Establishing a Cooperative Farm Share Program in the Massachusetts Hilltowns

Progress report for ONE20-357

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $25,405.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Hilltown Community Development
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Kate Bavelock
Hilltown Community Development
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Project Information

Summary:

Many small-scale growers in Western Massachusetts in our Keep Farming in the Hilltowns group have attempted to sell farm shares previously, only to give them up because of administrative burdens.  In addition, providing variety to shareholders can be a challenge.  By creating a Hilltown Grown CSA with products aggregated from multiple farms with a shared coordinator assisting customers, the farm share model will become a valued line of business. Grant funded early setup with coordinator staffing will set the table for future sustainability. We already have the germ of this with the Hilltown Mobile Market – but being primarily a food access program for food insecure residents, the Mobile Market doesn’t address the farmers need to connect with customers of all income levels – including those who can afford to pay the market rate. Finally, the Hilltown Mobile Market with grant funded staff, needs to shift towards a business model to be sustainable in the long term with farmers taking on costs of coordinator and delivery. The project objective is to develop a business model and make it operational for multiple farms to supply a regional farm share program and share the administrative costs. The work plan entails pre-season crop orders, arranging payment agreements, marketing to and signing up consumers, pickup and delivery and customer relations.  Outreach will build off the existing Hilltown Mobile Market to reach more customers via website, social media, flyers around town, press releases, use of each farm’s current customer database and farm stand to promote.

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to develop and make operational  an innovative program integrating an existing subsidized Mobile Market with a multi-farms share program and share the administrative costs of planning crops, marketing, customer signups, delivery logistics and customer relations on behalf of the participating farms. 

A second objective is to enhance the existing Mobile Market so that subsidized and unsubsidized shares will sell from one venue seamlessly, taking the stigma out of subsidized markets and make fresh local food available for all in the community.  A third objective will be to build sustainability into the mobile market.

The question we will answer is “can this regional farm share model decrease each participant’s administrative work enough to make it a profitable line of business?” and “how well can one market and one coordinator serve subsidized and unsubsidized markets for farm shares.”  The project will be successful when the value has been proven after the costs are sustainably covered and the farmers maintain a profit margin roughly equivalent to their retail rate.  It will also be successful when the full-price farm shares and cooperative work of the farmers make the mobile market less dependent on grant funding.

Introduction:

The problem is that small-scale producers in New England face severe staffing challenges without a seasonal, skilled agricultural workforce.  The small grower must do almost everything on their own and this makes the administrative work of the farm share model prohibitive to many.  The farms in our area have all gone away from the CSA model because of the burden of marketing shares, communicating with shareholders and tracking payments and pickups.  Because of their scale, they also prefer direct sales rather than wholesale accounts.  This leaves them vulnerable with only farmers markets and unmanned farm stands as access points to their customers.  In addition, they are missing a potentially valuable source of income.

The current COVID 19 public health crisis has shown how vulnerable communities are to disruptions in the food system, and how vulnerable growers are to the shutting down of a market or restaurant. 

The solution is for them to work cooperatively to share customers and administrative costs by creating a regional Hilltown CSA.  This has the additional benefit by aggregating produce, to expand variety for consumer choice and redundancy in case of crop failure.  Finally, by working cooperatively and aggregating produce, growers will have an efficient channel to distribute their produce and products to other cooperative members farm stands.

By solving one of the challenges of staying small-scale, they can continue to put soil health and sustainable practices first and resist pressure to grow their businesses to the point where they compromise existing practices such as no till, horse-powered soil preparation, hand picking and other low-tech, high-touch practices.

Benefits for producers which make this the right solution include those outlined in Local Harvest: A Multifarm CSA Handbook, page 23-30: Up-front payment, guaranteed market, direct link, control over pricing, specialized crop production, convenience, low-risk participation for new and small growers, community building among growers and safety net.  

We identified this need by meetings, brainstorming and refining ideas. This project was developed by the producers named in the project over a series of facilitated winter meetings looking at which cooperative programs would best help their business at this time. Other potential projects were discussed, but this rose to the top for three reasons:

  • Feasible within a year
  • Fits with the existing Mobile Market, but expands it to also serve farmer’s needs
  • It has the potential to promote a local food system with more local control (especially relevant with COVID 19 grocery shopping challenges, and economic and supply chain disruptions.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Lincoln Fishman - Producer
  • Dan Greene - Producer
  • Anna Meyer - Producer
  • Tevis and Rachel Robertson-Goldberg - Producer
  • Trip Shaw - Producer
  • Maureen Tracy - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

