick of local, let alone local organic produce. The promise of these stores is really a well-intentioned but broken promise. They want to buy from our farms, they really do. Many of these companies contact us on a regular basis to start a buying program. The problem is now more visible than ever; who will finance the growth of local, organic farm businesses with deft investment and affordable capital to help meet this growing demand? How do we scale small producers who would like to expand their production into wholesale in the near future? How do we grow into the wholesale produce business without commitments or contracts from the buyers? How do we meet greater demand from bigger buyers who dictate commercial pricing to an Upper Midwest farmer who isn’t as efficient, comparatively speaking, to large West coast farming operations? With the green washing marketing machine of “local,” will we see an organic or beyond organic future to our local food system?
There are no easy answers to this complicated series of questions. We were micro producers who didn’t understand or comprehend the length of our journey to sustainable business. Let this statement be clear to all of us who cheer and financially support the growth of local food; Local, sustainable farming must grow in size and scope to become a normalized fixture in our daily lives, let alone survive impending food safety regulations and increased competition from West coast operators. Young farmers that resemble folks like Jaime and me need more support than ever from a community who is starting to shift their buying to the grocery store as a means to “buy local.”
CSA is a system that can sustain local farmers through the shifts in market trends and weather. It is our best opportunity to maintain a healthy, independent business model as well. It was never our goal to pursue wholesale marketing, but we all need to have some honest conversations about the evolution of our marketplace. Seven years ago, you couldn’t even buy Lacinato kale in central Ohio unless you bought it from us. It was an unusual, specialty product. Now there are rainbow carrots and Lacinato kale in just about every natural grocery store in this region. Jokingly, last week I told Adam Utley, one of our farm managers here at Wayward that baby Hakurei turnips were on their way to the grocery store as a staple soon. I didn’t say this to be snarky; these developments are quite awesome for the consumer! We have so many more choices than we did ten years ago. The overall availability of quality food has expanded exponentially. But where is this trend going? Do small, direct sale farms like ourselves get swept up in the vacuum of this trend? Should Wayward Seed Farm or farms like ours try to maintain exclusivity? I’m very conflicted these days about how the reality before us is shifting away from the vision we had almost ten years before.
We want CSAs to grow in size and scope. We want the farmers’ market to expand as well, creating more demand and personal commerce. We want the development of locally owned grocers or coops that share our vision of food sovereignty and excellent prices for farmers. Let me repeat, excellent prices for farmers! We can’t expect rural farmers to take minuscule price margins to subsidize the middleman and rob customers of real value. We in the sustainable agriculture movement know a good or bad deal, but are we just too unrealistic about the growth of this idea? Has the dog broken the chain? Was it too ideal to think we could grow in size and scope and still remain independent?
The answer is layered. The thing is, I want the consumer that goes to the grocery store to have the option to taste our food and to know the difference. I want that choice because once you taste that quality and experience the shelf life, you won’t ever want to eat anything else. We are so passionate about our process of farming that we have remained at times too elitist to see the outward possibilities of market share. I never, ever thought about selling to a grocery store when we started many years ago. Is some of the anti-corporate sentiment in the sustainable agriculture community a financial liability to the farmers who desperately want to earn a middle class wage? I think we need to have more populist attitudes towards our sales structure while retaining our rigorous farming practice. I once told Warren Taylor from Snowville Creamery that, “I was trying to work my way out of the peddler class.” I think it’s true, we do need grow. This isn’t my mid-twenties hipster business project anymore–it’s not a just a concept. I hope we can build something that can last, something people can depend on. We need to now focus on our economics, our numbers, and our feasibility.
Organic farming will never be sustainable if it extracts too much from the people who do the work. We will find a way, we will dig that ditch. Sustainability is a word used too frequently whose meaning must be broadened beyond its attachment to eco-friendly products and their chemical free properties. We must take note that to create a new food and farming economy, it might not reconcile with the old system of poor producers, wealthy middlemen and under-served consumers. The old system eviscerated the diverse, small farmer. Let’s think all of this through when we go to the grocery store this weekend. How much has the grocery store marketing of “local” eroded the potential for an Ohio based, organic food supply chain? Maybe we just haven’t grown our local, organic farms big enough to survive the push back, the marketing coup d’état of “local.” We have to grow into a real rival; we have to command the shelf space at the grocery level while maintaining a healthy, direct marketing platform like CSA. We exist because of your investment. We grew and gained expertise because of your investment. It’s possible to say there will be a local food supply and maybe lots of it someday. However, I believe more in my community’s commitment to invest directly into Wayward Seed Farm and our CSA, than I do any other idea. We don’t need a broker to shake hands… I’m here to grow YOU food. Let us share the bounty of another successful year.
A few ideas for a growing food system:
- Increase CSA share sales by 20% regionally.
- Promote producers to transition or Certified Organic.
- Create a new local, Certified Organic brand that Ohio farmers can join.
- Create a local, Columbus based investment fund that local farms can receive loans and operating capital at fair interest rates.
- Promote the use of contractual and fair buying practices from larger wholesale buyers to make the environment more risk averse to local farmers.
Remember… The Certified Organic premium that local farmers can receive constitutes as “fair trade” pricing comparatively to conventional pricing.
You are our best advocates! Share your stories of investment, risk and bounty with your community. CSAs can grow if we speak to the shared benefits between rural and urban communities.
Want to learn more? Want to get involved? Join us at Sassafras Bakery tomorrow, March 5th from 5-7pm. The event is open to everyone. Whether you’re a city dweller, or a seasoned homesteader, or just simply curious about local farming, please join us!
Bring your questions and we’ll discuss details and specifics before making the final decision together to make the commitment. In the meantime, read more about our work share here.
Read Full Post »