F.A. Farm

  (Ferndale, Washington)
Postmodern Agriculture - Food With Full Attention
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CSA Season Starts Next Week

In 2007, I started my CSA season on June 22nd. My main concern was having snap peas in the first box. In 2008, I started on June 9th. I had plenty of overwintered chard and kale, with plentiful new greens, so I was able to start two weeks earlier. My main concern in the 2008 was the long, cool spring, which I saw as an anomaly. This year, I wanted to start on June 1st, but I had to delay the first box pickup until June 10th. I had figured two years in a row of extended cool, wet spring conditions was unlikely. Wrong! Now I see long, cool springs as the new norm here in NW Washington, but we could actually be moving to more like the Northeastern climate parameters - i.e. cold winter temps and higher early summer temps. The maritime climate here usually features more "equable" temperatures because of the Pacific Ocean (the largest thermostat in the world!), but we are getting more variation in both winter and summer temps. Yesterday set a record of 89 degrees in Seattle and my thermometer in Ferndale read 94 degrees. Even I had to take a break in the afternoon and went for a refreshing motorcycle ride. [SInce I don't get any days off, I feel entirely justified in getting out the bike for an hour - especially since I rode over to Birch Bay to check on their Thursday Farmers Market.]

On another note - my spelt is headed out now. It has an interesting look to it and I am intrigued by the size of the head. It is reputed to be hard to thresh. We shall see.


Niche Marketing and Subsidizing Your Customer

Yesterday, I finished reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001). I had been a fan of Ehrenreich since the early 90's, but I didn't bother to read her book when it came out because I knew the subject so well. But I lucked into a copy recently and it was a quick and interesting read. Also yesterday, I viewed a short video of Seth Godin that was recommended by another blogger on this site. Godin is big on creating our own "tribes" and moving away from mass marketing. A third confluence I thought about in the last 24 hours was Samuel Fromartz' book Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew (2007). These three influences have helped solidify the direction my direct marketing has taken in the last year.

Ehrenreich is a long-time socialist-leaning investigative journalist who also has a Ph.D. in cell biology. After Clinton's ill-conceived "welfare reform" in the 90's, she set out to see how bad it really was for the poor. She took a series of minimum-wage jobs in three separate states and tried to make a living. She quickly found out it was impossible to make a living on the bottom of the wage scale. Her book's penultimate paragraph says a lot about America. "When someone works for less pay than she can live on -- when for example she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently -- then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes wil be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else (page 221)."

Seth Godin also has a new book out, called Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008). What I found interesting is his assertion that mass marketing is not needed and his notion of "telling a story." This is niche marketing in a nutshell. The aspect of forming our own tribes is a good starting point for those people who want to do something locally and under the radar of government.

Fromartz' book was one of my reads over the 2007-2008 winter and it made some very good points about how the organic movement has been hijacked by agribusiness. However, the concept that really resonated with me was the idea of subsidizing your customers. Here is his quote from page 102. He is talking about a young couple trying to make a living on the land. “As with any start-up, you could argue these were the lean years. But a start-up is predicated on the assumption that the business will take off, that a profit will ensue and an asset will grow in value. The farm was on the right track, but it was taking an awful lot of work and patience to wring even a basic living from the land. I later told Hedin that given what he was making after a sixty- or seventy-hour workweek, he was in effect giving his customers a food subsidy.”  

Putting all these together, what we are doing with sustainable agriculture, CSA programs, farmers markets, and the like, is to subsidize our customers. Someone who works as a high school teacher, for example, certainly works hard but is getting a subsidized CSA box whenever they drive out to the farm. This is not the case of the teacher ACTIVELY oppressing the farmer, of course, but simply taking the advantages meted out to them by the system for which they work. In industrial corporate agriculture the subsidy comes from the energy slave of 65 million-year-old petroleum products that are used as inputs. The fossil fuels keep the prices down. Instead of slaves producing cheap food for the supermarkets, the energy slave of oil produces cheap food. As long as the farmer stays within the mainstream system, he (or she) can MAYBE make enough to keep themselves well-fed and anesthetized to the real cost of food - pollution, soil depletion, and the US wars to secure oil supply lines. When we try to break out of the fossil-fuel production box (or trap), we basically devolve into semi-slavery, comparable to the wage slaves profiled so well in Ehrenreich's book. The solution, as far as I can see it, is something along the lines of what Godin is talking about - niche marketing moved up to the next level of self-made tribes. Back in the late 60's and early 70's, I started to see some advantages in doing the right thing. In other words, I started to see some payback for my antiwar and co-op efforts. These were measured in human, subjective terms, rather than money or position. We thought of ourselves as the counterculture back then and tribes were another organizing motif. As the circle turns again, the same ideas have new currency.


