by Enrico Villamaino
“So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact. And remember that life’s a Great Balancing Act.” This little piece of wisdom comes from the sage Dr. Seuss.
Even in a less chaotic year, keeping just the right balance in a multifaceted business is a formidable challenge. At A.T. Buzby Farm in Woodstown, NJ, the Buzby family is certainly maintaining its balance in uncertain times.
Husband and wife Andy and Dawn Buzby founded the 160-acre operation in 1981. Described as a “labor of love” by Dawn, the farm originally focused on the wholesale distribution of its products. Since its beginning, Buzby Farm has been a wholesale supplier of the Vineland Cooperative Produce Auction (VCPA). Located in Vineland, NJ, the VCPA is one of the largest produce auctions in the eastern U.S. The VCPA yearly conducts thousands of individual transactions during from April to November.
In 1985, a more focused “direct wholesale” facet of the business was added to capitalize on the many roadside produce stands operating annually from May through October. These roadside stands, which line both sides of New Jersey Route 49, sell a large volume of melons, mainly cantaloupes and watermelons, to vacationers comprising “Jersey Shore traffic.”
Buzby Farm first started to take part in farmers markets in 1999. Starting with the Collingswood Farmers Market, they later branched out into the Ocean City Farmers Market and the Head House Farmers Market in Philadelphia. According to Andy and Dawn’s son Eric Buzby, “The Collingswood and Head House farmers markets each run for 20 weeks per year, and the Ocean City market is open for 15 week. With the overlap, we’re at three farmers markets per week for a good part of the year.” Sweet corn, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, winter squash and peppers are among the farm’s most in-demand produce at the markets.
Eleven years ago, the Buzby Farm began its CSA program. Featuring both full and half shares, the CSA has proven exceedingly popular, completely selling out its shares for the past several seasons. “We have 300 subscribers,” noted Eric. “Most live within a 40-mile radius.” CSA members make their weekly pickups at Buzby Farm and a number of dropoff locations. While the CSA currently does not make deliveries, Eric said it is something, in light of COVID-19 concerns, they are considering adding in the future.
Additionally, the CSA has discontinued its market-style trade table, where CSA subscribers could exchange and swap out CSA favorites like radishes, beets, onions, scallions, potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and arugula on-site. In its place, Buzby Farm has this year implemented an online CSA interface. The interface, a software platform named Harvie, allows CSA members to remotely make substitutions and craft “custom boxes.” After signing up for the CSA, Harvie provides subscribers with a list of all the crops that they can rate from 1 (“I never want it in my share”) to 5 (“I love it!”). Based on members’ preferences and the farm’s weekly harvests, Harvie chooses what will go in a member’s share and electronically sends an inventory to the member. The subscriber then has 48 hours to make changes to the share or order extras if desired. According to Eric, “Rolling out the interface has really been serendipitous. The response has been great. The pandemic shutdown is sort of a rare experience for many Americans right now – not being able to get what you want right when you want it. Harvie helps with that.” He suspects that the online option has seen even greater use in its first year due to food insecurity brought about by the COVID-19 shutdown than it otherwise would have. He estimates that three-quarters of his CSA members are using Harvie on a weekly basis.
Eric offered the following business balancing breakdown: “Regular wholesale accounts for 40% of our sales. ‘Direct wholesale’ is another 40%. The farmers markets and the CSA program each account for 10%.” He emphasized the benefit of having multiple markets. “It’s better than having all our business rely one just one revenue stream,” he said.
Helping the Buzby family juggle these four agricultural avenues is a staff of 30 employees. This includes two full-time employees, 15 migrant workers and eight student workers. Much the same way he balances the farm’s numerous concentrations, Eric strategically divides up his labor force. “The wholesale stuff is very steady, so we’ve got a team of workers on that seven days a week. But the CSA work gets done largely during the week, while the farmers markets are on the weekends,” he said. He explained that switching workers back and forth between the two can balance out their schedules.
Looking ahead, Eric would like to see further expansion of the farm’s CSA program. He said he’d like to bring home more value for his members by offering additional local options, including honey and cheese from nearby farms in the community.
“The profit margins aren’t necessarily great with the CSA, but the program provides real value to the customers,” he stated. “Small farming is not viable without the support of the local community. Our CSA is a great way to encourage that.”
For more information visit buzbyfarm.com.