2020 Annual Report of Activities

Current Activities – September 2020-December 31, 2020:

Staff Roles Planning: September – Met with individual staff on workplan for grants and changes in job roles

Pre-season crop planning -through a series of virtual meetings Mobile Market staff are finalizing crop planning with the farms to be strategic about what each farm will supply to the aggregated farm share. This improves efficiency when each farm supplies a streamlined amount of items – while variety for the consumer is maintained or improved.  We began with a producers surveys in November, followed by some produce estimations by the staff based on projected share numbers, and are currently finalizing a spreadsheet across farms by product.  Once the spreadsheet is finalized we will complete MOUs on supply amounts by product with each individual farm. Our goal is to complete the MOUs in February.

Pickup and Delivery logistics planning – With our partners at Healthy Hampshire, the Hilltown Food Council and the farmers, we have settled on a projected 33% growth from 2020. This is based on the how much the farmers can produce, the capacity of the van and sales projections.  As we sold out the available shares within weeks and we did not tap the farms existing customer contact lists (ie from their previous csa buyers), we feel the market is very strong for growth, and that capacity of the van will be  the limiting factor.  With that in mind, the decision was made to increase shares at each of the four 2020 locations rather than increase locations.  We have good geographic coverage and work with shareholders with transportation challenges – sometimes staff delivers a share to the clients home, or the client sends a friend or COA volunteer to pick it up. An interesting dynamic came up in the farmers survey on projected growth/volume.  Some want to stay at the 2020 level, some want to supply more.  There are very specific thresholds for each farm on labor costs and other input costs which must be taken into account.  For 2021 supply projections appear to balance out well for each farmer to provide the amount they feel comfortable with, but could be an issue in future years around volume growth. 

Marketing to the public availability of a Hilltown CSA – in October we became aware that our Community Outreach Coordinator needed to cut back work hours for family reasons.  We decided to break off the Marketing component of this project to a consultant and created a Scope of Work with Andrea Coulari who does similar work with Berkshire Grown. We have had several meetings in November and December reviewing ideas of how to brand the aggregated share in the context of overlapping programs (Hilltown Mobile Market, Keep Farming in the Hilltowns, and informally used Hilltown Grown). She has begun brainstorming ways to bridge the gaps between what resonates with the consumer, and what benefits the producers in terms of logo, tagline and some messaging tools. The plan is to bring specific marketing options to the farmers at the February meeting for their input.

Not yet begun:   Share signups – will take place May-July 2021

Components:

Coordinator:  SARE Grant funds have allowed us to keep our Hilltown Mobile Market coordinator working with us over the Winter to do crop aggregation, ordering, sourcing and delivery planning.  In previous years this was a seasonal job – but planning has been hindered by the seasonality of that role.

Vehicle:  Maximizing the space and route of the vehicle to increase volume continues to be a focus of the winter planning work.

Farm partners:  Off-season planning has taken place through Oct, Nov and December on the three main issues of crop planning, pick up and delivery logistics and branding and marketing for the cooperative farm shares. The farmers were reluctant to end outside meetings with masks in the late fall for indoor zoom meetings, but the January meeting will tell us how the format works for them.  They continue to be full engaged with email discussions and survey response.

Administrative Overhead: Hilltown CDC program staff and fiscal staff are working remotely with rotating designated office hours for paperwork tasks.  This does slow things down, but overall is working for the purposes of managing this grant and moving the objectives forward.

Engagement Strategy:

Keep Farming in the Hilltowns is in its 6th year of engaging local farmers in meetings and with small business assistance to promote food and farming in the Hilltowns.  This is the third year for facilitated winter meetings to share best practices, news and to explore programmatic ideas, but the first year in which we are focusing primarily on building out the cooperative farm share concept. Since our producers who supply the market have become our primary focus, we need to keep in mind ways to support other small farmers in our community and onboard any new supplies to the market in the future.

The Hilltown Food Council is the consumer advisory council to the Hilltown Mobile Market and continues to be a format which we use to engage our customers on their preferences and needs in terms of local food access.  November’s meeting was a review of the shareholder and customer feedback from the 2020 Mobile Market. December’s meeting focused heavily on ways to support the food pantries during a COVID winter,somewhat outside the scope of the Mobile Market work.  January’s meeting is on the 12th and the main topic is regional collaboration with the newly formed Hampshire Food Policy Council.

