Grant Family Farms: 3,000 Members and Growing

Andy Grant likes to tell the story of how in the mid-1970s he tried to pre-sell produce - a la the CSA concept. The concept was foreign, people weren't ready, and Andy moved on to wholesale venues for his produce. For the next 30 years, his farm, located outside of Fort Collins in north-central Colorado, produced summer and winter squash, onions, greens, cabbage, beets, and herbs for the national wholesale market. Eventually the farm grew to 2,000 acres, all of them certified organic.

It was a successful business, but it wasn't how Grant wanted to farm. He wanted to run a CSA and develop the direct link between the farm and those who eat the foods grown there. When he decided to give it a go in 2007, his employees tried - vigorously! - to talk him out of it. But he couldn't be swayed and started that year with 126 members. The following year the CSA grew to just over 1,000 members, and in 2009 they had over 3,000 shareholders. Ultimately, Grant would like to grow to 10,000 - 12,000 members. With so much land in production, he could comfortably produce food for that many members, while also growing for Colorado grocery stores and some local restaurants and schools. Grant Farm's CSA Director Josh Palmer explains why they would like to move out of the retail market: "It is becoming more and more difficult to be a seasonal, regional farm and sell retail when you consider the 40,000+ acre organic farms in California and all the produce that comes into the country from Mexico that we have to compete with." While a 10,000 member CSA may seem mind boggling Grant speaks eloquently of the economic perils of smaller scale operations, where the lack of financial margin presses some farmers to rely on unpaid interns, off-farm labor, no savings, and an unhealthy work load, all to make ends meet. Given that, the 10,000 member CSA is the size that feels sustainable to him.

Here is what the CSA looks like at the 3,000 member mark. The CSA is run by about 16 employees, including drivers, a production team in the fields, and Palmer calls the "core CSA employees." This year they plan to have about 175 drop off sites; most of these lie in central and northern Colorado, with a few sites sprinkled across southern and eastern Wyoming, and exploring the areas of southwestern South Dakota and northwestern Nebraska. While most of the drop-offs are within two hours' drive of the farm, the farm also serves mountain communities up to four hours away. Based on shareholder feedback, the farm has added other types of food to its weekly offerings, including eggs, meat, flowers, a canning share, all with farm products. Collaborating with other area farms and businesses, it also offers fruit, mushroom, and bread shares. (The bread is made at a local bakery with Grant Family Farm's wheat.)

Joining a CSA that is several hundred miles from home might not seem like it would offer the same benefits as would joining as smaller CSA. But as Palmer points out, the more rural areas the farm serves are 'food deserts', with poor growing conditions and relentless wind. Given the quality of the rest of the food available in these areas, and the distance it travels to get to them, getting exceptional quality organic food from only a few hours' drive away starts to seem pretty good. Palmer says members from the mountain communities especially welcome the meat, bread, and other shares; the greater percentage of their family's food they can get from the farm, the better.

Still, it is not as intimate as a smaller CSA. Grant and Palmer are aware of this, and are wholehearted about creating as many opportunities for connection with the farm as their scale allows. They open the farm to members every Saturday, host a well-attended Spring Field Day (where Jim Hightower will be speaking this year), and an even more elaborate Harvestival in the fall, where Joel Salatin will be speaking this year. Last year they offered bi-weekly cooking classes from mid-summer through fall, many of which sold out. They work with local schools to create food-related curriculum, and conduct extensive educational outreach, to schools, gardening and civic clubs, and employee groups. All of these things help recruit new members, of course, but they also create occasions for members to intersect with the farm.

There are two other important elements of their community outreach efforts, the first being the role played by their drivers and site hosts. Grant and Palmer are both keenly aware that for many of their CSA members, the delivery driver and the drop-off site host are the face of the farm. They place a lot of value on both roles. The farm also offers discounted share prices to members who work at least 18 hours/season on the farm. (The discount is $90.) Last year they had 130 working members; this year they expect to have about 500. (They must be masters of organization, the CSA staff. Can you imagine?) Palmer hears over and over again how much these members love to come out to the farm and help. He thinks it's no coincidence that the retention rate among working shareholders is extremely high. "When people have the ability to directly experience the tasks, hard work and effort that goes into growing food, they will then in turn have a greater respect and understanding of their food system and the importance of CSAs in their community," he says.

One of the things that most impressed me from my initial conversation with Andy Grant was a comment he made about advertising some friends' CSAs on his own farm's website. (That's right - promoting other CSAs on his farm's website.) He does this, he said, because some people will get more out of a smaller CSA experience. Underlying that decision, though, is the belief that there are plenty of potential CSA members for every farm and plenty of resources to go around. This generosity of spirit extends into many aspects of Grant Family Farms' CSA. With such a spirit, "big" loses its potential for anonymity, but rather, invites everyone to the table.

Back to the April 2010 Newsletter