Piloting a Year-round Sliding-scale CSA and Unified Online Management System to Improve Food Access

Final report for FNE22-002

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $22,275.00
Projected End Date: 05/01/2023
Grant Recipient: Bread and Butter Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Brandon Bless
Bread and Butter Farm
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Project Information


Our whole aim in applying for the SARE grant was to attempt to answer the question of how to both address the challenge of increasing access to high quality local food to community members who otherwise can’t afford/access this food, while simultaneously enhancing farmer livelihood and overall farm profitability, which in a for-profit entity such as ours, often takes the financial hit.


We aimed to do this through working with an online system that could handle managing all of our various avenues of moving food while helping save on farmer time, piloting a year-round sliding scale membership program, and partnering with a local organization to create a satellite pick up/drop off location for our csa shares to help support folks without means to get to our farm. 


As far as the online system, we ultimately chose not to switch from Square to Shopify. We chose this because the current system, Square, upgraded its abilities to allow us to handle all of our points of sales in an efficient and helpful way. In addition to successfully launching the year-round sliding scale csa model, which has been profitable, we also launched an INCREDIBLY successful Annual Membership model. In comparison, our old seasonal csa model had about a 70% retention rate and our Annual Membership, after about one year, has had about a 97% retention rate. Profitability went from about 25% to 32%. This new model has created a much more smooth year round revenue stream for the farm and simultaneously, smoother process for both farmers and consumers as there is no start and stop time to people’s commitment with us and they don’t need to remember to constantly sign up for the next season. It has also increased a sense of community and rootedness for many of our community members on the farm and our farmers. 

As far as the satellite location for dropping off our csa shares for folks without access to the farm, that one proved challenging. Our first partner, HULA,  we found to work with didn’t meet the demographic criteria we were looking for. It was a business that was just excited to try hosting a pick up in their building. Retention was challenging and it felt like people signed up for a local csa more out of a charity case/aesthetics than necessity to eat local food. We did however end up partnering with two of our local town’s community outreach organizations:  Shelburne Community Food Shelf and COTS (Committee on Temporary Shelter). These have been wonderful connections that feel long term.

Project Objectives:

1) Manage a unified online members portal, sales, and inventory system. This unified system will allow us to track, manage, and sync all of our online and in-person sales and inventory for all of our Markets enterprises. Once fully employed, we expect this system alone will save 5-10 hours a week of farmer time.

Update 1/11/23-

While we chose ultimately not to change our online platform, we did launch a new amazing program called the Annual Membership program in this time frame to help us restructure the payment model and engagement model for members. This program offers exciting perks, convenience (members don't need to think about paying once they set up their automatic payment plan with us, our online platform automatically charges them monthly), affordability (the sliding scale model applies to our annual members too), and deeper engagement as people are choosing to eat with us every single week of the year (vs the seasonal csa model which we run in parallel to the annual membership) and don't have to think about re-joining at the end of every csa season.

A large reason why we chose to stay with our original online platform, Square, is that it offers us the option to create automatic EFT payments with folks. Square didn't offer this feature when we originally applied for this grant, but has been making continuous improvements to their system which have been helping us get closer to our goals. 

2) Pilot a sliding scale year-round CSA membership program. Members may discretely self-select an affordable share price and payment frequency from monthly to annual to access the same high quality food we serve to all. We will show that a sliding scale CSA membership can simultaneously and synergistically meet both the local community's food needs and farm business profitability.

Update 1/11/23- This has been hugely successful for us! We've been clearly able to welcome members who are paying at all ends of the spectrum, able to self select without having to discuss it with anybody and we, as a farm, have come out as profitable as we would have when people were all paying at the median price. The sliding scale tiers include: standard pricing (median), below median income (-25% below median), well below median income (-50% below the median), above median income (+ 25% above median), and contributing neighbor (+50% above median). 

3) Partner with a local organization to serve as a satellite CSA distribution site for convenient food access to those members who do not currently have reliable transportation to our on-farm CSA distribution location and dates.