Research results and discussion:

Hilltown Cooperative Farm Share

FARMER SURVEY 2020 – RESULTS

What markets do you currently sell to?  List approx % of sales

  • Farm 1- 100% Farmstore
  • Farm 2- 38% Farmstore, 2% CSA, 60% Small wholesale
  • Farm 3- 5% Farmstore, 30% CSA, 60% Farmers Market, 2% Online, 3% Small wholesale
  • Farm 4- 25% Farmstore, 55% Farmers Market, 20% Small wholesale
  • Farm 5- 33% Farmstore/greenhouse, 19% CSA, 46% Farmers Market, 2% Small wholesale
  • Farm 6 -20% Farmstore, 80% Farmers Market

Are you planning to change or expand your sales to new markets next year?

  • Farm 1- Shift back to Marty’s if store slows down
  • Farm 2- No
  • Farm 3 – Not Sure
  • Farm 4- More wholesale post pandemic, expand farmstore
  • Farm 5- Unsure
  • Farm 6- No

What would be your ideal weekly income from Mobile Market sales? $__________

  • Farm 1- $500                                    
  • Farm 2 – $500                       
  • Farm 3- $100-300 
  • Farm 4 – $400-500
  • Farm 5- $200                     
  • Farm 6- $300-350

Circle the days you could have harvest ready for pickup:

  • Sun -2, 3
  • Mon – 1, 2, 5
  • Tues – 1, 1, 4, 5
  • Weds – 1, 2, 4, 6
  • Thurs- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Fri- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  •  Sat – 2, 4, 6

 

What days would NOT work for harvest pickup?

  • Farm 1- Not Sat or Sun
  • Farm 2-  n/a
  • Farm 3 – Not Mon Tues Weds
  • Farm 4 – Not Sat Sun Mon
  • Farm 5 – Not Sat Sun Weds
  • Farm 6 – Not Sun Mon Tues

Are you able/willing to sell at wholesale rates to help the Mobile Market generate income?

  • Farm 1- Yes
  • Farm 2- Yes
  • Farm 3 – Yes
  • Farm 4 – On some, probably not Salad Mix
  • Farm 5 – Yes
  • Farm 6 – Probably, but would need to think about what crops and what volumes of those crops would make sense at that pricing. Depends a bit on the structure of the Mobile Market, and what the wholesale rates are.

Would you support making an annual contribution to help cover the cost of a staff coordinator?

  • Farm 1- Yes                                       
  • Farm 2- Yes                         
  • Farm 3- Yes  
  • Farm 4- Yes
  • Farm 5- Unsure
  • Farm 6 – Probably not. Prefer the wholesale pricing model

Would you use an online platform to list your weekly available produce?

  • Farm 1 – Yes
  • Farm 2 – Yes
  • Farm 3 – Yes
  • Farm 4 – Maybe
  • Farm 5 – Unsure
  • Farm 6  – Probably. Not Facebook.

Would you consider adopting a collective brand to sell your produce, i.e. “Hilltown Farmers Co-op?”

  • Farm 1 – Yes
  • Farm 2 – Yes
  • Farm 3 – Yes
  • Farm 4 – Yes
  • Farm 5 – Yes
  • Farm 6 – Not sure what is meant by this. To what market would we be branding our produce this way? At our existing markets (other than Hilltown Mobile Market), we only sell our own produce. Collective branding only makes sense when collectively marketing produce from multiple farms. Not very interested in this for produce for local sales.

What collective strategies would you support or participate in to promote sales of your products to new customers rather than your existing farm stand customers? X = vote in favor

  • X – Match farms to markets in towns furthest from them
  • XXXX X– Offer coupons/vouchers to your farm stands (paid from market funds for small amounts or collaboratively for larger promotions) to promote specialty items/meat etc not   available at the Mobile Market
  •  XXXXX ?– More collective branding to entire region – “Hilltown Grown”  Like CISA’s “Local Hero?”
  • XX – More individual branding of your farm on specialty items
  • XXXX – Meet Your Farmer – profiles, handouts about your farm, farmstand hours
  • XX –  Meet Your Farmer – video interviews, online farm tours, etc.
  • XXX-  Meet Your Farmer – in person tours, demos, volunteer days

Other ideas?

  • Would support having the Mobile Market indicate the originating farm for all produce.
  •  Promotion of farmstands that are still open at end of Mobile Market season

Are you interested in aggregating your produce with other Hilltown farms to access additional and/or larger wholesale markets, i.e. local schools, stores, restaurants, institutions?

  • Farm 1- Yes
  • Farm 2 – Yes
  • Farm 3 – Yes
  • Farm 4 – Yes
  • Farm 5 – Unsure
  • Farm 6 – Only to a limited extent. We are not interested at this time in increasing our production to access larger markets.

