By establishing the precedent of expanding inter-farm collaboration, we expect to see an empowered farmer community that actively connects consumers to its extensive network of producers and services. Ultimately this will contribute dramatically to the resurgence and stabilization of local-centric economies. Our objectives are as follows:
- Gauge farmer and consumer interest in collaborative CSA networks
- Determine economic and logistical viability of the model
- Establish effective working practices that foster positive relationships between producers
- Improve produce marketing via a supplemental weekly mushroom share pilot program
Simply put, Rusty Bucket Mushrooms’ objective is to further connect local consumers to local producers by expanding the range of food available at any single farm. Integration of mushrooms into Western New York CSA programs will serve as a pilot program to gauge interest, determine viability, and establish a working business model for future potential partnerships. By expanding upon the preexisting CSA options available in the area, new and existing farms could potentially access thousands of previously unconnected consumers. The proposed model could be applied to many types of farms and regions around the United States. The results of this pilot project will outline the successes and failures for their use.
In America, there is a rise in the number of small farms and customers committed to supporting them. The model of the CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is one system that was devised to connect the consumer to the farmer directly. This model was created in post-war Germany out of necessity due to food insecurity. While it has been a successful model, it is becoming outdated and insufficient in that a single farm can rarely provide a complete diet to it’s customers. In an era of local-centric consumers who also desire convenience, the limited range of foods available from a typical vegetable CSA represents a large roadblock for many consumers attempting to eat locally. While vegetable CSA programs have great variety of vegetables, they often lack other products that would make up a complete diet such as dairy, eggs, meat, bread, or mushrooms. Multi-farm CSA programs have effectively adopted strategies that allow small producers to join together to create a full-fledged vegetable CSA, but this does not respond to the demand for variety. Incorporation of specialty options not typically grown by a vegetable CSA can do so.
Growers of these specialties, such as egg, dairy, or mushroom producers rarely have a local customer base large enough to sustain their farms. By incorporating their products into the pre existing markets of vegetable CSA programs these small producers can access larger populations while complimenting their host farms. Without these supplements customers are forced to seek basic food items outside of the farm, ultimately drawing revenue away from the farm, and likely out of the local food economy.
Our goal is to improve the abilities of local CSA farms to meet growing consumer demands. This will be accomplished by finding farms willing to collaborate by hosting supplementary mushroom shares within their business models. We aim to demonstrate the positive effects of collaboration and create a framework upon which other specialty growers can access more local markets. SARE and the USDA have published data confirming the need for innovation within local farms. Farmers need to consider what is driving the competitive growth of online food delivery subscriptions and apply that to their product offerings.
Previous SARE grant winners are exploring the benefits and viability of providing more complete diets through the CSA business model (https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/gne17-157/). Our liaison, Abigail Thorpe of Thorpe’s Organic Farm has shared survey information that indicates their customers exhibit a strong desire for an expanded list of products, including eggs, dairy, mushrooms, bread, meat, flowers, and more. Beyond this, we have had many informal conversations with farmer colleagues that have repeatedly confirmed interest in providing a more complete diet to their customers. Most farms are limited by time, specialized equipment, and knowledge. Uniting multiple producers could alleviate these restrictions, increase profits, and boost customer satisfaction and retention.
-contacting local CSA farms to offer supplemental shares of our specialty product to their customer base
-approach potential collaborators well before the season begins
-make sure the plan is clearly understood, including types of shares, frequency of deliveries, responsibilities of different parties
-inform potential collaborators of benefits that their farm and their customers will receive from the collaboration, including increased customer participation, increased breadth of diet, increased local food network
-supply shares of specialty crop to customers who choose to purchase the supplemental shares through the designated season
-build and maintain relationships with collaborating farm owners as well as their customer base for future business
-the number of CSA farms willing to collaborate was less than anticipated, with response rate at less than 50% and conversion rate at ~20%
-of the ten farms initially contacted two were willing to collaborate. They were mainly interested due to philosophical reasons as opposed to any economic incentives . In addition to simply wanting to help out new fellow farmers, they were also interested in seeing a broader diet becoming available to their customers through the local network. The farmers asked for no compensation in return.
-on the farms that participated, approximately 10% of customers purchased supplemental shares. There are several factors we believe contributed to this outcome. It is possible that there was initial success based on novelty of the available new crop. That said if novelty wears off we believe further exposure in coming years will increase sales. Personally representing the farm at the first few drop offs and pitching the new share roughly doubled sales from the initial email listing. Most customers did not notice the email information at all.
We sought to diversify income streams for our specialty farm by offering supplemental shares through already established local CSA farms. We successfully offered shares through two collaborating farms in our first season, increasing our farm’s gross revenue by more than $10k. This new sales method hopefully represents a sustainable income source for our farm that proves to be locally scalable and beneficial to the local food consumer/producer network.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Each week we sent out a newsletter giving CSA customers an idea of what to expect with their upcoming share. While our initial expectations were to provide a thorough snapshot of the mushrooms we were to provide, at some point we began to modify the newsletter to include medicinal notes on certain species, historical references as well as shared recipes created by the CSA customers.
