Monday, September 05, 2011

BACKGROUND: Comparing the cost of a Caretaker Farm "share" to purchasing produce at the supermarket

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Carketaker Farm is a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) operation in South Williamstown, Mass.

Community members "share in the harvest" by paying a membership fee at the start of the year to cover annual expenses. In return, they collect a weekly share of fresh produce and additional U-Pick crops that have been grown using sustainable methods. Shareholders are partners with the farmer in growing food for the community.

Farmer Don Zasada writes a short newsletter on farm topics. This week, Zasada recounts a comparison of the one-year family membership in the farm -- presently $650 -- to purchase similar food.

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By Don Zasada

We hope that you have enjoyed being part of Caretaker Farm for the 2011 season. We still have many weeks of distributions left for you to enjoy. This is also the time of the year when we begin to allow our current members to renew their share for next season. You will be able to renew your share until November 1st, at which time we will begin to offer any open spaces to families on the waiting list.

In recognizing the challenging financial times that we are experiencing, we wanted to communicate with you a bit about the economic value of your share and also some ways in which we hope to better serve you.

It has always been the intent of Caretaker Farm to be much more than a place that you come to get your food. We hope that you have experienced this land and our community through talking in the field while picking, reading our newsletters, discussing recipes in the distribution area, assisting us with various farm tasks, celebrating with us at a farm event, attending a food preservation workshop, participating in a sustainability course offered at the farm, visiting our animals, and walking the land that sustains us. But the farm also provides material sustenance.

We grow over 40 different types of crops and more than 175 varieties of those crops. We aim for our practices on the farm to be sustainable so that we are all treated with respect: the farm workers, the animals, the soil, all farm visitors, the environment, and the people who eat the produce. The food is healthy, local, available with minimal or no packaging materials, and as fresh as possible. So fresh in fact, because you pick some of it yourselves. And ,you can be assured that we don't spray our crops with any fungicides, herbicides, or insecticides whether they are now allowable under the organic standards or not.

At first glance some people decide that the price of a share is expensive and wonder if it is worth it. Perhaps part of this reaction stems from the reality that most of us do not keep track of how much we would spend (or do spend, if we are not members of a CSA) on produce at wherever else we might buy it if we weren't receiving it from a CSA. So how does the price of membership at Caretaker Farm compare to what you would pay in the store? This question often comes up when I am talking about the farm with prospective farm members, speaking at classes, or giving tours to groups that visit throughout the year.

In 2010 we did some investigation to get an idea of strictly the monetary value of the produce that is offered to members; for this comparison we disregarded all the other benefits of our CSA and just focused on prices. The current season has blessed us with an even greater bounty than last year (ie . So far, we have offered 12 Pints of Raspberries as compared to 5 in 2010) so the price comparisons are probably lower than they would be for this season. We checked prices every 2-4 weeks for both organic and conventional vegetables. Then, we estimated what a member might put in their bag based on what we were offering that week and what would fit. Of course, we needed to estimate what we would be offering each week for the remainder of the season. We knew that our numbers would not be exact (since members choose what they can put in their bag and comparable produce is not always available in stores) and we tried to be on the conservative low side in our estimates. We were!
looking for some generalities. Here are some observations:

1. If members with a one bag share bought all of the produce that was offered over the season at retail prices they would pay over $1,600 for organic produce and over $1,500 for comparable conventional (non-organic) produce.

2. Members with a one bag share that did not take any U-Pick crops throughout the entire season (i.e. they never picked any flowers, raspberries, basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, perennial herbs, cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, grape tomatoes, husk cherries, tomatillos, snap peas, green beans, wax beans, edemame, collards, kale, field sunflowers,
brussels' sprouts) and did not take any of the bulk crops for food preservation (i.e. spring spinach from the field, cucumbers for pickling, tomatoes for preserving, or basil for making pesto) would still be paying over $1050 if they bought the organic produce they received in their share bag at retail prices.

3. Another scenario that we wondered about was the issue of people going on vacation in the summer. If a member with a one bag share was gone for 4 weeks in the summer and took the U-Pick crops but did not take any of the bulk crops for food preservation (i.e. spring spinach from the field, tomatoes for preserving, or basil for making pesto) they would have spent over $1,250 if they bought their produce at retail prices.

The price comparisons that we collected are just that, price comparisons. In the case of store-bought produce, the prices do not address many important questions: How fresh is the produce? What resources are used to package, refrigerate, and truck the produce from a distance to the store? What was sprayed on the produce? How are the farm workers treated who grow the produce? What kind of agricultural practices are used on the land? In what landfill will the packaging for the produce be deposited? Here at Caretaker Farm the answers to these questions are readily available for members and often apparent to those visiting the farm.

We realize that joining Caretaker Farm is a commitment (financial and otherwise) and we are pleased that the cost of membership at Caretaker Farm is well below what people would pay for comparable produce bought at other places. We will continue to provide an incredible "food-dollar" value. But, we hope you experience the farm not just as an great place to buy vegetables, but also as an opportunity to connect to the land that sustains you and your family.

Here are some ways in which we aim to make our membership simpler for families to understand and most accessible for people of various financial situations:

1. Over the seven years that we have been farming here, various members have asked us how they can contribute to other members who may have a difficult time paying. Because of this, we are starting a Caretaker Farm Share Fund which will allow families to assist others in being members. You will see a space for making contributions on your renewal form.

2. On your renewal form, you will notice that there is a section for families in need to request a 20% reduction in their share price. We will be able to assist families in need depending on monies available in the Caretaker Farm Share Fund.

3. We are raising the age of membership from 18 to 22. This alleviates some of th e challenges of figuring out how much a family should pay for theircollege age son/daughter.

4. We are currently raising a new hoophouse that will be beneficial to us in a variety of ways. While we will be primarily using it to grow tomatoes during the summer, thus alleviating the challenge of late blight that our field tomatoes incurred 2 years ago, we also hope to experiment with some late season growing. There are significant capital and ongoing winter labor costs associated with this structure. Instead of charging a new winter share price, we will offer for sale whatever we grow in the hoophouse during our winter distributions. Then if you are interested in purchasing some, you have that option (similar to our baked goods, meat, eggs, etc.).

Caretaker Farm
1210 Hancock Road
Williamstown, MA 01267
(413) 458-9691


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