The Intervale Center received a $10,000 Sustainable Community Grant from Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to support the summer 2008 pilot launch of a multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture-inspired drop-box scheme called the Food Basket. In its first year, the project met its goals of serving over 100 households and generating over $50,000 of gross sales for Vermont farmers. SARE funds were used to complete a Project-specific business plan, enlist farmers, drop off sites and customers and pilot the project. Momentum continues to build for this project, as we work to strengthen our alliances with growers, leverage capital investment from farmers and grant makers and develop a business model that can be replicated.
Intervale Center staff worked with Steve Paddock, a respected agricultural business planner, to develop a viable business plan for the Food Basket. We identified seven drop off sites, which included Fletcher Allen Health Care, the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, Gardener’s Supply Company, Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, GE Healthcare and Dwight Asset Management. Share composition and appropriate pricing were developed and included a range of offerings, from small and large vegetable and fruit shares to meat, cheese, eggs and bread shares. We worked with 15 core farm suppliers, who contributed the bulk of the produce and meat products to the baskets. In addition, we periodically purchased from 16 additional farmers to fill in any gaps in product. Operations for summer 2008 were a success, grossing $50,000 for participating farms. Our goal is to have the Food Basket be a self-sustaining enterprise by 2011. In 2009, we plan to expand the program to generate $180,000 in gross sales, serve 300 households and return over $125,000 to farmers. This winter, we will work to document our lessons learned and share our model with others through presentations at state and regional conferences and through participation in statewide meetings focused on Food Basket replication.
Project evaluation is ongoing. Frequent, informal conversations with farmers have been supplemented by a formal evaluation that took place in December 2008. In addition, we conducted a comprehensive evaluation through Survey Monkey for our shareholders. Both the farmer and shareholder evaluations reflect great program satisfaction and future program interest.
As evidenced by quantitative research and reinforced by our daily conversations with farmers, citizens, produce buyers and peers, the demand for locally grown food far outpaces the supply. Drivers include peak oil and high oil prices, food safety, human health, climate change and environmental protection, the preservation of agricultural landscapes and a desire to better support local farmers and the local economy. As part of a 2006 Windham Foundation-funded project, the Intervale Center documented both the need and desire for more adequately matching this burgeoning demand by developing shorter marketing channels and investing in Vermont’s food production and storage capacity. In the Burlington area, hundreds of families are on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) waiting lists, farmers’ markets are expanding and cooperatives and grocery stores showcase increasing varieties of local produce, meats and dairy products.
Our research demonstrates that current market outlets and efforts to coordinate market opportunities with suppliers are proving inadequate. New, innovative market outlets and technical assistance for farmers are essential to fully leverage the abundant opportunities for growing the local food system.
The Food Basket is an important step toward providing additional market opportunities for Vermont growers. Intervale Center staff worked with 15 farms to develop the business plan, linked with 7 area businesses that served as drop off sites and enrolled 120 households in the program for 2008. Shareholder feedback has been tremendously positive, and the Food Basket has expanded to include a winter share which began in early December. In 2008, the Food Basket grossed $68,000 for its summer share and $31,000 for its winter share with approximately $70,000 returned to farmers.
The following activities were completed between January and March of 2008:
• Completed business plan and cash flow projections
• Developed outreach materials and conducted outreach to potential customers through meetings at area businesses; trained key on-site staff
• Researched and secured a delivery vehicle, a warehouse space and a walk-in cooler
• Expanded dialogue with farms to secure the participation of 15 farms and an additional 16 occasional suppliers
• Held 5 meetings with interested farmers and 1 meeting with committed farmers to determine logistics, product mix, etc.
In April, May and June of 2008, we worked to:
• Develop and deliver project promotional materials, such as a newsletter
• Develop a Food Basket website
Throughout the summer season, we attended farmers’ markets and initiated several informal conversations with farmers to promote the Food Basket pilot project. In addition, we conducted presentations at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, NOFA Summer Conference, the Vermont Farm Viability Service Provider Meeting and the Vermont Matchmaker Event to spread the word about our project.
Overall project evaluation has been conversational and ongoing, especially with farmers and host sites. As for our members, we implemented a comprehensive shareholder evaluation through Survey Monkey in September to receive critical program feedback. The survey results indicated that most shareholders, 80%, were very satisfied with the convenience, customer service and overall experience. Moreover, 85% were satisfied with the share options, quality and quantity. In addition to the member evaluation, we conducted a 2008 Farmer Evaluation and 2009 Planning Session in early December. The participating farmers expressed great satisfaction in the pilot year, a desire for continued involvement and support for the future development of the Food Basket.
As of the time of this report, we have not completed a case study for the Food Basket program. However, we are beginning to share our model with others with an eye toward project replication. We will be presenting on Multi-Farm CSA at three conferences this winter, the Maine CSA Conference, the NOFA-VT Direct Marketing Conference and the NOFA-VT Winter Conference. In addition, we recently met with representatives from the State Agency of Agriculture to discuss opportunities for statewide replication. In particular, a mission-related non-profit in Central Vermont is considering our model for implementation in the Montpelier region. We will continue to advance both this possibility and additional conversations with other non-profits around the state, including Vital Communities in the White River Junction and RAAFL in the Rutland.
In our original grant, we listed the following as project outcomes:
1. A completed, viable business plan
2. The identification and enrollment of 4-6 drop off sites with at minimum 100 total customers subscribed to the Project
3. The identification of at least six farmers to contribute the bulk of produce to the Project, with additional farmers supplying product periodically
4. The successful operation of the Vermont Food Basket Pilot Project, starting in June 2008 and ending in November 2008
5. Gross sales of $50,000 or more for participating farmers
6. Documentation of lessons to improve and expand operations in 2009 and to share our model with other communities around Vermont
We succeeded in accomplishing all of these outcomes and continue to document our lessons so that we can share this model with communities throughout Vermont.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The Intervale Center attended the National Good Food Network convening in Chicago in November of 2008 and continues to develop materials related to its multi-farm CSA.
We are also working to develop an interactive website that will allow for free and easy dissemination of our research and model that highlights what we have done right as well as some of the lessons we have learned.
The major accomplishment, beyond the launching of a new business enterprise, is that the Food Basket brought together a large group of sustainable producers in the Chittenden County region to support a new joint marketing venture designed to provide them with an alternative market in which to promote their goods. Farmers benefited from participation and gained confidence in the Intervale Center’s ability to manage a business.
As noted above, we will continue to share our model with groups around the state and beyond and work with farmers to improve their bottom lines.
Multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture is a great alternative marketing approach for small and limited resource farmers that can meet the growing demand for local food in ways that are convenient for consumers, profitable for farmers and fair for everyone. The multi-farm CSA model is particularly useful in that it allows for farmers to specialize in crops or sell abundant crops into a common marketplace while they share the burdens of direct customer relationships. By working together, farm businesses can leverage greater return while delivering high quality product to their neighbors. CSAs are also by their nature low risk endeavors that lend themselves well to nonprofit organizations and the small and limited resource farm businesses with whom many nonprofits work because CSAs do not require upfront investment and lack many of the obstacles – in quality control, food safety and insurance – that are necessary components of the industrial food system.