Update 1/11/23- This has been a TOUGH goal to achieve. Most locations who would be open to partnering with us to provide people with local food, need our CSA shares to be low to no cost. We've learned that we just can't sign on to do this given that once the grant runs out, we'd be taking that financial hit entirely. As a for-profit entity, this is tricky. We worked for the summer and fall CSA (28 weeks total) sessions with a local company called HULA who was interested in being a CSA drop-off location site. This wasn't our ideal as the folks participating do otherwise have the means (aka. have a car) to get to our farm. It was just making their ability to get our CSA more convenient for them.

We were never able to drum up enough members to make this truly financially worth it for us and communication proved challenging with them. We have ended that drop off location project as of this winter. We HAVE however made a wonderful connection with the local food shelf in Shelburne. They had grant money to purchase food with us and have been able to come weekly to get a large amount of produce for their community. SARE has helped cover the cost of our labor to communicate weekly with them, pack their orders, and offer them food at 10% off our retail price. We're also going to be having a meeting with NOFA -VT this winter to help us brainstorm partnering with organizations who have funding to help us offset the cost of offering low cost shares and who, hopefully, meet our demographic goal of not otherwise being able to get to our farm. Wish us luck!


4) Share CSA member feedback and farm financials. Members can opt into a continuous feedback dialogue throughout the project duration whereby they contribute feedback for improvement of our CSA program. We see this level of CSA member engagement as the next evolution of CSA members services.

Update 1/11/23- We created and completed a very successful survey this past summer with our Annual CSA Members. We received tons of helpful information and it was well received (especially since there were some complementary sunflower stems offered in exchange for their participation 🙂



As we look towards our next season of distributing produce through our collaborative CSA model, we are hoping to address some barriers that community members may face in their ability to access our food and participate in our local food system. Food access and affordability are often seen as contrasting with farmers' struggle to maintain  sustainable livelihoods. While we have seen many great examples of food access issues addressed by non-profit organizations and associated non-profit supported farms, we are eager to demonstrate that for-profit farms can be part of the solution and transformation to a more just food system, without sacrificing farmer livelihood. 

Farmers producing some the highest quality, hyper-local food available are often asked about how they are contributing to food access and affordability. "How do community members access your food who may not be able to afford it or have reliable transportation to your farm to pick up the food?" This is a critical yet somewhat complex question. The fact is that farmers are often among the most financially impoverished members of communities, especially more affluent communities where many direct-to-consumer farm food marketing occurs as a strategic approach to farmers being able to sell their food for what it actually costs to produce - hopefully with a profit too.  In these situations, if the farmers didn't have free access to their own food, they may not be able to afford the food they are producing on their farmer salaries.  We also acknowledge that affordability is only one of a myriad amount of barriers and challenges that members of our community may face in their ability to access food from Bread and Butter Farm. One additional barrier that we have identified is transportation. 

To create more affordable food for all levels of economic livelihoods, can essentially force the farmer to take home less financial return for the same work and products. Likewise, to create more physically accessibility to food distribution through drop off locations adds time, resources, and costs to farmers who then have to pack, transport, deliver, and store food off-farm for community members to access. That said, it is imperative that local for-profit farms continue to lead and join the work of creating universal food access for all community members regardless of financial or transportation resources. Sustainability for farmers comes in many forms. 

To address the problem of high quality local food access to meet community members' financially and transportation realities, while enhancing farmer livelihood and overall farm profitability, we will create 1) a sliding scale CSA membership program, and 2) a CSA share distribution site with more convenient share pick up access to those who need it. To do this well, we will employ a single unified CSA, Farm Store, and Cafe online sales and membership portal. We will also use surveys, focus groups, and text messaging feedback tools to solicit and record community member experiences to inform the project study and to innovate the model in real time to directly address feedback.

We hypothesize our project will demonstrate that sliding scale CSA membership is a viable economic strategy for direct-to-consumer farms by way of 1) collective social buy-in to sliding scale whereby affordability determines your CSA membership share fee with a target average share price returned to the farm for sustainable budgeting and financial management; and 2) socially conscious marketing that inspires and encourages the full spectrum of socioeconomic demographics within a community to join together around a farm and food hub designed to serve everyone.