Some Common Errors

The April 19th issue of Pacific Northwest, a Sunday magazine for the Seattle Times, featured an article by Tom Watson called "From Farm to Fork." This was quite a good article but  had a couple of flaws, which I mentioned in an email to the article author. Even though I take exception to a couple of statements, the article was quite good and I recommend it. The main points in the email are reproduced below.

1) "Inefficiencies from a single pickup bringing a farm-load of produce for a weekly event." [This refers to Farmers Markets.] This is a common error now being used by mainstream economists to actually assert a semi-trailer bringing produce from California is more efficient than local produce (and I did hear this at the Food Justice Conference in Bellingham on April 18th from a supposed "environmental" economist). The trap is that economists have kept a proprietary stranglehold on "efficiency" for so long because they refuse to use a common metric that crosses all platforms. For instance, a semi for interstate commerce weighs 80,000 pounds loaded and can carry 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of freight (higher weights require special permits, so I am just using the standard weights for convenience - I am sure you get my point). If the average distance produce travels in the US is 1500 miles, a semi gets 5 miles per gallon and diesel is equivalent to 35,000 calories per gallon (all checkable on the Internet, by the way), we can calculate the average calorie load of a pound of produce arriving at the store. This is 300 gallons of diesel, for 10.5 million calories divided by 45,000 pounds of produce. The calorie load calculates to 233 calories per pound - just for the fuel. If the truck has a maximum freight of 50,000, the calorie load is still 210. This does not include the embedded calories in the semi's steel, platinum in the catalytic converter, rubber in the tires, etc. These are hard to measure and one of the actual costs of transportation the nerdboys should be investigating. The point is that an average pound of tomatoes has a calorie load in excess of 200 calories by the time it gets to the supermarket. Tomatoes have a caloric value of 91 calories, so a pound of tomatoes ends up with a calorie value of 300 or more.

In comparison, let's say I drive 12.5 miles (25 miles round trip) to the Bellingham Farmers Market with 1000 pounds of produce on my pickup, which gets 22 miles per gallon and the calorie value of gasoline is 31,000 calories per gallon. My produce now has a calorie load of only 35 calories for the fuel. If I only haul 500 pounds to the market, my calorie load is 70 calories per pound. This is still only one-third of the average calorie load of a pound of produce in the supermarket. Also, note that I sold at the Ferndale Farmers Market last year, which is only 3 miles away from our farm, so my calorie load for 500 pounds was only 17 calories per pound of produce. [This does not include the embedded calories of my pickup, but as I mentioned earlier, I cannot find good approximations of the embedded calories for my pickup vs. a semi.] Of course, we can lower our calorie load even further, such as with satellite-distribution networks, as mentioned in your article. I have been working on this here in Whatcom County for three years now, but there are difficulties - mostly with the modern mindset and the restaurants having their needs catered to for so many years.

My point is that the use of calories (or even joules) takes all the air out of the economists' argument for long-haul transportation, as well as globalization in general. This is not a radical concept anymore, as anthropologists have been using calories in evaluating traditional cultures for at least 40 years and the Post Carbon Institute uses calories and joules in their analyses. For a fuller discussion, you can go to my blog http://www.localharvest.org/blog/15945/entry/the_calorie_cost_of_using

2) "May lead to waste if customers don't like or eat what's in their boxes." [This refers to CSA programs.] This is a common complaint heard by CSA farms, but it misses the point entirely. If I give someone a pound of sunchokes (345 calories) and they don't eat them, their waste is MINIMAL compared to what the average consumer is wasting every day in the normal course of events. Americans are incredibly wasteful, so making a big deal out of not eating a small amount of food that can be composted or given away to someone else is really about scoring points on a cheap shot, rather than a valid ecological question. The packaging on a box of cornflakes thrown in the garbage has many more calories than the pound of sunchokes in the CSA box - and they are among the highest calorie values in a CSA share! The actual "waste" of a pound of New Zealand spinach (65 calories), for example, is much less.

