Letter from the farm: The argument for CSAs

The farmstand at Foxtrot Flower Farm in Stanfordville is closed up for the winter.

Kate Farrar

Letter from the farm: The argument for CSAs

Signing up for a CSA is one of the most effective ways to support small farms and help community agriculture thrive

STANFORD — International CSA Day is Thursday, Feb. 22! So what is a CSA, and why should you sign up for one?.

Like any good idea or innovation, the CSA (community supported agriculture) model was created out of a vast shared need: the economic survival of small farms and farmers.

A CSA is a subscription service. You subscribe to a local farm’s CSA for a fixed cost, and the farm regularly provides you with its produce and/or products for a set period of the year.

The concept is that local customers invest in a farm when the farm needs it most: up front, before a farmer has any produce to show for themselves or with their investors.

Without the CSA model, farmers work, pay and invest back into the farm year-round but only make their income seasonally.

I founded Foxtrot Farm & Flowers in Stanfordville three years ago, after working for eight years in agriculture. I built Foxtrot around a CSA model because in my experience it’s financially effective, time efficient, and most rewarding for a farm of my scale to sell directly to their community, building relationships over the years.

A year on the farm

At Foxtrot, the year of expenditures on the new crop begins now, in mid-February, when I begin to sow, tend to and heat — with propane — this year’s crop.

Apart from the CSAs, my income doesn’t start to trickle in until the blooming of narcissus and tulips in April, followed by a small seedling sale in early May. Then there is a gap during heavy planting season until around mid-June, when my annual and perennial flowers start to bloom.

Come July, August and September, I’m hustling, harvesting for retail and wholesale outlets, designing flowers for weddings and special events. Money is coming in and I feel buoyed, but come mid-October, reminders of frost are just around the corner.

When the frost hits, so does the financial crash: the flowers burned and browned, and the cyclical crunch season begins again.

A little economic boost comes around the holidays with wreath sales and the like, but so do the holiday expenses, so it just about evens out. The bank account that I felt accomplished and proud of in November starts to look less shiny come January, after three months of — hopefully — paying myself a wage, without income.

Come January and February, I’m ordering seeds and supplies for the next growing season, I’m making expensive improvements on any number of things — to date: building a walk-in cooler ($5,000 plus operation costs); a germination chamber ($1,000 plus operation costs); a lean-to for farm storage ($7,000); a farm stand ($2,000); and a growing tunnel ($23,000).

In March and April, self-employment taxes are due. I’m starting seeds and experiencing financial security-induced panic attacks.

The breakdown

A Foxtrot bouquet might cost $30. To break that down, let’s borrow Lennie Larkin’s “The Flower Dollar” framework and apply it to a bouquet from Foxtrot:

— $3.50 into infrastructure and machinery (money to reinvest in machinery).

— $4.50 into land costs (mortgages, taxes and rents).

— $4.50 into farm supplies (seeds, plants, bulbs, compost, fertilizer, irrigation).

— $4.50 into administrative costs (insurance, permits, bookkeeping, accounting and utilities).

— $6 into employee payroll — fair, living wages for farm workers. A quick note on wages: many farms struggle to keep up with the ever increasing living wage in the area. Most local farms are able to offer their employees between $18-$22/hour, while the true living wage in the Hudson Valley is now $24.75/hour.

— $7 into profit — a hopefully living wage for me, and reinvestment in capital expenses.

Most farmers hope to make a profit, but often we just about break even.

I’ve worked in agriculture for the last 11 years, as a crew member, a manager and as a farm owner. I’ve had second jobs and third jobs to stay afloat.

Only this year as a business owner — going into year three at Foxtrot — have I started to be able to pay myself a year-round wage and that is largely due to the CSA model that I’ve built Foxtrot around.

The money that my CSA members invest in Foxtrot from November through April enable me to keep the business afloat. In return, once the flowers are blooming, I share them generously with my members.

There is good value in a CSA for its members — most farms position their CSA pricing between wholesale and retail value in gratitude for the upfront investment on the part of their CSA members (a $30 Foxtrot CSA bouquet might be valued at $40 elsewhere).

Let’s just say, a farmer remembers these customers.

A labor of love

Farming is a labor of love, and that’s no body’s burden but our own. But ultimately, most career farmers must work with a bottom line, and operate without another means of income or a large security net.

If we value small farms as a community, we must ask: How could the task be made easier?

The CSA as an economic model is an answer to this financial dilemma. It creates a small but critical seasonal security net for working farms and farmers, and a built-in, community-driven customer base for a farmer’s harvest.

Joining a CSA isn’t a donation. It is a subscription model similar to so many that we rather passively participate in these days — Amazon Prime, Netflix, Spotify, and Blue Apron, to name a few. The difference is that a CSA is a subscription to your neighbors, your community, your local economy, your landscape in exchange for something that is tangible, important and life-giving in return.

I have had the pleasure of being a part of the leadership committee for the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition, a network of over 120 farms whose aim it is to advocate for the CSA model.

Visit Farm Search as a part of the Hudson Valley CSA Coalition’s website, hudsonvalleycsa.org, to explore the CSAs that are available in your community.

A few other local farms’ CSAs include:

— Rock Steady Farm, Millerton: produce, with partner farm add-ons available.

— Chaseholm Farm, Pine Plains: beef, pork, dairy and cheese.

— Foliage Botanics, Pine Plains: a seasonal apothecary of plant medicine.

— Sisters Hill Farm, Stanfordville: produce, with pick-your-own add-ons available.

Kate Farrar is the farmer and florist at Foxtrot Farm & Flowers, 6862 Route 82, Stanfordville. For more information email foxtrotfarmflowers@gmail.com.

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