Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Test driving an idea

I've written about my dreams of making this a working farm again; to grow food that nurtures others, as well as ourselves. I'm a long way from that dream as I still have so much to learn, but I think I'm coming closer to figuring out what comes next.

I've said that it's easy for me to come up with ideas, especially with all the reading and research I do. It's a trait/hobby/compulsion that members of my immediate family find both enamoring and infuriating, especially whenever I start a sentence with, "I've been thinking and..."

I've had an idea bouncing around my noggin for the past few weeks so I thought I'd give my family a break and "test drive" it with you folks instead, and humbly ask for your thoughts, suggestions and feedback.

One of the family farm models that is growing in popularity is the CSA, or community supported agriculture. Farms that use a CSA model sell shares before the growing season in return for delivering a set number of weeks of farm produce. As an example, one share, worth say $500, would give the consumer 18 weeks of in-season vegetables. The benefit to the farmer is obvious -- he or she can anticipate how much food to grow based on the number of shares sold, thereby reducing the risk.

The most successful CSAs grow a wide diversity of produce to keep the food baskets full throughout the entire season. Even if you collaborate with other farms in co-operative arrangement, this can be a lot of work and even more logistical juggling. It's also a big commitment, one that I'm not confident enough to make yet.

However, I recently read about a farm that in addition to its regular CSA program, offers a season-specific program; namely a Thanksgiving CSA share.

The way theirs works is that members receive a package of winter squash (5 - 10 lbs), potatoes (5 - 7), onions (3 - 4) and a pasture-raised heritage turkey, minimum weight of 8lbs at $5/lb, for a total base cost of $60.

What I liked about this model is that the farmer gets the benefit of a commitment from the share member, plus the upfront payment, and it's a one-shot delivery deal, versus 18 to 20 weeks, or more. One obvious downside is you have to sell a lot more shares at $60 a pop than you would for one full-season share.

So I started thinking, what if I offered two different sizes of shares: starting out with a basic share like this one, and then adding a second, larger share, that would offer the basics plus extras such as more root veggies, beans, a pumpkin, herbs, garlic, and perhaps other locally-sourced goods, for a true 100-mile/local Thanksgiving meal.

I'm crunching the numbers right now (yes, my brain is aching something fierce!), considering...

~ the cost of a turkey poult ($7.01 for a day old Orlopp Bronze, $11.38 for a three-week old started bird)
~ the feed costs (grower is approximately $17.50 for a 20 kg (I think) bag, and you need 2.5 lbs of feed for every 1 lb of live weight)
~ and the feed-to-weight conversion rates (Orlopps process at 75% of live weight, reaching 12 lbs at 12 weeks for hens (16 weeks for Toms) to a maximum of 22 lbs at 20 weeks for hens (35 lbs for Toms))
~ Ed update: Blogger Mama Pea reminded me that I'd need to consider the cost to process the birds to get them oven ready

... and then trying to figure out the per pound weight, plus profit, that I could charge, as well as the unit costs of all the veggie goodness.

For this season, I'm thinking of trying this for ourselves: raising a few turkeys and growing everything we'd need four our own homegrown Thanksgiving meal. Maybe I'll discover that I don't like raising turkeys (are they really as stupid at my reading suggests? Can they really lose track of where their feeders are, or drown in a rainstorm? I don't know how much more dysfunction this farm can take!) or that the numbers simply don't work out.

Or maybe this could be one way that our farm starts giving back and contributing to our local food economy. But for now, it's simply food for thought.

What do you think? Would you consider buying a Thanksgiving CSA share? What would you want in a basket? And what price would you consider paying?


Erin said...

I'm leaning towards starting with the fall/Thanksgiving CSA, and doing it all from yourselves, maybe the fall type squashes/pumpkins, turkey and possibly adding to that a "winter's supply" of honey or apples? I would hesitate to have to rely on other farmers following through on their end when you are starting out. I personally would sign up for that type of CSA that included a pastured/free ranged meat product. Our large veggie CSA's here are falling out of favor due to the unreliability of all the farmers being able to deliver together in a "package" and silly things such as getting 2 carrots or 3 red potatoes, etc. I say do just a few things, and do them right, i.e. a turkey and a bushel of apples or a turkey or chicken or a "share" of lamb or beef and local honey, etc. I think you will have better loyalty when people can depend on a specific amount of a given product being delivered. All this thinking out loud is fun, can't wait to hear the others! said...

You're right, Erin -- I wouldn't want to rely or partner with anyone else to start -- I see that as a way to "scale up," if it made sense. I also think about offering the basic share to start and then if that works, adding more goodies... expanding organically and slowly and yes, nurturing that loyalty!
Thanks for your comment -- most appreciated!

Judy T said...