The actual problem here is that the shareholder got something they couldn't use. However, any CSA share program can make adjustments the next week and the shareholders usually get so much more than they paid for each week, it is still a great value - even accounting for the occasional produce not eaten. I even give my shareholders credit for what they didn't like, so they win all the way around. This also touches on another point. I am subsidizing all my customers on the farm with my labor. I do not make a fair wage, nor even anywhere close to the minimum wage. The shareholders and other customers may have an office job, or even work in a factory, but they still get a much higher wage than I do. This is a problem for all farmers and is the real reason family farms are in such short supply. The system of exploiting farmers, peasants, serfs and slaves has been in existence for at least 5,000 years, since the first glimmerings of civilization. It doesn't rise to our attention very often because of the overabundance of material goods in this country. However, once petrol is in short supply, there is a chance for the farmer to actually make a living and be appreciated.

The bottom line for me is that we need to question the academics and the coporate types who have had a stranglehold on ideas for so long. The postmodern business model provides a metric that allows us to actually measure efficiency. I know that my produce has a lower impact on the environment than that grown in the Imperial Valley and shipped across the whole country. I shouldn't have to listen to nonsense that simply reinforces globalization and status quo by kinking the argument.


Comparing CSA Prices Across the USA

The April issue of the Bellingham Co-op newsletter listed 13 CSA farms in Whatcom County and their prices. Here is a comparison of Whatcom County and the national average. I used a simple, but robust methodology. I started by downloading the US zipcode database from www.populardata.com. This database has 42,741 zipcodes and I trimmed out the military and PO Box codes. This left 37,113 valid codes. I then used the random number generator function in Excel to generate 50 zipcodes across the US, which I then plugged into the Local Harvest website, www.localharvest.org, using their CSA finder function. [This took several hours, by the way, but there really are no shortcuts in gathering data properly.] I used Local Harvest because they have proven to be the most comprehensive and best-maintained website in the US for local food/small farm resources. Their CSA program database lists over 2500 farms. Out of the 50 zipcodes, there were 21 nulls - i.e. no CSA programs were listed for that zipcode. The high number of nulls is not surprising, as 2500+ CSA programs are spread over 37,113 zipcodes. The main factor is to randomly generate a large enough sample size so every data point has a chance to be in the sample. In this study n=236 and since the sampling procedure was truly representative, I am confident the results represent the US CSA farm population as a whole. Here are the results. In addition to per week results, I standardized the data to a 20-week season.




st dev

95% confidence interval

Whatcom Co. per week


 $   20.13


{$19.04, $21.02}

Whatcom Co. 20 weeks


 $ 402.53


{$380.73, $424.40}

US per week


 $   27.32


{$26.38, $28.26}

US 20 weeks


 $ 546.44


{$527.69, $565.18}

Notice the large standard deviation in the US sample. This is to be expected because of the tremendous variation in a large country with varying degrees of sophistication in understanding farming, much less a new idea of capital acquisition. However, I would say that Whatcom County is decidedly behind the curve in pricing CSA shares.


A Few Thoughts on Marketing CSA Programs

Raj Patel, in his book Stuffed and Starved (2007:308), compares a multiplier rate of 1.4 for supermarkets in Britain and a CSA multiplier rate of 2.59. For those who haven't run into this term before, a multiplier rate (or effect) is simply a rate of increase for dollars or pounds or euros recycled in the community. If a farmer gets $500 for a CSA share and the rate is 2.59, the $500 gets recycled into the community and those dollars are spent 2 1/2 times before the money dribbles out into the larger economy and spreads beyond the community. The supermarket, on the other hand, sends most of its profits to corporate headquarters. To my mind, even the supermarket rate of 1.4 is simply a function of paychecks cashed in the local economy. [As a sidebear, what made slavery so financially rewarding in the "bad old days" was that there were no paychecks. Spanish conquistadors landed in big ships, lived off the Indians' food and labor and sailed back to Spain with boatloads of concentrated wealth with which to enrich themselves and the king. We could even postulate that supermarkets are on the same continuum of extraction as the old conquistadors - simply on a smaller scale. And for those who have ever worked in a supermarket, the correlation between supermarkets and slavery is apt.]