We collaborated in a Facebook group administered by our mentor farm, Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm to encourage participants to share what they’ve created in the kitchen with the online community to help foster a connection and demonstrate the impact of farms collaborating.
Some CSA customers showed interest in seeing the farm in person and, by invitation only, we allowed those that asked to come and check out how we grow our mushrooms and encouraged them to ask questions to fully engage in the “Know your Farmer” mentality.
This being our first attempt at CSA, we had lots to learn regarding maintaining a weekly schedule, growing parameters for specific species, and customer communication. By the end, we did get requests for more communication. We had hoped to spend more time offering history, recipes, medicinal application, etc within our newsletter, but the time spent doing the actual farming took up so much of our attention.
We tried not to let the work bog us down though as we both maintained a positive demeanor throughout the whole season and beyond, though at points it did feel like we were just keeping our head above water.
Expectations generally contradict reality as there are always things that we can’t plan for or anticipate. Regarding the general thesis for the project, we believe we were successful in our attempt to enrich our host farm’s existing CSAs.
When we started this project, our goal was to help other farms increase their available share options to satisfy their existing clientele. We knew that we would viewed as independent from our host farms, but as the summer progressed, one main change was the strength of the business as a standalone farm. People reached out via email and calls and we were able to fulfill certain requests of our clientele, but we didn’t expect that the attention we were given spread to other CSA members throughout the summer, people who somehow missed our emails and flyers. Now that the word is out, the 2019 CSA season should yield more interest and help continue to reinforce our brand.
This summer was quite a good learning experience as it made us focus on maintaining the biweekly schedule, which requires precise timing to ensure that we have enough to satisfy the CSA. Like any first year business, we definitely made some mistakes. Mistakes that help us learn and hopefully transpire to a more organized, clean, scheduled and thought out 2019 season.
Where we thought we could initially hit 10 farms twice per week while maintaining our restaurant clients, we learned that everything takes longer than it seems. One look at our budget and you can see where our expectations were in Dec of 2017, verses the realities of the amended August invoice. 2 farms was enough to test our hypothesis, and our limits. The work necessary to satisfy the demand ultimately helped us change our approach toward growing mushrooms from square one. We had initially assumed we could, from spawn to fruitings, cover all parts of the mushroom growing process. Midway through the season, we began buying in already colonized blocks to help cut down our labor spent working on the farm. Time we had budgeted for doing the actual mixing/ cooking/ inoculating of substrate was now spent on figuring out how to maximize production as we transitioned the systems and design of our grow chamber. Balancing the deliveries and the time spent doing construction on the grow affected our perception on how this research would play out.
The expectations we had did not change however. We assumed that people would sign up for a mushroom share because they absolutely loved mushrooms. Though we had assumed we could grow more varieties than we ended up focusing on, people did seem satisfied with the “dealer’s choice” of mushrooms we were able to provide on a week by week basis. Our host farms are satisfied and we have already received requests for the 2019 CSA season, confirming the viability of the concept to help boost our farm with the help of the existing CSA customer base.
The general work of running a farm required us to keep good records, something we definitely could improve on next year. We mainly used Excel to track our growth and sales obligations. While primitive, it did allow us to at least keep track of our weekly requirements and ensure our email lists were accurate. We have considered improving our strategies next year using more technology to monitor our systems parameters and using CMS software to help maintain better understanding of our clients needs and satisfaction.
The primary challenges of the project is determining the true levels of satisfaction of the customers. The assumption that “no news is good news” translates to the majority of customers as well. Most people took their shares and we can assume they enjoyed their mushrooms as we had limited direct concern via email. Keeping better track of daily tasks, sales, yields, etc to get a digitized and archived picture of where we can make improvements in our product to increase satisfaction should increase demand as well.
Economically, we did confirm the viability of the project by grossing 10k by integrating into existing CSA markets. Further study is required to determine whether the success was due to the novelty of the approach or a true desire from customers to help boost their local agricultural economy.
We are going to continue studying the opportunities in 2019 as we most definitely will be able to grow more species, source wild mushrooms better, offer flexibility in share size and cost to increase our market potential and pursue the same list of 10 farms we initially contacted in an attempt to gain more customers. Having a year of success under our belt should strengthen our reputation and allow others to include our mushrooms as an option for their customers.
The more we grow as a business the better we can comment on the success of the model. Most astonishing is the fact that a year one farm can succeed when propped up by a host farm’s existing clientele. Markets thrive when people get what they want. Interest in mushrooms at veggie farms confirms that they too can benefit by increasing their available options to provide to their customers and improving satisfaction. Despite not getting 100% of their customer base to join in, the majority of people watching those around them getting an extra ingredient in their CSA may be interested in other share options like baked goods, meat, spices, flowers, honey, and other local food options that one single farm may not be able to satisfy, opening the door for increased collaboration among other local farmers. Any niche market farmer could potentially tap into the existing CSA networks and boost their sales, helping promote the success of a strong local agro-economy anywhere food can be grown.