I think the Thanksgiving CSA is a great place to start. What a great idea. I think the idea of a local food package would be great. Hmmm... now you've got ME thinking...

Mama Pea said...

I can only speak from personal experience. You and I are too much alike and would probably kill ourselves trying to do what we deemed a good enough job on a CSA. You would go overboard trying to provide all of your members perfect veggies of great quality and quantity. And put a lot of pressure on yourself to do so. (This isn't knocking you but rather giving you lots of credit for your honesty and responsibility.) What if your very first year Mother Nature delivered an awful growing season? Or grasshoppers attacked?

First and foremost, make sure you have the time and energy to grow as much of your own family's year-round food supply as possible. It doesn't directly bring in any cash, but you don't have to pay it out for food either.

In order to make some money off the farm, my suggestion would be to pick a crop that you knew you could get top dollar for and concentrate on growing that for sale. You'll work just as hard growing carrots and lettuce (cheap) as you will growing (for instance) raspberries or strawberries (expensive).

If you want to give the CSA a try, I too think doing the Thanksgiving CSA first would be a good start. The last several (organic) turkeys I've purchased have been $50+ so the $60 for all sounds very fair to me. Would the turkeys be processed and ready for the oven? Don't forget to figure that cost in your expenditures.

I'm just running off at the mouth here so don't let me discourage you in something you really want to try. 'Kay? said...

@Judy -- that usually happens to me! I read someone else's blog and then think, "hmmm... could I do that?" lol!

@Mama Pea -- you're right that if I took on a CSA I go overboard, and it would be so stressful and I'd drive myself -- and my family -- totally crazy, making everyone miserable. I also know that I tend to try and be superwoman and do it all, which never goes according to plan!
I guess the reason I keep coming back to ways to make money off the farm is 1.) to reduce our property taxes and 2.) because if I have to make money, I'd prefer doing it on the farm than off, like I'm doing now. Well, I'm working from the farm but not doing farm-stuff. Clear as mud? Good.
But you're also right that reducing the amount that we need to buy/source is key to reducing our spending AND optimizing my growing practices, which I am a LONG way from!
And yes, the turkeys would be ready for the oven so processing costs would be included, too.
And you're not discouraging -- not at all! Again, these are just ideas, but my brain is getting kinda full, so I've got to let a few of them loose! I'm not doing anything different in the short-term -- just thinking/dreaming long-term, that's all!

And please, keep your comments/suggestions/thoughts coming!!! I truly love hearing from you!!!

Mama Pea said...

And will you, please, keep sharing all those multitudinous ideas clogging up your brain with us? Don't hold back. We all learn sooo much from each other in our blogging and comments. I find it helps me so much with both good thoughts and not-so-good thoughts to get them out (say them out loud, but not really) in my blog writing. Sometimes it just makes me see more clearly and other times other people open my eyes to something I wasn't seeing at all!

Let's keep the communicating going.

Amy L. said...

I really like that idea, but I can see the risks.

Something the CSAs around here do is offer various levels or seasons of CSA shares. For instance, a winter-only share, a full share (the whole shebang, however many growing seasons that farm has), a fruit-only share, or maybe a 2-person share versus a family share, etc.

There's also a local farm here who does a major CSA thing, contracted with big employers, like, say, an entire state agency, and they source other products to include from elsewhere. I like that idea (same as what you mentioned)...what they do I don't like is they import products from outside our local area (like, even Hawaii). To me, that beats the purpose of supporting local food, but that's just me.

Josée said...

I like the idea of a Thanksgiving CSA. Its a good place to start. I would pay $60 for something like this, possibly more. How many people do you think a CSA package like this would feed? Usually families come together for Thanksgiving so its something to consider.

Lori-Grace said...

A farm local to me does this. Here is the page on their webpage that features their prices and stuffs.

They are also on Facebook. (They are out of Waubaushene, which is about 1.5 hours north of Toronto.)

Not sure if that is helpful or not, but it's all Igot! :)

~Lori said...

@Mama Pea -- sounds good to me!

@Amy -- that major CSA that you referenced... that's crazy! That's TOTALLY against the whole idea of local food. It's like the farmers' market vendors that get their produce from the food terminal and sells things like bananas and mangos -- and consumers think they're doing the "right" think by "shopping local." What I was thinking was truly local... say offering grain from a local farmer.

@Josee -- re the number it would feed: that's something else I have to figure out because you're right, families often come together. One way of working this would be to offer a basic share for a base price, but then people could add "extras," says a double portion of veggies or upgrade to a bigger turkey. But again, this could prove to be quite unruly to organize... but it's definitely something to consider! If I do end up offering this, I'd only sell a small number of shares the first year, see how it works out, and then tweak the program for the next year.

@ Lori -- thanks for the link! I can use all the help I can get and I love seeing what other Ontario farms are doing. I'll check this out...

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