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Family Thrives On CSA Frm
Gary Brever compares running a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm to competing in an extreme sport. In the heat of the vegetable growing season the work is intense, requiring physical, mental, and emotional energy to juggle seeding, harvesting, washing, packing, and making deliveries.
But, with a potential gross income of $6,000 to $10,000 an acre, it's a way that more and more producers are choosing to make a living in agriculture. Produce is marketed directly to customers, who pay for weekly deliveries of fresh food throughout the growing season.
In 2002, Brever and his wife, Jennifer, bought 160 acres near Parkers Prairie, Minn., and started growing vegetables for an area farmers market. The following year they signed up 40 CSA members. The membership doubled each of the next two years. This year, their CSA, Ploughshare Farm, has 175 members with about one-fourth within 30 miles and the rest in larger cities including St. Cloud, Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Members pick up their produce at six drop-off sites. They pay for shares in the spring - $425 to $465, depending on delivery distance. Each share - 18 to 20 weeks of vegetables weighing from 10 to 25 pounds - consists of enough food to feed a family of four. Half shares are also available ($325 and $365), and Ploughshare Farm offers winter frozen shares (100 pounds/$345) and winter storage shares (160 pounds/$235).
To fill orders, the Brevers plant 13 acres (additional acres are in cover crops for rotation) and follow spreadsheets that outline what and when to plant. Planting begins in March in a hoophouse and continues throughout the summer, so new plants can be set out in the garden every couple of weeks for continuous harvest. Garlic is the last thing to be planted in the garden in October.
The Brevers plant about 50 kinds of vegetables - from the basics (beans, corn, tomatoes, carrots) - to a little more exotic (arugula, fennel, radicchio). Altogether there are about 150 varieties - 15 in tomatoes alone. With each week's package, the Brevers send a newsletter updating customers on the garden, as well as offering recipe ideas.
Brever notes that CSAs are about more than just good food. It's about developing a relationship between the producer and the customers, as well as educating people about the risks and successes of agriculture. Twice a season, the Brevers invite CSA members for a picnic/work day on Ploughshare Farm.
"The hard - and the exciting - part is that you wear all these different hats," Brever says." You must be a farmer, marketer, advocate, educator, and manager. After five years, Ploughshare Farm has developed routines to improve efficiencies and set standards for interns and part-time workers. For example, the Brevers use a roller system for packing boxes. Each worker has a couple of items they place in the boxes as they go by.
Here are other challenges and lessons Brever notes about operating a CSA:
• Work on another CSA farm to gain experience. Start small. Gather information about CSAs. Check out www.wilson.edu/wilson/asp/content.asp?id=1275 for resources and information about CSA founder Robyn Van En. Or go to www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/csa to connect with related websites about CSAs across the U.S. Brever finds useful information for his region at www.macsac.org.
• Know your customers' needs. The first year the Brevers raised lots of greens for salad in many varieties. But they discovered that Minnesota folks prefer other vegetables, and the Brevers adjusted what they grew.
• Organic attracts customers. The Brevers' land, which was in CRP, met certification guidelines that no chemicals had been used three years prior. The biggest part of organic certification is keeping track of all inputs. Think of it like doing your taxes, Brever says. Ploughshare Farm uses fish emulsion and completely composted chicken manure for fertilizer.
• Input costs are higher per acre. In addition to equipment, other typical expenses are: hoophouses, walk-in cooler and delivery van. Raising produce is more labor intensive than other farm crops. The Brevers h

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2006 - Volume #30, Issue #4