Do you have ideas for additional uses of the Mobile Market vehicle?

Farm 3 – Aggregation is good. Maybe for picking up food for donations too?

 

Indicate what crops and quantities you would prefer to supply the market:

Item

Farm 1

Farm 2

Farm 3

Farm 4

Farm 5

Farm 6

Salad Mix

Max 20 bags

No limit

5-20 lbs

Max 24 lbs

10-30 bags

 

Lettuce head

 

 

10-20 hds

Max 24 hds

Max 40 hds

 

Tomatoes

 

No limit

No limit

Max 20 lbs

10-40 lbs+x

 

Cherry Tomatoes

Min 12 pts

No limit

No limit

 

x = if asked

 

String Beans

 

No limit

5-20 lbs

 

x

x

Peas

 

 

Max 10 lbs

 

x

 

Sweet Corn

 

 

 

 

x

x

Bell Peppers

Min 10 lbs

 

Max 20 lbs

No limit

Max 30 lbs

 

Eggplant

 

 

Max 15 lbs

Max 20 lbs

Max 30 lbs

x

Scallions

Min 12 bu

 

Max 20 bu

No limit

Max 20 bu

 

Leeks

Min 20 lbs

 

 

Max 40 lbs

Max 20 bu

 

Garlic

Min 10 hds

 

Max 5 lbs

 

x

 

Onions

Min 10 lbs

No limit

Max 10 lbs

Max 40 lbs

Max 20 lbs

 

Potatoes

Min 10 lbs

No limit

 

 

No limit x

 

Beets

Min 20 lbs

No limit

Max 20 bu

 

Max 20 bu

 

Carrots

Min 20 lbs

No limit

Max 20 bu

Max 24 bu

x

 

Cucumber

Min 20 lbs

No limit

Max 20 lbs

No limit

Max 40 lbs+x

 

Chard

Min 12 bu

 

Max 20 lbs

Max 24 bu

Max 20 bu

 

Kale

Min 12 bu

 

Max 15 bu

No limit

Max 20 bu

 

Cabbage

Min 5 hds/20lbs

 

Max 40 lbs

No limit

No limit x

 

Herbs

Min 12 bu

 

Max 10 bu

Max 24 bu

varies

 

Zucchini/ Squash

Min 10 lbs

No limit

No limit

No limit

Max 40 lbs+x

 

Winter Squash

Min 10 sq

No limit

No limit

No limit

No limit x

 

Apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blueberries

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grapes

 

 

Max 20 pts

 

 

 

Peaches

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raspberries

 

 

Max 10 pts

 

 

 

Strawberries

 

 

Max 10 pts

 

 

 

Melons

 

 

Max 40 lbs

 

x

 

 

Hilltown Mobile Market 2020 Consumer Survey:https://www.hilltowncdc.org/s/2020HMMCustomerSurvey.pdf

 

Research conclusions:

We used the above surveys (consumer and farmer) as a planning tool for the cooperative 2021 farmshare. 

It helped us answer important questions about planned growth and what marketing strategies would be most beneficial to the farms.

One way the survey changed our thinking was on the issue of projected growth – we went in thinking everyone would be told to produce 20% more, or 50% more or whatever growth model we settled on.  We came out realizing that some could stay level with last year if they chose and others could produce at higher volumes to supply the market making up the difference.

Consensus was clear on the logistics and pricing questions.

COVID has created a great deal of uncertainty in 2020 for farmers to plan their market outlets, and the survey shows a bit of that seeping into 2021.  Most found ways to dramatically shift their business models (from wholesale to farmstand for example), but will 2021 bring a shift back or continuation of 2020.

From the consumer survey, we realize the need to increase the availability of fruit into the share and will seek to do so for 2021.

Participation Summary
6 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

1 Consultations
4 On-farm demonstrations
6 Tours

Participation Summary

17 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

2020:

Farm Tours – we had 6 tours in which we had a total of 17 unduplicated participants over the summer.  Several farms provided demonstrations of equipment or infrastructure solutions on their farm. This was very beneficial to understanding each farms setup, growing methods and capacity – as well as great sharing of best-practices and solutions.

Hilltown Food Council – met monthly over the year (via zoom since March). Summary of work above

Consumers Survey – 2020 Hilltown Mobile Market Survey linked above.  The new marketing consultant for the aggregated farm share is working with the staff team on ways to informally “test the message” for certain demographics. For example, language and messaging around local food and “consumer education” can be perceived as elitist to some audiences and we have a plan to test some taglines and other materials with select program partners and clients as part of the process.

 

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.