Community Supported Agriculture, the popular organic Island vegetable cooperative at Whippoorwill Farm, is on the rocks again, this time because of a business plan that has failed.
In a letter mailed and e-mailed to farm share members this week, the five-member CSA advisory group announced an $81,000 operating deficit and appealed to members to write checks to help put the farm back in the black. “Cash flow has dried up,” the letter reads. “We will soon be unable to pay the workers who harvest our food and will face the decision to close down operations.”
The news comes just ten months after National Football League executive vice president Eric Grubman bought the 43-acre Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road farmland for $2.45 million, a move which allowed Island farmer Andrew Woodruff to continue running his CSA program there and guaranteed the land stay in agricultural use.
The letter, sent Monday, asks for donations of up to $250 to keep the farm operating through November. “This has been a hard lesson for me and my committee,” Mr. Woodruff told the Gazette this week. “Part of this is just being courageous in asking for what we need to make the farm work.”
Mr. Woodruff began farming on the Island in 1981. In the early 1990s, he started a CSA program in West Tisbury. The program began slowly and then faltered. Five years ago, Mr. Woodruff relaunched the program to enthusiastic public support and three years ago he moved operations to Benson’s Thimble Farm, where he leased 20 acres from owner Lawrence Benson. Last summer, Mr. Benson entered into negotiations to sell the farm to a private buyer. The deal fell through and Mr. Grubman bought the property, ready to serve as landlord for Mr. Woodruff and the CSA.
This season began with a promising start. The farm sold all of its 400 available shares. Because members split full shares and also buy seasonal shares, this meant 719 families received a weekly share of the farm’s vegetables and flowers this year. A business plan devised by the board planned to supplement CSA income primarily with a wholesale tomato business and also with income generated at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market, though Mr. Woodruff reported that 75 per cent of the farm’s gross income comes from the CSA program. “The core of our business is CSA. It is where my focus is primarily and where my heart is,” he said.
Despite having a settled home at last for the operation, Alice Early said this week that this season’s business plan was formulated hastily. “We didn’t have the land for sure when we were setting up the program,” she said. “Everything was set up in an atmosphere of complete upheaval and uncertainty.” She said the board was hesitant to raise share prices despite rising costs. “We didn’t want to give year-round people sticker shock,” she said. The cost for a full season share rose to $700, an increase of $70. Seasonal shares this year range in price from $420 for ten weeks to $210 for five weeks. On its Web site, the farm defines a share as enough food each week to feed at least two adults who eat vegetables regularly.
A number of factors sent the farm business plan spiraling downward. “There were growing challenges,” Ms. Early said. One was poor growing conditions for tomatoes, which resulted in a smaller than anticipated crop. “We didn’t have the quantity we projected at a time when we could have sold to the greatest amount of the Island population for the greatest amount of money,” Ms. Early said. Faced with the shortfall, the farm supplied CSA members first and had less to sell wholesale. “The wholesale piece of the plan did not happen,” Ms. Early said.
With higher fuel, equipment and shipping costs, running a farm on the Island is always expensive. Those costs spiked this year when gasoline and oil prices skyrocketed. “All across the board — supplies, fuel — everything has gone up since we set the share prices a year ago,” Ms. Early said. Added to that were labor costs. The farm employs seven workers during the three-month peak season, including Mr. Woodruff, and does not provide housing. Other Island farms do provide housing and the farm competes for workers with higher-paying industries like landscaping and carpentry.
“We started to see this crisis coming toward the end of July,” Mr. Woodruff said. “Several board members were on vacation in August, so we were scrambling to find the right thing to do.” The decision to appeal to members was difficult. “We as a board could not encourage Andrew to borrow. It would be imprudent and unfair. We are not a no-profit, so we can’t go and ask for donations. So we really didn’t think there was a more appropriate place to go to ask for the help to bridge the gap,” Ms. Early said.
The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture lists 68 operating CSAs in the state. Each is different in size, scope, cost and services offered to members. Whippoorwill Farm is the only CSA in Dukes County. In Bourne, the five-acre Bay End Farm charges its 100 members $500 per share, which it defines as enough to feed a family of four for a week. The farm does not offer half shares. Owner Kofi Ingersoll said the CSA represents roughly 50 per cent of total income of the farm. The rest comes from a farm stand and sales to restaurants. “We don’t make crazy money, but we manage to stay in business,” he said. “CSA is guaranteed money, but it’s maybe the least money per value,” he continued. “CSA is a great part of how to run a farm, but you grow so many crops that are really low value.” He said the real money comes from retail sales. As a certified organic farm, Bay End Farm can charge more for its product. Whippoorwill Farm practices organic farming methods, but is not certified.
In Hadley, farmer Michael Docter runs a 700-member CSA on 50 acres of farmland. He argued the key to success is size. “It really has to do with scale,” he said reflecting on the scope of the Whippoorwill operation. “Four hundred is getting really close to the point you need to be, but it’s not quite there. Get another 50 or 100 shares and things start to get a little easier.” He continued: “This is a critical make-or-break period for them.”
If the money does not come in, the farm will close earlier than anticipated this season, Ms. Early said. She guaranteed the CSA will be back next year, though it may look different. Possible changes could include fewer available shares, higher share prices and less food distributed per share.
All involved remain optimistic about the future of the farm and about asking for help. Mr. Woodruff said within 24 hours of sending out the letter, $2,000 in donations came in. “In a sense I feel like the truth is out there,” he said. “Hiding the truth is not good for our organization and the people that are supporting us.”