In light of Rachel Armstrong’s webinar, “Business as Unusual: Building the New Food Movement with Business Law,” Thanksgiving seemed an especially appropriate moment to consider the role Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements play in their communities. I spent the holiday home in Fort Collins, Colorado—a perfect place to highlight how CSAs engage with their community, and how the legal guidance Rachel Armstrong outlined in her webinar can equip local farms with staying power in similar towns across the country.
Arriving home, my stepmom, Tonya proudly showed me her homemade yogurt (amazingly creamy!), fermented cabbage, grown on a nearby farm, and kombucha (her latest experiment). She dreamt of having chickens and finally making a go at a vegetable garden in the spring. The next day, my mom, Aimee, opened her storage freezer to show me their “harvested” chickens that she was planning to use in a stew. As much as she might like to have goats in the backyard, and despite her insistence that my stepdad wouldn’t have to mow the lawn anymore, Jeff is not so keen on the idea. Tonya is religious in her CSA memberships every summer and Aimee is the most doting mother chickens could possibly have (up until the moment they are “harvested” that is). They are both reflections of their Fort Collins community.
If not oriented toward meeting the needs of a single household, Fort Collins local farms take the form of community-supported agriculture or CSA. The CSA format is both a marketing and philosophical approach in which customers make a non-refundable payment ahead of the season’s harvest, for regular deliveries of produce. This way, the farmer does not carry all the production risk, and the producer and consumer build a more direct and reciprocal relationship, something Fort Collins residents like my parents are coming to appreciate.
Nestled at the foot of the Rockies, Fort Collins residents have access to some of the country’s cleanest water, abundant sunshine, and to numerous sources of locally grown produce. Over the last decade, the city has seen urban farms sprout up in backyards throughout Old Town and small farms emerge at the city’s edge. These farms are a part of a local scene that supports and embraces local producers. The city, in fact, recently adopted a revised city code that allows residents to scale their chicken flocks according to property size, raise ducks, keep bees, and tend dwarf or pygmy goats for household milk production. These new rules allow more citizens to engage in urban agriculture, and they help create markets in more areas for farmers. More than that, however, they are an indication of increased collaborationbetween the city and the farming community.
The local university, Colorado State University, historically an agricultural school (Go Aggies!), also supports urban agriculture through the Extension Office, which offers a wide variety of programs and services for new farmers. CSU manages the 2014 Building Urban Farmers Program, maintains an urban “land-for-lease” list that connects landowners to farmers, and catalogues urban farming internships and volunteer opportunities. CSU students are also becoming more involved in the CSA scene. Though the up-front cost is hard for some students to meet, the cost per pound of food is less than grocery store prices. One farmer, Justin Norton, a CSU student and owner of Donoma Farms, offers a 15-week winter share (from December through March) of salad greens grown in raised beds under greenhouses in his backyard. A share costs students just $55.
Fort Collins and the Be Local Northern Colorado organization host local farmers markets throughout the year, including the winter months, and provide farmers and artisans regular opportunities to market their goods to local consumers. Such markets, along with local and state-wide directories of CSAs and blogs dedicated to bringing farmers of “the Fort” together, lend greater access and transparency to the movement as farmers find more ways to reach consumers.
Local farms such as Jodar Farms, which specializes in free range poultry, eggs, and pork, Native Hill Farm, Cresset Farm, Garden Sweet Farm, and Happy Heart Farm provide the Fort Collins community with organic and, in some cases, biodynamic, produce. Some farms, such as Happy Heart and Native Hill offer working shares, and volunteer or internship opportunities that reduce the cost of a member’s share and engage the individual more directly in the processes of food production.
Recently, however, the CSA community in the area has been prompted to consider what community-supported agriculture is and how large such farming enterprises can be while still adhering to the intent and philosophy behind the concept. During the summer of 2013, a particularly large CSA, Grant Family Farms, which had a membership of more than 5,000 members, declared bankruptcy. Grant Family Farms struggled with many of the same challenges Armstrong described in her recent webinar: large debt burdens, managing volunteers, and giving choice produce to grocery stores, where they can demand higher prices, rather than to CSA members. Grant Family Farms distributed produce throughout Colorado’s Front Range, and though the reason for its closure might not have been related to its size, others in the farming community are left wondering: can a CSA get toobig? Some farmers seem to think so; for others, the critical issue is the integrity of the relationship with customers. According to one biodynamic farm owner, Jean-Paul Courtens in New York, “When size becomes a factor in dehumanizing the whole transaction, yes, you are too big…Where is that? I don’t know.”
Fort Collins farmers and CSA farmers across the country are, in fact, confronting the “tricky business” of figuring out how to communicate to customers the risks inherent in farming each year, and balancing the distribution of produce to local markets, restaurants, and members. They are tasked with finding the right size to meet demand while not inviting disaster if a bad weather year drives away customers, disappointed and unfamiliar with the risk-sharing concept. Scaling up a CSA farm, though tempting, can pose significant legal and financial challenges and the stakes, a farm’s reputation for example, are high. Farmers looking to grow may be faced with a lack of data about what can work financially and economically, though this picture is slowly changing nationally. In this light, as Rachel Armstrong explained, legal advice becomes an equally vital component in giving small farms the support and guidance they need to maintain strong relationships with their customers while still protecting their investments.
Although the legal measures Armstrong proposes for the farming community may seem alien or, perhaps, impersonal, they touch on highly relevant topics for farms even in my own home town. In Fort Collins, the issues Armstrong brings into focus are as apparent as anywhere else in the country. As vibrant as this farming community may seem, and as thankful as residents may be for it, local farms are still vulnerable to the capriciousness of weather, insects, and even customers. Armstrong’s pioneering work in re-formulating the legal apparatus to work forfarmers and protect the fruits of their labor may, in fact, go a long way in preserving that all-important relationship between farmers and customers, and building more resilient local farming businesses.
A link to a recording of Armstrong’s webinar can be found here: https://vimeo.com/80411482
Avana Andrade is a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.