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"Stengthening Community through a Multi-Farm CSA" By Scott Codey & Bethann Weick, Published: Permaculture Activist; Summer 2012

As an educational, community-based, non-profit operating a working permaculture farm and homestead in Dorchester, NH, D Acres of NH is innovative and experimental. Ongoing projects and pursuits reflect our organizational mission dedicated to small-scale agriculture, community cohesion, local networks, and a vibrant regional economy. Our efforts are multifaceted and range from local currency initiatives to local food guides, as well as modeling and instructing on homestead skills and permaculture-style food production. What follows herein – the process used to develop a multi-farm winter CSA – are steps that have enabled us to successfully expand community food networks and reinforce local economics as we work to build the resiliency of our region. It is D Acres' hope that this program can be repeated in communities throughout the globe as local food, local economics, and local partnerships are recognized as the backbone of sustainable lifestyles.

The subsequent paragraphs describe our experience in developing a bread CSA and, ultimately, a multi-farm winter CSA. This guide addresses the coordination of the program, the community education and outreach pursued, the economics of the program, feedback and lessons learned, and future direction of the CSA program.

The Beginning: Outreach
As we began organizing the CSA, the most important component was generating sufficient interest in the project amongst members of our community. With this in mind, we put together an outreach campaign that reflected our experience in community organizing and social justice work. As Cesar Chavez, one of the country's premier social justice organizers once said, "The only way I know how to organize is to talk to one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another person."

First, we developed a compelling message – a way of explaining what Community Supported Agriculture is and why people should participate in our program. The CSA model is unusual in our region, and we knew that many members of our community would not be familiar with the concept. We therefore wrote up a series of "talking points" explaining the CSA concept and began sharing them at various public events. We discovered that the most understandable and compelling metaphor for the CSA was to describe it as a magazine subscription: individuals pay up front for the full subscription and, just as you would receive a slightly different magazine each week, with a CSA you receive a slightly different box of food each week.

Second, we wrote up an outreach plan for the project. Putting the plan down on paper enabled us to identify people, organizations, and establishments within our existing network that would be willing and able to help spread the word about the CSA to places they were connected to – their school, place of worship, workplace, book club, business, civic group etc. Through this process, we developed a list of venues and opportunities through which we could speak to public audiences regarding details of the CSA. It also helped us to identify communities that would be most likely to support a CSA, anticipate challenges, and develop a realistic timeframe and budget.

Pilot Program: Bread CSA
As our project plan developed, we choose to begin our CSA with a small pilot project in the fall of 2011 offering just one product: fresh baked bread. We did this in order to generate interest in the multi-farm winter CSA, as well as to hone our organizational systems and logistics prior to launching the winter CSA. Through this process we ascertained how many artisan loaves could be produced within one day in our modest wood-fired cob oven, the best means of maintaining contact with program subscribers, and the selection of a convenient pick-up location.

Outreach for the bread CSA began in July as we began tabling at public events, cultivating speaking opportunities within our existing network, and posting flyers on community bulletin boards in the local coffee shop, library, natural foods store, senior center, bookstore, etc. In addition, over the summer months we hosted various public events at our farm that we used as an opportunity to generate interest in the bread CSA.

As a result of these outreach efforts, we were able to launch the bread CSA in early October with roughly 20 members. We set up the bread CSA to run for ten weeks and were able to use the local library as the CSA's pickup location. This proved to be an ideal location not only because it was a convenient pickup spot for members, but also because library patrons were naturally interested in a table piled high with fresh artisan bread. As the CSA consisted of only one product that we baked ourselves, we were able to offer pro-rated bread CSA memberships to individuals who happened to pass by our table and wanted to sign up for the program.

Multi-Farm Winter CSA
As soon as we began our bread CSA, we began to do outreach for the multi-farm winter CSA using the same general strategy as described above. During this time, we began reaching out to potential partner farms as well. Fortunately, we had strong relationships with other farmers in the area that were enormously helpful. When we approached them, we communicated that we were not looking for a "deal"- we wanted them to sell their product at a price that was right for them and that we felt that it was our responsibility to communicate to potential members the importance of supporting small local farms by paying a fair price for their product. We limited the size of CSA to 25 shares in recognition of our bread-baking capacity – all member slots were filled rapidly due to our comprehensive outreach efforts.

Traditional CSAs exist during the summer months and focus principally on fresh vegetables. We set up our CSA to address the reality that during the winter months, when most CSAs and farmers markets are dormant, it is more difficult for farmers to link directly to consumers. We also addressed the reality of local farms focusing on staple foods beyond vegetables. While we did offer potatoes, frozen kale, and sauerkraut on a three-week rotation, we chose to focus the CSA on staple products such as eggs, milk, cheese, meat, and bread.