Bread & Butter Farm manages 600 acres only 10 minutes drive from downtown Burlington VT and within 30 minutes of over 25% of the Vermont state population accessing both the most populated and the most financially affluent and impoverished populations in the state. Bread & Butter Farm is one of the largest direct-to-consumer for-profit farms by acreage in Vermont and is uniquely positioned to execute this project.

The model developed in this project is designed to serve both our community of eaters and our community of partner farms who we collaborate with in our CSA program, Farm Store, and Cafe selling shares, food, and meals-to-go. As our CSA grows, so does our demand for food production - both on our farm and those of our partner farms, with improved livelihoods for all.


Description of farm operation:

We are a multi-enterprise farm that has been around since 2010. A few of us have been around since its inception and many have been around farming and working on the land anywhere between 1-7 years. We are a team of full-time and part-time employees. We produce organic vegetables and fruit on our 2 acres of no-till production. We raise pastured grass-fed cattle and pork. Currently our cattle herd, which is around 90 head, grazes on over 600 acres of conserved land in Shelburne and South Burlington. We practice rotational and regenerative grazing methods with our cattle and pigs. We operate a beautiful on-site farm store acting as a food hub, selling local produce, dairy, meat, fruits, ferments, and other groceries from local farms and producers. We run a seasonal CSA program as well as a year-round Annual Membership program. We also run multiple education enterprises ranging from summer camp, the University of Vermont Farmer Training Program, and our school year Village School program as well as one off classes, workshops, and tours. The entire farm business grosses about $500-$600k of revenue per year which has been steadily increasing since 2019.


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Materials and methods:


Year-Round Sliding Scale CSA Program/Annual Membership


To understand how the sliding scale works and what we did to launch it, it would be helpful to understand how our seasonal csa model works:


CSA Sliding Scale Summary


Our veggie CSA runs for all four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall) and the duration of each season is determined by the crops that are available during that time frame. Winter and spring are our shortest seasons, due to use of mostly storage crops. Veggies included in our CSA program are not exclusively grown on our farm, we partner with many other farms to increase the variety of crops in our CSA and support other local VT farms. The duration of each CSA seasons are as follows:


Winter - 8 weeks

Spring - 9 weeks

Summer - 14 weeks

Fall - 14 weeks


We offer 3 different sizes of CSA shares (small, medium, large) which consist of “items”. Items are defined differently by crop, for example: One “item” of potatoes is 1.5 pounds, One item of kale is 1 bunch etc... Customers pick up their share on a weekly basis for the duration of each CSA season. Here are the different CSA share sizes:


Small - 4 items

Medium - 8 items

Large - 12 items


The list of available “items” per week usually ranges from 20-30 different varieties of fruits and veggies. Customers are always able to customize their share to best fit their needs. For example - someone can pick up all 4 “items” in just potatoes or whatever options we have available. The customization of CSA shares is usually not typical for other farms. Traditionally a CSA Share is a fixed variety of veggies and determined by the farm. Since we buy crops from other farms (for some of our variety) we are able to offer customization since we order on a week-by-week basis. We also offer a prepacked share option which is offered through an online form that comes out weekly. Members who can’t come to pick up or who just want to go quickly, fill out the form and our staff members pack it up to have ready for them to pick up on a day of their selection. 


We launched the sliding scale model this past winter by researching other farms doing similar work including Beech Hill Farm, Phillies Bridge Farm Project, and Zenger Farm. As mentioned above, we assessed the breakdown financially of what our various  tiers should be. We are saturated in a higher income earning area however are very close to lower income areas as well. We’ve been able to assess that, when all is said and done, we come out essentially even in terms of profitability. In order to price out the various membership tiers, we factored in the farm’s margin which is around 37%. The three tiers are: small, medium, and large. To find the standard price for each csa size, that would allow us to meet all of our expenses (bought in crops, labor, overhead, and profit) we used the 37% margin to mark up bought in crops/farm produced crops to a standard retail price (the mark up is around 45%). Once we determined the standard price for each csa size (this is vegetable only), we chose to go with four different tiers of sliding scale options: 25% and 50% below/above standard price. We called them: Well below median income, below median income, standard price, above median income, contributing neighbor.  The folks who pay on the higher end of the sliding scale end up subsidizing the folks who pay on the lower end. Anything left over is either a loss or gain for the farm and after about one year, we’ve come out even. Here is the assessment breakdown that customers use to determine their tier:

