Farm Shark Tank

Have you ever thought about how ridiculous a business idea the local CSA farm is? Generally commercial farmers have always focused on growing large volumes of shippable commodities for the essentially limitless regional or national market. Which is to say, they focus on what grows the best at their particular location at any particular time of year. Why would a farmer choose to grow a crop that grew less well than some other crop, or to plant something at a time of year when it clearly might have trouble?

I mean, if I went to a bunch of average farmers and pitched the business plan of "grow a big variety of crops for six months out of the year, and have them all look good," they would think that's nuts! The farmer from the Northeast would say, "Why plant brassicas with such hot weather down there, when you could focus on peppers and eggplant?" The farmer from the south would say, "If you want early tomatoes, why don't you just buy them from us instead of trying so hard with your hoophouses and rowcover?" And someone else would remark that cucumbers grow great in Virginia but why are you trying to plant them past June--it's too hot! The big organic grower Lady Moon Farms (you've seen their stuff in the supermarket) even has land in three different regions--Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida--so they can maintain a greater variety of produce all grown at the optimal time and location.

And here we are deliberately putting ourselves on the hook for pushing out 6 different vegetables every Friday for 6 months out of the year, week in and week out. We keep high standards, given the constraints we're working with, but in a very real way we are competing with perfect-looking grocery store vegetables since the "global marketplace" can provide any vegetable 52 weeks out of the year, all grown in ideal conditions somewhere in the world. That's what most people are used to in their lives.

But, unlike those commercial farmers, we are constantly pushing the envelope--trying to get a crop to come in earlier or extend the season later--in order to have enough variety at every time of year. We pitch "eating seasonally," but what does that mean when farmers push the boundaries of the ideal vegetable season? I suppose what we really mean is not to eat seasonally, but in fact to eat locally--to eat the food that is produced nearby, rather than produced around the world. (If you think about it, everything in the grocery store is seasonal--it's all in peak season somewhere!)

The real answer for those skeptical farmers is that no, this business makes no sense at all from a production standpoint. But it's how I learned to farm and what I've practiced doing, not because it is a simple idea but because it is an endlessly fascinating and confounding one. What ties it together and makes it successful are the local eaters (that's you) who are drawn to the idea of getting the bulk of their vegetables from a single farm for most of the year. As a production farm, there is no WAY we could make it, even competing on just the regional scale. On a local scale though, given the sort of vegetables we can turn out, it seems like there are enough people who appreciate what we do for this to be quite a good idea after all.