Boxes full of nature’s bounty: The Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op launches a CSA program

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TOM GENTRY OF EAGLE TREE FARM

Tom Gentry from Eagle Tree Farm near Dolores cultivates inside a “high tunnel” greenhouse using his home-made wheel hoe.

For 16 weeks this summer 100 Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op Community Supported Agriculture shareholders in Cortez and Mancos will get fresh, local produce grown, harvested and delivered in a box loaded with mouthfuls of nutrition.

The CSA offering is an opportunity to generate a “good health culture” while developing a food hub around farmers and consumers – the critical middle where local producers and consumers meet and the economics balance out.

“Grow what you can sell and sell what you can grow,” says Laurie Hall president of SWFF Co-op. The philosophy sounds smooth and logical, something manageable.

But like all good things, it is the result of a complex process of investigation and input that untangled the needs and economic reality of local farmers. This direct-sales approach to sustainable farming had to be nurtured into reality.

SWFF is a farmer-owned cooperative. It began in 2014 when family farm businesses gathered for roundtable talks seeking answers to concerns, and ideas that would lead to prosperity. Once the group identified wholesale marketing and distribution as the key goal, the effort to become economically viable resulted in a steering committee charged with making the farmers’ vision a reality. The concepts would eventually change the economics of local family farms for the better while increasing the availability of locally grown produce in Montezuma County.

Today products from more than 20 area farms and ranches are marketed and distributed, Hall explained. Much of the credit goes to Live Well Montezuma, she said. JoDee Powers and Kim Lindgren provided tremendous support at the beginning.

“Live Well Montezuma helped us bring diverse interests and divergent people into one room to discuss what would help local growers as a group to become commercially viable individual farm businesses.”

The next step

At times there were 50-60 people in the meetings, all bringing suggestions about how to increase sales of their crops.

How does a small family business become profitable when estimates of investment, sales and profit are so dependent on predictable sales at once-a-week farmers markets?

The solution was found in wholesaling their high-quality produce to regular commercial clients, such as restaurants, some in Montezuma County, but especially those in Telluride and Durango. For that market the co-op needed refrigerated transportation and time away from the farm for deliveries.

“Typically, none of us can take a half day off of the farmwork to deliver produce in Telluride, and we don’t have individual refrigerated delivery trucks, nor the funds to buy the software that can accurately track and fulfill produce orders,” explained Hall. The co-op found Ole Bye, marketing and public relations professional, who wrote successful grants that supported the effort to reach the new restaurant market as well as the refrigerated delivery vehicle and the software that no farmer could afford individually.

With a great effort, the business model gained economic stability through the increasing numbers of wholesale contracts. Its success, though marginal, took the family farm to a fresh level of sustainability.

“In fact, it’s a reflection of the spirit of the co-op working together,” Hall said. “We talk together as we make plans and help each other find solutions to challenges.”

Ups and downs

Most of the growers began marketing by selling produce at the local farmers market. Although everyone agrees it’s a great place to begin, it has an unpredictable downside.

A farmer may begin to feel confident about the number of customers they expect in a market day, but then three new growers may show up. While everyone wants to welcome more growers to the market, Hall said, but what happens to the farmer’s predictable sales when new growers arrive on a Saturday morning?

According to Hall, wholesale marketing and refrigerated delivery opened the door for the co-op farmers to work with colleagues for mutual benefit, not against each other.

Last year the co-op wholesale restaurant operations gained economic traction. But when the co-op had an opportunity to buy out a CSA in La Plata County, it took a chance on the structured direct sales to households it presented. It was successful and this year the SWFFC is expanding again, now offering the CSA program to Montezuma County residents.

Through the CSA, individual consumers can buy a share of seasonal local produce up front in the spring and be assured they will have fresh produce for 16 weeks. The arrangement allows the farmer to accurately estimate the amount of seed investment, watering and irrigation, harvesting labor and equipment repair needed to fulfill the responsibility to its part of the 100 shareholders in the CSA. The consumers know they will receive the highest-quality produce in the local market. It is a system that thrives on predictability.

“We sell the shares before we plant and therefore we know how many carrots, for instance, we’ll need. By the way,” Hall added, “It’s a lot. Carrots are the favorite and we’ll have them every week. This year, the CSA program and the wholesale program will need a combined 200 pounds a week. That keeps a lot of small farmers in business.”

To understand the benefit to the farmer and the consumer, consider catering a special-event dinner versus walk-in dining. Hall is co-owner, with her husband Rusty, of the Farm Bistro in Cortez, a farm-to-table restaurant. Catering offers predictability.

“The catering client wants us to know up front how many people we’ll be feeding,” she said. “Therefore, we know what the client wants and expects in every detail and we are able to order exactly what we need. We don’t waste food, time or money. We can also predict how and who will prepare the food for the number of people we’ll be feeding.

“In contrast we can’t precisely predict how many people will walk into the restaurant every day. Therefore we prepare for the maximum number of clients.” It’s a more difficult estimate and, of course, depends on the season, the weather, and many other variables.

Farmers don’t dedicate all their crops to the co-op CSA. They usually offer between 20 and 60 percent of a specific crop if they know what the demand will be. The collective harvest fulfils the demand. That’s how the CSA works.


CSA details

The CSA runs for 16 weeks with pick-up locations on Thursdays from June 29 through Oct. 12 in Durango, Mancos, and Cortez, exact locations to be announced. This year the price is $585 plus tax. Adding a weekly wedge of James Ranch cheese makes it $735 plus tax. More information is available on the registration form at the top of the SWFF coop homepage: www.SouthwestFarmFresh.com.

Once you’re a CSA member, the coop sends you a weekly newsletter in advance of pickup, telling you what’s in the box, what the local farmers are up to, and some recipe ideas. Then all you do is show up on Thursday at the pickup site, collect your share, and hide some carrots before your kids eat them all, Halls said.

Full payment with your registration is appreciated, but they are also offering a new, three-payment installment plan to help household cash flow.

Later in the season CSA customers will have the opportunity to buy wholesale-size cases at near-wholesale prices, which could be an attraction for anyone interested in preserving food, canning, or just eating lots of something.

For more information email csa@southwestfarmfresh.com or call CSA Coordinator Rachel Bennett at 970-238-0273.

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From May 2017.