Generous contributions from shareholders have provided a temporary fix for the financial woes plaguing the popular Whippoorwill Farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Farm operations will continue as usual in October, members are guaranteed their weekly produce and flowers through the end of the month, but plans for November are up in the air and the farm is due for major changes. This was the word from farmer Andrew Woodruff and his advisory board at a well-attended meeting of shareholders at the Agricultural Hall on Tuesday night.
“It was a hard fall,” Mr. Woodruff told the crowd of about 50 people. “We’re glad to be here and we’re eager to push forward, but it’s not easy.”
The meeting began with heartfelt thanks from Mr. Woodruff and his five-member board. On Sept. 15, the board announced an $81,000 operating deficit and issued an urgent plea for help. In response, people dug into their pockets and contributed; the tally at the end of last week was $47,000.
“Support from CSA members means that we can stay open through October and do the work of preparing the farm for winter that would normally occur in October. We do not now know about November pickups,” said board member Alice Early. “Our plans for the remainder of the year are dependent on how much money we raise now.”
Mr. Woodruff reported on the many improvements made to the farm since a private owner bought the 43-acre Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road property last November. The $2.45 million deal allowed Mr. Woodruff to continue running his CSA program there and guaranteed the land would stay in agricultural use. Over the past 10 months, Mr. Woodruff installed a 14-acre deer fence and sought advice from consultants on using the farm greenhouse efficiently, reducing energy use and creating employee housing. “We accomplished a lot in getting the infrastructure up and running,” Mr. Woodruff said.
Future plans include installation of more deer fencing, equipment and irrigation system upgrades and a continued search for employee housing opportunities. “We need to better understand how to upgrade the greenhouse and grow crops on the farm,” Mr. Woodruff said. “We need to grow efficiently so we can serve you all with consistency and with high-quality food.”
But the farmer and his board also acknowledged deficiencies in planning, operations and a bad growing season. “We did not have enough capital, we were short on funds, we have rickety old equipment and we need to improve on our tools,” Mr. Woodruff said. “We need more in the way of a business plan,” said Ms. Early.
The business plan for this growing season called for supplementing CSA income with a wholesale tomato operation and sales from the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market. But poor growing conditions hurt the tomato crop. “We need to plan wholesale so as not to be dependent on it,” said Mr. Woodruff.
Share pricing is also an issue, board members said. Although the farm reached its goal, selling all 400 available shares this year, membership fees did not reflect market prices. According to board members, the approximate value of a $700 full share is over $1,200, a price calculated by averaging prices from the farmers’ market and Cronig’s Market. “We need to make the connection between the input into the farm and how much we give out,” Mr. Woodruff said. Next year the number of shares available, the price of shares and how much food is distributed in each share may change.
Questions and comments from those gathered highlighted the challenges inherent in running a large-scale community supported agriculture farming operation. “The challenge is to manage 30, 40, 50 crops. That’s why people get out of the CSA business,” Mr. Woodruff said. “The CSA is never ever going to please everybody in a lot of areas.”
Some members said they would be willing to pay more for a share; some said they could not. Member Binney Ravitch said the amount of food in a share is too much. “We could not consume and use everything we got. The pricing has got to be more realistic. Fair money for fair product and fair labor,” she said. Longtime member Rachel Orr disagreed. “I am feeding a family of five on a half-share,” she said. “If I get a full share, I can feed my family for a year because I put it up.” Member Deirdre Bonham said she would be more willing to pay her fee for the upcoming year in the fall when the harvest is most bountiful. But Ms. Orr said it is hard for working families with school-aged children to come up with extra money in the fall. Other members asked about setting up a farm stand, creating satellite pick-up centers and reducing the number of crops grown to cut costs.
At the end, the message was clear. “You need guidance and we need guidance,” said member Judy Grisham. But despite the kinks, shareholders agreed the program is an Island resource which should be continued. “It is a risk we sign onto every year and my feelings aren’t hurt if we have a bad year,” said Ms. Orr. “We’re gambling on this and it’s a good gamble.”