We offered both meat shares and non-meat shares, as well as half-shares (members picked up a share every other week). Each share included:
One loaf of bread, from D Acres
One-half gallon of raw milk, from Bunten Farmhouse Kitchen
One-half pound of cheese, from Bunten Farmhouse Kitchen
One dozen eggs, from Bear Knoll Farm
Three pounds of potatoes, two pounds of frozen kale, one pint of sauerkraut (alternating on a three-week rotation), from D Acres and Pretty Good Farm; and
One pound of meat if applicable (rotation of pork, beef, chicken), from Gitch's Funny Farm and Thunder Ridge Farm.

To ensure that payment would be secured for the participating farmers, all subscribers were asked for a down payment by January 15. The remaining funds were due by the CSA start date of February 1. To accommodate low-income participants, donations were accepted for scholarship shares and subsidized shares. This also allowed us to donate one share per week to the "Meals for Many" community meal program. With subscription payments in hand at the beginning of the CSA, we were able to pay participating farmers upfront. Half of their payment was paid at the start date, the second half paid 5 weeks in to the 10 week CSA.

Economics of a Local Food Network
Our philosophical approach to food economics is that the market value should reflect the reality of labor and time inherent in food production; our approach to food systems is to place local resources and consumer-producer relationships as tantamount. In calculating the cost of CSA shares, we wanted to make the program accessible to a range of income levels, yet we also wanted our partner farmers to get what they considered a fair price for their work. We wanted our members to be enticed by the quality of the food and its local sources, as well as by the opportunity to keep money circulating in this community.

We asked each of our partner farmers to give us a price that they felt was reasonable and from there, we developed the following figures:

Bread: $6.50 per loaf
Milk: $3 per half gallon
Cheese: $5 per half pound
Eggs: $3 per dozen
Meat: $6 per pound
Potatoes/Kale/Sauerkraut: $6 value per week

Meat shares cost $300, non-meat shares cost $250, and half shares cost $150 and $125, respectively, for meat and non-meat packages. As participants were paying for a ten-week program, the above costs equaled $30/$25 per week per member. Farmer's received the full price of each item. D Acres received an additional $0.50/share to cover a portion of the labor time invested in project coordination.

Lessons Learned
Based upon feedback from our members, we found that the product selection fit well within the eating habits of our membership. Less familiar products like kale and sauerkraut were greeted with enthusiasm, while the opportunity to purchase the staples of dairy, meat, eggs, and bread through local producers was much appreciated.

One feature that proved to be particularly helpful was allowing our partner farms to drop off the week's share at D Acres in advance. We were then responsible for coordinating the actual pickup day. This allowed our partners to have a multi-day window when they could drop off their products.

While traditional CSAs rely heavily on membership for the logistical work of the CSA, we prefer the continuity provided by having one of our residents serve as the point person for all aspects of the CSA. We found this to be expeditious and beneficial with regards to communication and organization. It also offered predictability for both producers and members, as well as an opportunity to build personal relationships with our members and build interest in other aspects of our work at D Acres. Based upon feedback from our members, the personal relationships and connections that we were able to establish through the CSA were important. We were surprised by the number of members who expressed to us that the best parts of the CSA was receiving a short weekly email from the CSA coordinator about what products would be available that week and a brief update about life at our farm and a list of upcoming events.

Food into the Future
The ten-week CSA ended April 4. With a busy season upcoming, and a desire to maintain focus on on-farm activities, the multi-farm CSA will begin once again in October 2012. In the interim, we have chosen to maintain the relationships developed through the CSA via weekly email updates offering options to purchase bread each week at the farm, providing participants information on produce available each week at the farmstand, and listing upcoming community, food, and education events onsite. Thus far this has been a successful connection, encouraging individuals to attend events and swing by the farm for bread and available produce.

Considering this project from a broader perspective, it has been a successful endeavor in strengthening the local food networks, enhancing regional economics, and connecting consumers to producers. Participants previously unconnected with our organization have been brought into our circle of participants and contributors, and our network of area farmers committed to a vibrant regional economy is expanding. Through food and food networks our community is growing.

D Acres Permaculture Farm & Educational Homestead is located in Dorchester, NH, a 501(c)3 non-profit focusing on education and community outreach. For the latest information on workshops and events, the 2013 Permaculture Design Course, and opportunities to stay at the farm hostel or work as an apprentice/intern, please visit our website at www.dacres.org. We can be reached by email at info@dacres.org or by phone at 603-786-2366.

Scott Codey is a community organizer turned bread baker and gardener from New York City. Bethann Weick focuses on gardening, animal husbandry, educational outreach, and writing. Both live and work at D Acres.

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