Please bear with me for a while and I'll try to make it interesting *and* informative. The overall goal is to share with you why we've elected to do things the way we do them. It is then up to you to decide if this is an effort you wish to support - just as it always is. Farm share CSA programs do not fit everyone, but perhaps they fit better than you think.
Growing Veg - what if GFF only sold at farmers markets?
We do sell some via the Waverly Farmers' Market. But, we opted a few years ago to reduce our farmers' market presence and increase the farm share program. Why?
What would it take for GFF to be a farmers' market presence?
In other words - what if our model was farmers' market sales FIRST, then other venues?
For the time being, we set aside all of the learning, labor and effort that goes into growing things, harvesting, cleaning, etc. These things are not identical for each selling venue, but close enough for a high level discussion. For this discussion, you should assume smaller farmers' markets, because that is what is most readily available to GFF.
In many ways, farmers' market is the lowest stress option - especially in the first couple of years. No one expects anything in particular from you. If you don't have it, the solution is simple - you don't bring it. When you do have it, you bring it. It is comparatively easy to exit selling at market, so the commitment level is low. On the other hand, the competition is much greater. And, it usually takes customers at smaller markets a while to check you out before they buy. Then there are the issues of bad weather (no one shows up, even though you have a full truck), low traffic markets when your normal customer base gets busy with other things (this often happens in September - when we have a lot to sell) and the issue of having crops peak the same time as everyone else at the market.
Consider costs. If two people handle the market (clean, pack, load, set up, staff the tables, tear down, load up, unload) you must expect somewhere on the order of 12-14 hours of person hours spent for ONE market(assuming 1 hour drive time total). This does not include picking, weeding and everything else needed to get the crop in the first place. Assume your labor is worth maybe $10 an hour? You have to sell $120 to $140 worth of produce to break even on labor. We haven't even considered gas, the cost of bags and other supplies and tools needed for the market. And, yes, we have to pay a fee to be there. And, remember, just growing produce costs us something. So, if we're trying to run a business, we would need at least a $250 market, every market. And, if you really want to make the business go, it has to be better than that.
Consider labor. Let's make it simple and assume only two markets per week. This will not likely be enough to sell everything we grow, but that's fine. So, we spend about 24-28 hours per week of person hours on market work ONLY. If we want to have excellent product for a longer window of market season, we also need to spend many hours in the field. Markets in our area typically run from May through the beginning of October. And, if farmers' market is your primary sales outlet, you can't miss a market. So, to stay on top of it all, you have to hire help.
Boil it down to the bottom line. You likely don't want to read many more details. But, let's do the bottom line. Tammy has a job off the farm. Rob works full time on the farm. Our goal is for Rob to earn a 'salary' of approximately $15,000 each year. Essentially, that is our profit goal. And, frankly, I don't think this is a 'greedy' number for the work given. We're happy with it, so it works. If farmers' markets were our primary sales venue, we would need market sales of approximately $2500-$3000 per week. Let's put this in perspective. Our largest market sales total at market is in the neighborhood of $500-$600. This number had little to do with our product volume and everything to do with the demand brought to the market. In short, we would have to double the amount sold at our BEST markets EVERY WEEK in order to make this happen.
So, if farmers' market were our niche - what would we have to do?
The options would be as follows:
1. Take ourselves to bigger markets in places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Cedar Falls/Waterloo. This would add to transportation costs and market fee costs - as well as travel time. It would probably also require the addition of a bigger truck, possibly with refrigeration. We would also find ourselves in a situation with much more competition.
2. Hire more people and attend more markets - some on the same day. This model is not unlike those who sell sweet corn on corners. But, we add the cost of vehicles, personnel and travel time.
3. Expend great amounts of our own resources attempting to grow the smaller farmers' markets that we are involved with. This is something we have tried to do over the years. But, now we are working with another entity (the farmers' market). Typically our business takes most of our time, how do we split ourselves in two in order to do this? And, the market is not just OUR market, so we have to be careful how we go about the promotion. The promotion would have to be continuous to keep people coming and to continue to entice newcomers. It would be a never ending battle, with the probability that the demand would still not reach levels that would support sales we would need to reach our bottom line goals.
In all cases, we have to go where the farmers' market demand is or create more demand, but we still have to fight weather and time issues.
Why don't we consider a bulk/contract sales model?
