Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Thoughts on the "full diet CSA" model

   We know some of you all are already familiar with the most prominent "full diet CSA" farm from the book The Dirty Life.  Essex Farm is near the Canadian border across Lake Champlain from Burlington, VT, in New York State.  We thought it could be helpful to introduce more of you, our customers, to the Essex Farm CSA model and to share some of our thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages, particularly as that model might apply to our farm.
   So far as we know Essex Farm was the first farm to offer all-you-can-eat CSA shares including most major food groups.  Their CSA members pay a fixed amount per year depending on the ages and number of people in the household, and then they come to the farm once each week, throughout the whole year, and pick out as much as they can use.  Their farm seems to be based mainly around their full selection of seasonal garden crops (at least as full as their far northern location allows) and all the standard animal products (dairy, eggs, beef, pork, chicken.)  Quoting from their website, "The all-you-can-eat membership price for 2013 is $3700 per year for the first adult in a household, and $3300 for the second adult, with a $400 discount for each additional adult. Children over 3 are $120 per year of age (e.g., a five-year-old is $600 for the year, a seven-year-old is $840, etc.)"  They farm a lot more acreage than we do, and they employ about 8 or 9 full-time employees.  They have 222 members, which we guess means they have around 100 families as CSA members.  They have 9 draft horses that they use for a lot of their farm work, but they also use tractors, and they purchase hay and grain from off the farm.
   We suspect what at first stands out the most for many of you is the price.  For a married couple the cost would be $7000/year or about $135/week.  For a family of 4 with two intermediate age children the cost would be $9160/year or about $176/week.  (For comparison, the 2013 price for our basic CSA was $462 for 23 weeks, and was based on a $21 weekly box.)  $10,000/year may sound incredibly expensive at first.  Then again, some of you may spend $176 on a single trip to the supermarket without buying even commodity organic.  If Essex Farm's customers were to actually eat almost all their food from the farm, they wouldn't be paying much more than average Americans, and they're eating worlds better and not only supporting a local organic farm, but they're even supporting the use of "organic tractors" (horses), and that's one of the most striking parts of their model to us.  It's not that we're anywhere near ready to rely on draft animals, but it's remarkable that Essex Farm's CSA model has enabled the farmers to lead their customers with their understanding of good agriculture and what makes sense for their place.  That general idea of being able to farm the way we would if we were growing just for ourselves but on a larger scale together with customers that share our values and want to support and share in the fruits of that style of farming... a CSA model that enables its members to choose a model of farming instead of making thousands of isolated food purchases is admirable.  (Those thousands of isolated food purchases are a big part of how supermarkets divide and conquer small farms.)
   And that CSA model clearly changes how the members eat. Obviously it makes it possible for them to eat foods grown in ways that don't conform to existing broad market categories, but it also empowers the members to make choices they wouldn't have made otherwise. Instead of the way supermarkets have over the last several decades led consumers to redefine their food choices and diets to conform to corporate-industrial agriculture, the all-you-can-eat model leads the members to conform their shopping and eating habits to what makes sense locally and seasonally and according to the way of farming the members have chosen by buying into that particular farm.  As farmers, we know how much richer our diet has become by following the seasons and the logic of a small farm to a richness we never would have found as simple consumers.
   The Essex Farm CSA model also must make it easier for the farm to sell products that to sell in stores or to the general public would require additional licenses and special processing equipment, things like fresh dairy or meat that they butcher on the farm.  And so the members enjoy a lot of food items for which they likely wouldn't be able to find local options at all apart from the full diet CSA model because the traditional local options were squeezed out of business decades ago.  As both state and federal regulations and paperwork burdens continue to mount, threatening even this year to start killing off local farmers' markets and in the very immediate future to altogether put an end to local farmers' markets as we've known them, we're increasingly drawn to a marketing model that like Essex Farm's avoids much of the tension with opposing value systems by cooperating more closely with customers with shared values.
   But there are also aspects of their model that we'd prefer not to imitate.  We'd have to get a lot bigger, particularly in terms of acreage and employees, in order to be able to offer a near continuous supply of all the animal products they offer.  We probably couldn't get big enough if we wanted to, but we're not at all ready to give up on family farms, farms that have the potential continuity of families and that are limited in scale by the limits of the people with long-term bonds to that particular farm in that particular community.  The family farm model (by which we mean not just family-owned but predominantly family-worked and therefore family-scaled farm) has a history of land stewardship and quality food production that spans continents and centuries, and we're not ready to dismiss those benefits as purely coincidental.  Remaining a family-scaled farm would mean, however, that we wouldn't be able to offer a regular supply of everything we produce to all of our CSA members,
   And we see compromises we'd have to make in the integrity of our farm if we did scale up to regularly supply something like their "full diet."  (There are, on the other hand, foods like honey and increasingly orchard crops that we offer our CSA members that, so far as we can tell, are largely left out of the Essex Farm "full diet.")  We know, for example, we could sell plenty of chicken and lots more eggs if we scaled up our flock, but we can't see how to scale up without sacrificing our present low-tech, free range, and heavily forage-based system.  Freely available forage only goes so far for so many chickens in any one flock.  The amount of scratching and pecking that any given area can sustainably tolerate is likewise limited.  Mother hens can only effectively raise a very limited number of clutches in the same area at the same time.  If we scaled up we'd probably have to trade in our mother hens for purchased biddies from conventional hatcheries.  Scaling up would generally seem to require sacrificing our low-tech and more thoroughly homegrown/local model for a model that would depend more on purchased inputs from corporate-industrial farms, and it would increase the price of our eggs in the process.
   We generally hope to find ways to keep the dollar cost of a "full diet" somewhat lower than the Essex Farm model.  We wonder how much the all-you-can-eat model adds to the cost of their CSA by not providing an incentive for their customers to choose the foods that their farm can produce most economically.  We can also see that some people might want to pay more to eat high on the hog and other people might want to save money and eat pig's feet.  Similarly, we can see that some people might want to buy tortillas and other people might just want whole kernel corn to make their own tortillas.  There would be a lot of those kind of choices, and we wouldn't want to limit options at the low cost end of the spectrum. We also hope that as a family farm we might be able to keep overall costs down better than a farm with regular employees and the larger scale that might tend to demand more purchased solutions.
   We're not sure what the best way is to get there, but we do want to keep moving toward a variation of a "full diet CSA":  In addition to the beef, eggs, vegetables, cornmeal and grits, honey, mushrooms, peanuts, strawberries, etc. that we've been offering our CSA members, we're already working to greatly increase our selection of perennial fruits and nuts, and we'd like to find ways for our CSA members to share in dairy from our goats and cows... we'd similarly like to find ways for our CSA members to eat all of the grains and dry beans/peas that we've grown for ourselves... and goat meat and some kind of poultry...  There are good reasons that these additional crops aren't very much sold to the general public, and those reasons mostly apply to us, too, but we hope that moving toward something like Essex Farm's "full diet CSA" model can help us together realize a lot more potential with these additional foods.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Preserving garlic

  Garlic is a long keeper.  We dug our heads in June and have been using it fresh since then.  But it is showing signs of sprouting in our warm kitchen so we recently started preserving the remainder.  We cut the ends off, peeled them, sliced them then put them in the dehydrator.  We'll grind these dried pieces as needed in our coffee grinder for garlic powder.  We've also had great luck freezing whole cloves of garlic.  Simply thaw the amount needed, then chop or press through a garlic press.  We probably use more garlic in our cooking once the garlic is processed in one of these ways.