Assessment Breakdown 

Consider paying more when you:

  • Own your home
  • Have retirement accounts, investment, or inherited money
  • Have access to family money and resources in times of need
  • If you hold white privilege

Consider paying less when you:

  • Are supporting children, other dependents, or sending remittances
  • Have significant debt
  • Have medical expenses not covered by insurance
  • Are on fixed income or receive public assistance
  • Identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)

*Referencing the sliding scale model at Beech Hill Farm in Maine


The Annual Membership model was inspired by a classic gym membership but also by the farm’s desire to perennialize as much of our work as we can. Similarly to our work to plant more perennials on our land, we aimed to create a more perennial/cyclic experience for members. Why should there ever be an end time to eat with us? So, as we mentioned before, we created and launched this model in Winter 2022.  Since we launched it, we have seen a continuous increase in members, well over 100 at this point. We also achieve our goal of folding our members into more and more of what it is that we do on the farm beyond growing food:  educational programs, workshops, volunteer days, monthly gifts from local businesses, early bird access to our most beloved on-farm experiences, all of this has deepened our own relationships with our community and their understanding of our bigger vision and work. See below for how the unified online sales system works with our Annual Membership model. 


Unified Online Sales System

We initially were looking for an online sales system that could help us set up recurring invoicing, inventory tracking, and expense tracking. We ended up choosing to stay with Square because at the time of the grant application, they ended up adding a function that enabled us to meet most of our goals and thus, avoid a full change over of our online system. These new functions were critical to creating a subscription model CSA membership, which we call our Annual Membership. The invoicing function on Square allows us to set up automated invoicing with each customer and also manage the products on a day to day basis. This membership, like our seasonal csa membership, offers folks the sliding scale option. 


Our process for launching the Annual Membership in conjunction with Square looks like this:

Folks choose the tier that suits their financial needs to determine their monthly payment.  Additionally, members can choose to add on a weekly bread, cheese, egg, or milk item. 

In order to sign up an Annual Member in Square, you first have to use the Customer tool to create a customer account. This is where we collect their name, email, and credit card info. That customer account then links with the Invoicing tool in order to determine which product(s) each customer wants which determines their monthly payment. Customers can also choose which day of the month that they will be billed. All payment collection is automated through the invoicing tool. 


Drop off Location

We worked within our community first to learn if there were any connections that we could make to find a good drop off location match. We explored partnering with Age Well Vermont, however, this proved tough as they, and most businesses meeting the needs of low-income under-resourced populations, needed low to no cost food for their demographic. Again, at the heart of this work with SARE, we couldn’t afford to partner with these organizations as we, the farmers, would again be taking the hit of this kind of relationship. So, for a while, nothing obvious popped out. We did however decide to pursue one connection to HULA, a Burlington-based multi-purpose building space that our co-worker delivers his gluten free baked goods to each week. We learned that there was interest there and pursued it as many of our other attempts to find a location hadn’t worked. HULA proved to be challenging because the demographic of folks working there didn’t ultimately meet our desire to be helping people who didn’t have the means to get to our farm. We hoped that in just starting up with them, things would progress and maybe we’d end up making a more aligned connection down the road. But retention, communication, and people’s real desire to eat local food proved challenging and we ultimately stopped partnering with them after two seasons. 

We ended up connecting with our technical advisor, Hannah Baxter, who connected us with the VT Food Bank and with NOFA, Northeast Organic Farmers Association, to see if they could help us make a more goals-aligned connection. Again, we ran into many of the same roadblocks here as most organizations attempting to do this kind of work are for-profit and have money to give away. We sought out a potential connection through a program called Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, however they had already established the farm connections they needed for the year. 


