Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Show me the money

This weekend included my first meal of spaghetti and homemade venison meatballs (yes, Bambi -- my former vegetarian self is still reeling) and my first foray into the world of the next generation of farmers via the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) annual conference. Both were made possible by my dear cousin Caroline and her boyfriend Gary, an organic garlic farmer in the Poconos.

PASA was great. I found that everyone I spoke with was eager to share their knowledge. Not in the "look how much I know" kind of way -- contrary to my earlier conference experiences at, say, the Modern Language Association annual meetings (if you want to ever feel truly illiterate, I recommend that you check these out) -- but rather along the lines of "I'm so glad you asked because I've been thinking about that, too." I learned the basics of crop rotation (how, when, and why), the benefits of urban gardening (from community building to beautification of bombed out lots), and celebrated backyard gardening (apparently you can grow enough to feed a person year round on just an eighth of an acre -- mom, dad, I'm helping you develop a bigger vegetable plot in the backyard). I'm still trying to work out the difference between tilling (bad?) and aerating (good?), but I'm sure that will get cleared up at some point.

Some of the more interesting conversations I had over the course of the day were about the financial aspects of sustainable farming. The first of these occurred with the grass-fed dairy farmer I happened to sit next to at lunch. (The cows he raised were grass-fed, not him.) He explained to me how he'd run a conventional dairy for years, but how recently he'd decided to overhaul his whole operation. It wasn't a moment of enlightenment about animal welfare or environmental stewardship that served as the impetus for the conversion. His epiphany: there's a market for it. About a decade ago, he told me, he began hearing rumblings of a growing demand for grass-fed dairy. He did some calculations. He consulted with his son who had recently finished school with a degree in business and who, for the first time, was taking an interest in the family business (my understanding was that this interest came out of the sustainable nature of the project). And so he moved ahead. It was a major financial risk. He had to hire significantly more workers to manage the now 300-strong herd in this more labor-intensive arrangement. Now, he said, he's sorry it took him so long to make the switch. He's elated that the business has brought the family together and he's proud to employ a skilled, local workforce. He has started reading about the nutritional and environmental benefits of his methods -- knowledge that bolsters his confidence beyond the financial rationale. (At this point, having consumed a pitcher and a half of water, I hopped off to the ladies' room. I returned to the table to discover that he and his wife had left and I berated myself for not writing down his name or the name of the dairy beforehand. Note to self: bring notebook and pencil everywhere. And drink less water.)

My second memorable conversation was with our friend Jim, with whom we were carpooling back from the conference. (Call me a slacker, but I was not up to biking to State College, PA, in the snow quite yet.) While I'd sat in on a session on the flourishing community garden programs in downtown Philadelphia (which I'm hoping to learn more about), Jim had been hearing about the plight of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs) in the region. There are many forms a CSA might take, but my general understanding is that community members buy a "share" up front (usually in the $400-700 range) and then are supplied with a weekly box of fresh, local produce over the course of the growing season (usually April or May-October). Seems like a great deal for everyone. The issue that arose at the end of the session, it turned out, was the question of financial sustainability: could a CSA be, if not "profitable" by traditional business standards, at least financially independent? At least in the case of the groups represented on the panel, the answer seemed to be "no." One depended largely on outside grants to subsidize the costs involved; another was something of a pet project for a farmer who didn't seem too concerned about the monetary gains or losses. My question is: are there CSAs out there that can serve as viable business models? I don't mean that CSA managers need MBAs and fancy cars and performance bonuses -- certainly not -- but is there a way to set things up so that growers are not merely scraping by (or, worse, operating at a loss)?

The good news is that local produce is becoming more available more often and in more places around the country. CSAs are catching on. The Washington Post Food Section recently came out with a listing of CSAs in the DC metro area. I hope to speak/meet with some of the amazing people who run these programs. If anyone (beyond my two loyal readers: mom and dad) is connected with a CSA in your area -- as a volunteer, manager, participant in some aspect of the program -- I'd love to hear from you!


  1. 'sam, i know kate's friend karla has bought into a csa at least once before. e-mail kate for her contact info.

  2. Thanks, Feliss. Conveniently, I am having Kate over to make pasta this weekend so I'll check with her then. Mmmm, fresh pasta. Now if I could just find a local producer of semolina flour....

  3. Hey Ibti,

    I just had a chance to catch up on these posts, and I'm so glad we're having dinner tonight. There are definitely financially sustainable CSAs!! And if I remember, I will bring the budget of the one I worked at. I'm excited to talk to you about all of this later and hear more about your plans...


Thanks for your comment! Just making sure this isn't spam.... Thanks for your patience. :)Ibti