Without going into great detail, bulk sales to groceries, institutions, etc are not entirely out of the question. However, if we were to consider making this our primary outlet for produce we would have to change major parts of our farming philosophy that are important to us. We believe in local sales and we believe in diversity in our fields. We have no doubt that we could make this work if we had to, but maintaining these principles are more difficult if we give up direct marketing.
Perhaps the most difficult part of a bulk sales model is the amount of product that will be unsalable due to criteria placed by the buyer on the produce. Some of these criteria are sensible and other criteria are a matter that needs re-education. Too put it simply (and to make this section shorter), most of those absolutely tasty heirloom tomatoes we grow that have some cracks in them would not meet the grade for these contracts. If you've been a Farm Share member, you know which ones I'm talking about. You've eaten them and you've enjoyed them immensely. If we went all bulk sales, we'd likely drop many of these varieties and we now know what we'd be missing!
Our model - integrating Farm Share CSA program with the farmers' market and other outlets.
We have attached ourselves to the Waverly Farmers' Market. It is a smaller market, but we have good relationships with the other vendors and we have been working to help it grow. We hold one of our distributions on Tuesday during the Waverly Farmers' Market's hours. We sell excess plants in the Spring and excess produce when we have it on either Tuesdays or Saturdays. The bulk of our produce goes to the Farm Share CSA program. Some goes to Waverly Child Care, Hansen's Outlet or other direct sales.
In the past, we tried to do four markets per week. None of the markets had fabulous attendance levels, but they were all within an hour drive. During three of these markets we also delivered farm shares. Simply put, if we had continued with that model, we would have burned out. Our bottom line was just on the positive side of break-even. We were spending 55-60 person hours per week on market and we could only afford to hire 1 to 2 "very part time" people to help us. The model was not working and we were not making a reasonable profit.
Once we moved to the Farm Share CSA as our primary outlet, we found ourselves able to hire more help and invest in equipment to help us to become a profitable small farm. This model requires a bit more from our customers - but we give them the benefit of providing produce above and beyond the cost they pay. Typically, farm share members will receive $450 worth of produce for the $330 they pay for a standard share. And, Rob manages to earn a profit around the goal of $15,000 per year as a result of this model and the support of farm share members. We call that success.
To our Farm Share CSA members, past, present and future. Your investment in our farm is worthwhile.
Thank you for choosing us to be your personal farmers. We are pleased to grow the best produce we can for you. We recognize that it requires that you come pick up your product during designated time slots that may not always be convenient with your busy lives. We realize that you are don't always get the amounts of certain veg that you would prefer for your situation. We understand that the dynamics of your family sometimes make it difficult to get everyone 'on board' to eat some of these vegetables. These are things that participation in our Farm Share CSA may require of you.
On the other hand, you will get a quality product from people you with whom you may converse. You can make your feelings known about what is being provided and make suggestions. There are opportunities to try new things. There are chances to store the excess for use later in the year. You support a local business that does its best to spend its dollars locally. You support a few summer jobs for college and high school students. You support sustainable farming methods. Your support provides your personal farmers with the ability to continue to strive towards doing things in a way that seems to be the best for them, for you, for their workers, for the community and for the environment.
You are doing something for you and your family to encourage healthier eating. Didn't you say you wanted to improve your health? Well, eating more of these vegetables are a big part of that process. Did we say figuring out how to integrate more vegetables into your diet would be easy? No, we did not. Picking up your veg from us is EASY. And, you did not HAVE to weed any of it (though you are invited to do so)!
In the end
Regardless of your decision to be involved in our program or not, we ask you to THINK about what you eat, where it came from and how it was produced. We ask you to support locally and sustainably grown/raised foods. And, perhaps most importantly, we request that your actions mirror your words. If you actually believe that local foods, sustainably raised foods, organically grown foods, etc... are a good thing, then you need to take action and support these products. You support them by buying. You support them by actively giving feedback to help them improve their product. You support them by participating in farmers markets or local events. You support them by actively promoting them to your friends. You support them by being honest and by giving second (and maybe third) chances when they are earned. And, of course, you support them by working hard at adapting to eating healthier food.
It's tough, but someone has to eat the better tasting stuff!
Thank you for allowing us the soapbox time. And, thank you for all of the support you have given us.
Rob & Tammy