by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

It can be challenging for a small farm to grow enough produce to supply their own community supported agriculture (CSA) program. “Making a Multi-farm CSA Work for the Long Term” was recently presented by Chaw Chang and Lucy Garrison of Stick and Stone Farm and Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm. The farmers all belong to the Full Plate Farm Collective in Ithaca, NY, along with the Youth Farm Project.

Established in 2005, the Collective is farm-owned and includes summer and winter shares. The summer CSA runs June – November and the winter CSA runs December – February. The Collective serves 700 households in summer and 500 in winter.

The Collective began as three farms interested in the CSA model who decided it would be better to join forces. They began with about 150 shares in 2005 and quickly grew to about 500 shares until the pandemic. “In 2020, we grew considerably,” Thompson said. “Early on, some questions came up about how to structure this type of a model … How do you divide the crops? Do you plan before the season to divide the crops evenly? What is an even division of crops? How do we structure the ownerships?” They opted to keep the farms as joint owners and they hired a coordinator to manage the membership.

They also wondered about the scale. How big did it need to be to support the farms? When Thompson moved to the Ithaca area, he became interested in operating a CSA as it seemed to be a wide-open market. The Collective represents one revenue stream for the farm members, but most of it comes from farmers markets.

The Collective participates in the Healthy Food for All program, in which subsidies cover a portion of share costs. The Community Supporter Shares allow participants to pay a higher rate for a year’s worth of shares and the difference is contributed to the Healthy Food for All program. “They are in the position to support the farm and make it accessible to others,” Garrison said.

Like other businesses, the CSA pivoted its operations during the pandemic. During the initial lockdown, they twice offered a complimentary box. “It helped us because we had to miss a couple of farmers markets,” Chaw said. “It met the needs for a lot of people in that moment, so it was totally worthwhile.”

The CSA also sells bulk produce for people who want more than what the shares provide. Home canners, for example, often take advantage of bulk offerings.

The Full Plate Farm Collective farmers celebrate a milestone together. Photo courtesy of Full Plate Farm Collective

The members engage in regular communication, including monthly meetings. They also hold two crop meetings to determine who is growing what. The coordinator maintains a spreadsheet to budget and account for weekly farm shares. The group shares internal documents and software, including the webpage, PayPal and QuickBooks to stay transparent and informed, according to Molly Flerlage, the coordinator.

While hiring a coordinator may seem like overkill, Thompson said it’s well worth the expense. “One of the advantages of having multiple farms and a coordinator paid by the farms is we can offer a lot of options to our membership,” Thompson said. “We have farm pick-up options, which is a market-style distribution. We offer market-style pick-up at two locations in Ithaca. We have pre-pack shares for delivery to group sites … or an individual share to someone’s home at different price tiers.”

Partnering with other organizations for group delivery drop sites helps guarantee dedicated traffic to partners. The market-style pick-up locations allow members to select a minimum of nine vegetables per week, with occasional “take what you’ll eat” options. Members may select any pick-up location, but only one pick-up weekly.

The Collective provides U-pick gardens with unusual crops, herbs, greens, hot peppers and crops that require intensive labor requirements, like tomatoes. Thompson’s farm does not host pick-up because of its geography; however, he said that the farm assembles home delivery shares.

For the Side Dish CSA, the Collective offers local bread, fruit, yogurt, cheese, mushrooms, meat, honey and more. Chaw said the Collective does not take a cut for the side dishes, or collect cash for them, with the exception of fruit and dairy shares, which are run by Collective members. U-pick shares are usually of interest for “people who want to do something on the farm and it’s hard for them to afford a share,” Flerlage said.

Thompson believes that an empathetic business model represents a big part of what makes the CSA work. “We need to be considering all the parties involved to have a real long-term approach to our food system,” he said. “That gets at the fundamental principle of considering all the parties involved in our planning, our visioning for how we do things. Having long-term employees has made an enormous difference and being good farmers and being in partnership with one another has helped make us better farmers over the long term.”

Chaw believes that the empathetic business model focuses on relationships over transactions. “Every partner is involved in a business relationship where their needs are met,” Chaw said. “The dominant model is a transactional model. You can extract what you need out of a business relationship. You’re not worried thinking about the other. In a collaborative model, you think about others to build the trust necessary for a group effort.”

Garrison added that “big picture” thinking is what helps the member farms look at not only their farm’s needs, but the needs of the other farms involved. “We do have some excellent long-term employees compared with a lot of other vegetable farms,” Garrison said. “We try to make a good match between the work we want done and the person we’re hiring.” About half of her farm’s crew is year-round; the rest are H-2A laborers.

Adherence to good farming practices is one requirement of belonging to the Collective. “To have a trust between us, each farm needs its own integrity and needs to be able to trust each other’s integrity,” Thompson said. “It’s important for our model that we’re farmer-driven, not food hub-driven. Because we’re so involved in one another’s business, we do see what each other is doing … There are peer relationships to inspire us to get better and better.”

He likes that the farms can rotate their crops more effectively. When they plan their crops, another farm can raise a crop that is temporarily dropped by another. This leapfrog effect can help each farm maintain better soil health and weed and disease suppression.

Sustainable growth is vital for the Collective to continue. “We feel like we’ve grown organically,” Chaw said. “All of us have been fairly sensitive to make sure we’re on board with any kind of new venture or if we want to increase with some aspect of the CSA. We’ve seen growth as one of the major causes of business failure if it’s not done right or without intention or an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

“If we want to increase shares, there’s only so much that can fit in the truck. We have to think about how the growth of a particular venture with fit in with all the pieces.”