However, back to my main point. Patel only mentions Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs as a vehicle for getting the community involved. As with many writers, his focus is to get the community to be virtuous. In other words, he trumpets the same call to arms which so many CSA farms use in their marketing. The usual advertising I see is an appeal to support the farmer, to share the risk and feel all "warm and fuzzy inside." I feel this is a mistake because it is dependent on disposable income, rather than efficiences in householder economics. Other marketers emphasize the weekly farm visit as a learning experience and this is somewhat better, until the CSA farm gets big enough to warrant multiple dropoff points. I suggest that a better marketing strategy is to emphasize enlightened self-interest. For example, I use a multi-tiered pricing system and people can easily see that paying $400 in January for $500 of food starting in June is a good deal. The problem then becomes one of cashflow for the shareholder and the cashflow "burden" is shifted from the farmer to the shareholder. For most mainstream farmers the cashflow burden is shifted onto the banks, but the farmer pays for this shift. In my program, giving the shareholder a 25% increase in their food for a 4-month loan is not onerous AT THIS TIME because I simply cannot sell all the food I can grow. Plus, I cannot get bank loans for production. In the future, if I can sell all I can grow, I might have to rethink this marketing tactic.

Another aspect to enlightened self-interest is the nutrient density and taste of sustainably-grown food. My salad mix regularly receives rave reviews, even compared to other organic farmers' salad mix, and I feel this is because of the quality of my soil. I put a lot of effort into building up my soil and this seems to be paying dividends after only four years on this farm. If a pound of my potatoes at $1.50 has twice the nutrient density (not just vitamins and minerals but other unmeasurable "intangibles") of a pound of supermarket potatoes at $.79 a pound, then they are a good deal for the shareholder. If they also taste better, it is a no-brainer. There is a concentrated effort by agribusiness to select nutrition studies that show no difference between food grown by sustainable/organic producers and that grown by mainstream/chemical agriculture. Yet people can taste the difference and even feel the difference in their own bodies. To my mind, agribusiness is just shooting themselves in the foot (to mangle my metaphor) when they try to select the studies that support their position.

So, the bottom line is to emphasize enlightened self-interest rather than trying to convince your shareholders to be virtuous.


Slow Money

Last night I sat in on a book reading and discussion by Woody Tasch, author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered (2008). Of course, this is not a new topic, but some of Tasch's ideas may be doable now that the economy has plunged so far that people are questioning the whole basis of modern economies. Evidently, it is a revolutionary idea that foundations would invest their money in businesses that actually relate to their mission. As an example, a foundation may invest in Monsanto so that the return on their investment can be used to support sustainable agriculture. The 8% or so that the investment returns every year goes to a worthy cause, but 100% of the principal goes to support biological engineering. This is the dirty little secret behind philanthropy. Tasch's suggestion is to work within the grant/philanthropy/foundation system to get small amounts of principal that would actually be used to invest in sustainable businesses. If I read his argument right (which is difficult because he is a terrible public speaker), this is "slow" money, rather than "fast" money that only concerns itself with rapid rates of return.

As usual, Tasch represents yet another scheme that must be marketed and publicized, sending him on jaunts across the country and providing the rationale for organizations that brand themselves as "sustainable" to exist. This strikes me as more of a jobs program for sharp business people who are still trying to surf the crest of the old business model. I did not hear anyone last night propose anything radical - for instance, that 10 people write a check for 10% of their income and give it to a sustainable farmer. I didn't hear any mention of how to get more money for CSA subscription farms. I didn't hear any discussion of how the CSA model stands the current payment model on its head. I didn't hear any discussion on pricing at all. The whole focus of discussion was on how to get more money from foundations by convincing them of the justice of the sustainable "cause." There was a somewhat liberal question on how to stay small, but the usual throwaway answer of looking at successful business models in the marketplace.

The bottom line is that once again, solutions that have to be marketed and discussed endlessly and depend on grant money are really no solutions at all. Individuals and families have to act in their own best interests and go out and support farmers and other local businesses. I can grow more food than I can sell. Until that turns around, all the fancy-dancy authors and marketers are just making money for themselves by giving people false hope.