Ultimately, through work with NOFA and through connecting with the VT Food Bank, we were connected with our local food shelf (Shelburne Community Food Shelf) and we are so excited to have landed here! SFS had their own grant money to use on spending food for their community and was looking to partner with a local farm. We have been able to foster that relationship so much so that we’ll be able to keep this rolling once SARE and their grant money has run out. This same situation has also been the case for the connection we made with COTS, the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

Research results and discussion:

*To avoid redundancy, please reference some other sections in this report to see answers to the Results and Discussions section. 


We measured whether or not we could be financially successful as a for-profit farm doing food access work, specifically in launching a sliding scale model. We observed the success of the sliding scale model in both our seasonal csa program, and our Annual Membership program, growing slowly since its launch in December 2022 starting at 0 members to now 110 members. As stated earlier, we pivoted from the original idea of using a unified online system to sticking with Square because Square’s system upgraded to having the aspects we really were originally looking for except for tracking expenses. 

We were surprised at how hard it was to find a partner organization to establish a drop off site with and how much time it took to find something solid. 


Seasonal CSA Revenue Comparison 2021(no sliding scale) vs 2022 (with sliding scale)




















Research conclusions:

Research conclusions


We sought to expand our food access efforts namely through establishing a csa drop off location site, through launching a sliding scale csa model, and through establishing a unified online sales management system. We successfully launched the sliding scale model, with our seasonal csa program AND our new annual membership model, established a relationship with the Shelburne Community Food Shelf and COTS whereby they receive food weekly from us at our wholesale price (which is 10% off retail) for their own distributions, and ultimately, we chose to keep with our original online platform as it upgraded to fit our online needs.


 The results have been fantastic. The Annual Membership program and its sliding scale approach has brought in consistent monthly revenue for the farm (as of May 2023 the Annual Membership is bringing in around $13,000 per month in revenue with a 28% profit margin), we have seen a dramatic improvement in our general csa retention (this has been the biggest benefit to the farm), the sliding scale model has proven to be profitable for us, and we now have a long term connection with two goals-aligned local organizations.

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
20 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

6 Farmers participated
5 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Description of farming practices Description of farm store/CSA products Description of CSA/Annual Membership

Newsletters- we send out weekly/monthly newsletters to our various customer bases and many of them advertised the sliding scale model

We had NOFA VT reach out to us about offering a workshop at their conference regarding sliding scale csa models

We offered three farm tours to our annual members and we also offer at least 2 field days/volunteer events per summer to our full seasonal/annual member customer base

We offered a comprehensive survey to our members after the summer csa and received a LOT of powerful feedback helping us adapt and improve our programs. 

The 3 factsheets/educational tools we created are one-page flyers that live in our farm store for customers to take home. These describe our seasonal CSA/Annual Membership, what we sell on the farm, and our farming practice and methods. 

Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

The 6 farmers that reported changes all work at Bread and Butter Farm and some with aspirations of eventually starting their own farm. They learned/reported: How to create and enhance systems for creating a year-round Annual membership program, how to effectively price and create a sliding scale model that is profitable, which organizations we can work with to discuss CSA/food access work, learning how to create recurring invoices with our online system, how to communicate with customers about tiered pricing models, we learned what kind of partnerships in the food access realm are unsustainable/sustainable for a for-profit entity. Brainstorming and experimenting with different food access models was highly engaging and rewarding, especially when customers gave positive feedback.

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

Sliding Scale Outcomes

The changes felt from the sliding scale approach within our seasonal csa model and our Annual Membership have been hugely transformative. We have noticed a huge increase in retention from season to season and in members’ overall satisfaction. We LOVE that members don’t need to “out” themselves in order to take advantage of our sliding scale model as they used to have to do when they needed to reach out for a payment plan and/or to take advantage of our solidarity share model (whereby members with more financial means could donate to a pool used for people who needed financial assistance). 


The revenue for the farm has truly evened out and been a huge help to us and our cash flow for the year. There is more JOY from the team overall as we all benefit from this boost in membership, increased satisfied community members, reaching a more diverse demographic of individuals, and feeling proud and excited that we’re able to make a dent in the food access world as a for-profit farm. The sliding scale model was very well received with people saying that they loved how easy it was, how they could help others with less financial means, how they couldn't have joined the csa without it, to name a few. For some, using the sliding scale model brought up discomfort in the process of deciding where they fall financially, but they mentioned appreciating confronting that discomfort and we appreciate pushing people to accurately and honestly reflect on their financial status. 