Microcredit and CSA Programs

Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel prize in 2006 for his work in developing microcredit - tiny amounts of credit available for poor villagers (mostly women) in Bangladesh. This loan program has been embraced by many other countries around the world and has helped 500 million people. Obviously, a very good solution to one of the main problems in agriculture - capital to buy seeds, hire labor, buy equipment, and just to live until harvest. In this country, we have another version of microlending that I find VERY helpful - CSA share programs. As most everyone knows by now, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share programs pay the farmer upfront so he/she can buy seeds, hire labor, buy equipment, and just live until harvest. It requires the consumer to become a shareholder, in effect a partner, in the farm. I am in my third year of a CSA program and I actually got enough early money to buy seeds this year. Last week, I spoke with a banker and a developer and I asked them their perspectives on the looming credit crunch for mainstream farmers in the US. My fear is that, with the banks frozen and not lending, many farmers will not be able to plant. Then, the bankers and the government might wake up in July or August and realize there is not enough grain to go around. After that, it is anybody's guess what the response will be. When I asked about this scenario, both the banker and developer said that banks are lending, but simply enforcing more stringent credit standards. This assuaged my fears a little bit, but I still wonder about even a 5% dip in planting acreage. True, there was a 20% greater harvest in 2008 over 2007, but it is still worrisome. When Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, dropped target prices for grain and introduced the subsidy system, the federal government stopped lending farmers money and instead gave farmers a check. By convincing farmers to plant "fence row to fence row," he assured a glut in the market. Since the 70's, production has increased and prices have decreased. Last winters $15/bushel wheat was largely a speculative blip. So now we don't have a pool of fallow land in the soil bank, like in the 60's. What we have is constant upwards pressure on production, and a looming drop in production if farmers don't get capital. A recipe for disaster, as food availability is determined by a few ethically-challenged bankers. So, what to do? I suggest you run, not walk, to your nearest CSA farm and plunk down some money so the farmer can plant.


Introduction to F.A. Farm and the Dual Track Sustainable Model

OK - Here goes. Our farm is called F.A. Farm and the F.A. stands for Full Attention. It also stands for Fresh, Absolutely! or any of a dozen other phrases. We produce sustainably-grown fruits and vegetables for retail sale and are also moving into sustainable grain production. What I mean by sustainable is basically "beyond organic." All of us farmers are on the same continuum, since we are producing new wealth in the form of food. However, some of us use very little petroleum-based products, while others use massive amounts, whether it is in the form of embedded calories in equipment, massive quantities of diesel, or chemical fertilizers. Yet I also use petroleum products when I put gas in my tiller and drive my pickup to the farmers market to sell my produce. We can't be pure, but we can reduce our carbon calorie usage by a considerable amount. Thus, the idea of being on the same continuum. I am more sustainable than my neighbors, but it is not an either-or proposition.

As an example of the economics of sustainable agriculture, I don't sell dry beans because I would have to charge $30 a pound for what I actually do with them. However, with crops I am not selling I do a barter U-pick. I grow them, you pick them and I get half the yield. This has worked good so far on wheat, oats, and raspberries. So, if you want dry beans you can come out and pick a 75-foot row, split them with me and shuck your half yourself, while you are sitting about watching TV for instance. It will probably take you 1-2 hours per row to pick the pods. The yield for the whole row would be about 4 pounds but you would get half in the form of a bucket of bean pods to take home and shell. Once you shell them, you will have about 2 pounds of dried beans. So . . . 2 hours in the field and 2 more in front of the TV for 2 pounds of beans. You can see why I don't sell them. By the way, these numbers compare to an independent trial done here in Whatcom County in 2008 where the farmer got 3 cups of beans for 3 hours of labor on average. A cup of dried beans is roughly half a pound, so you are still looking at 2 hours labor for a 1 pound dried beans. If you factor in land rents, fuel costs, capital costs, etc., $30 a pound is in the ball park for the real price of a pound of beans.
You can probably see why I am so hyped on the peak oil problem. Beans are a necessary ingredient in responsible eating (whether it is low meat, vegetarian, or vegan). The only way to do beans economically is in the corporate model, which is dependent on fossil fuel and heavy equipment. In my sustainable model, I figure in the increased calories in dry beans (1500 per pound vs. 300 for green beans - a factor of 5) and the increase in soil fertility from the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but this cannot really be translated into a dollar value. As a ballpark estimate, I would still have to get $10-15 a pound compared to selling green beans at $3 a pound. However, putting a parallel track into my model allows me to "distribute" beans. The two track model is really what I am doing with informal workshares and barter U-pick. People work and get paid in food. This generates more food and the value of certain crops that build up the soil is part of the process. However, I need another track that brings in cash. Dry beans are on one track, green beans on the other. This dual track allows me to bridge into postmodern agriculture from a modern economy. Another bridge is the CSA share program. By getting money up front, I have operating capital for seeds, fuel, living expenses, etc. and I get an alternative distribution system that also allows me to use the other track for growing more food. I also get more time on the farm, rather than doing deliveries. This dual track model is integral to sustainable agriculture.

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