Square Management Outcomes

Moving to an automatic subscription model for members has freed up so much time that was spent tracking down customers to collect payments. IT has also minimized the number of transactions with customers which is a huge benefit to them and us. Also, when customers sign up for add-on products (eggs, cheese, milk, bread), we know exactly how much to order of these items per week and how much we’ll move, which has reduced our bought-in product waste by about $50 per month. 


Drop off location Outcomes

Working to establish the drop off site has been challenging, but we’re so appreciative of the connections it has offered us, the various balls rolling with different organizations who now know that we’re seeking this kind of relationship, and having it ultimately land us with a great connection to our town’s local food shelf. This outreach work would not have been financially nor staff-wise possible for us to justify without the SARE grant. The food shelf and COTS have been super happy with all of the produce/meat they’ve received as well as the fact that they were able to get food sourced locally during the winter season which they had not been able to do up until finding us. We too, as a team, have always wanted to have a connection to our local eaters who have less financial means so this feels like a big win for us. 


SARE Work in General outcomes

We have appreciated the push that working with SARE has given us to reach out more regularly for feedback from our members. The feedback has helped us improve and deepen our experience for everyone who walks onto the farm.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Launch a year-round sliding scale csa membership-

We were immediately successful with this goal as right after the first season in which we launched the sliding scale, we found it to be profitable/on parr with our non-sliding scale format. We held meetings to determine which other farms/organizations we could look to to learn from as well as to determine what we wanted the sliding scale tiers and criteria to be. The main challenge was needing to ensure that the farm didn't lose money in this effort and launching it was a bit of a shot in the dark with fingers crossed. We will DEFINITELY be continuing the sliding scale model as it has shown to be incredibly helpful to the members of our community. It has allowed for so many people to take part in CSA who normally couldn't and has allowed for other members to offer more where they can.  Most all farms who offer a CSA might be able to benefit from this option. It does help to be situated in an area with a wide range of financial circumstances to make it balance out. 

Unified Online Sales System-

Ultimately for this goal, the system we were previously using Square, did its own upgrade which matched nicely with our SARE project timing. There weren't many challenges here other than determining the best way to communicate to members what this new model meant and how to train staff on signing up members to receive recurring invoices. We didn't need to do a whole lot here other than determine if this software could fit our needs and it did. We will continue to use Square for now. 

Drop Off Location-

In a timely manner, we successfully reached out to and maintained steady communication with multiple organizations to find a partner drop off location site. Each partnership lent itself to us learning and honing in our target audience and demographic until we ultimately landed with the partnerships we have now. We did indeed determine that it is HARD as for-profit entity to find the right fit to do food access work in a time when farmers struggle to get paid a livable wage, however we also learned that many non-profit groups who have their own grant/government funding are seeking farms to partner with as local food IS becoming slowly prioritized although there is a long way to go. So it IS possible. We won't continue to search for many new partnerships right now as we don't have capacity to take on many more partnerships than we already do, however we still have some lingering conversations with some organizations that we met during this process and these could potentially amount to something great going forward. 

Area of Further Study/Progression-

Although we were unable to completely merge the internal workings of the farm business into one unified online system, we are experimenting and shifting to simplifying the number of systems we employ to efficiently manage the backend of operations. In addition to simplifying our front-end, customer facing POS system (square), we are also shifting our backend accounting and bookkeeping software to a platform called "Ambrook".  Ambrook is a new start up company that aims to help farmers deal with the complex and nuanced bookkeeping/accounting issues that are very common amongst farms. They merge the cutting edge technology available today with efficient and easy to use tools that automate bookkeeping processes (such as invoicing, bill paying, budgeting etc..) which save time and empower us to make educated decisions.  We recently made a full shift to this new platform on 6/1/23 and are continuing to explore and develop its capabilities.  

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.