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Successful CSA Strategies for Small Farms

Vera Fabian transplants scallions at Ten Mothers Farm near Hillsborough, North Carolina. Photo credit: Scott Kelly.

BY ALLIE HYMAS

With grocery store shelves empty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, customers all around the United States are beginning to consider their regional food systems in a new light.


“We have never seen this kind of demand,” Vera Fabian of Ten Mothers Farm near Hillsborough, North Carolina, says. “If ever there was a time to be getting into the CSA business, this would be the moment.”

For the last ten years, Fabian and her husband, Gordon Jenkins, have been raising organic vegetables using the Community Supported Agriculture model. Today, Ten Mothers Farm supplies boxes of vegetables on a seasonal subscription basis to 184 households, and they’re pleased with how this format has allowed them to feed their local community, both in good times and bad. “Something that gives me hope in this time is that people are trying to figure out how to have more resilient communities, whether we’re talking about climate change or the coronavirus.”

Ten Mothers Farm’s CSA strategy and offers timely lessons for farmers who wish to build their business around this model and those who simply want to try this approach to reach customers during the stressors of a health crisis. For Fabian, running a CSA is more than just a method of moving her products. “We are more motivated than ever to feed more people and spread the word. If more businesses were run like a CSA then the world would be in a different place!”

Gordon Jenkins, Vera Fabian and Luke Howerter run Ten Mothers Farm. Photo credit: Scott Kelly.

The Ten Mothers Farm Story

The Ten Mothers Farm website explains their name: “there’s an old saying from India that ‘garlic is as good as ten mothers,’ which to us means that food is medicine, as nourishing and powerful as ten whole mothers.” Having met as employees at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkley, a school started by Alice Waters, Fabian and Jenkins bonded over a mutual love for cooking and an interest in farming, both as a means of social justice and for supplying food.

While Jenkins’ food journey began in the restaurant industry, Fabian discovered gardening with the intent to participate in agricultural relief work in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I wanted to save the world, but simultaneously I found that I loved cooking, which felt like a frivolous thing, and I felt conflicted between the two of them,” Fabain says. “I studied abroad in West Africa in a women’s garden cooperative and I observed these women solving these huge problems of hunger and education through growing food.” Upon her return, Fabian was gripped with the sense that organic agriculture would be her opportunity to make an impact. “I thought maybe my love of food and desire to fix problems could come together.”

The couple took a diligent, methodical approach to beginning their farming journey. After working for food-related nonprofits for five years, Fabian and Jenkins took their saved resources and years of research and apprenticed themselves to Bob Cannard at Green String Farm and then to Eliot Coleman at Four Seasons Farm.

“These were two farmers that we really looked up to and knew we would get a great education from. We learned a ton and shook the city life off,” Fabian says.

Having weighed their options between finding land in Jenkins’ home state of California and Fabian’s of North Carolina, the couple chose the more affordable land prices and water accessibility of North Carolina and spent two years working at Maple Spring Gardens, learning how to farm there.

In 2015 Fabian and Jenkins felt prepared to start their own operation and began renting land from a local family. “For our first three years we started really small,” Fabian says. “Farming is definitely an expression of your personality, and we are pretty careful, methodical people. Farming is so risky and we wanted to reduce as much of the risk as possible.” With Fabian working halftime off their farm for a nonprofit agricultural organization serving refugees from Burma, the initial Ten Mothers Farm endeavor was rolled out with the bigger timeline in mind. “We had thought we would be a market farm, but the markets around here are difficult to get into, so we said ‘Okay, I guess we’ll be a CSA!’” Fabian says. Having operated the CSA successfully for five years, she is grateful that circumstances dictated this model for this business. “It’s especially great during this moment in time!”

“We started with 34 CSA families, and we’ve gradually increased it as we felt ready.” Fabian says. Ten Mothers Farms served 54 households the second year, 74 the third year, followed by 125, and this year they will feed 180 families. “We sold a little bit to restaurants too, but the demand for the CSA has felt strong, so over time we’ve focused more on the CSA and less on restaurants.”

Junie with the whole farm and rows of green in early November. Photo credit: Scott Kelly.

Collaborative Land Purchasing Success

The first iteration of Ten Mothers Farm was on a rented quarter acre. “It was really just a big garden.” Fabian says. “Those first three years we stayed at a quarter acre — but we got better, so we were able to grow more food.” Throughout Ten Mothers Farm’s early years Fabian and Jenkins were searching for land in a pricey real estate market. Aware that they could access a more suitable property by joining forces with other buyers of a similar mindset, the couple chose to search for land with several friends. “It was challenging,” Fabian says. “We almost gave up.”

Their search became more heated when the owners of their rented land sold the property. “At the eleventh hour, when our lease was almost up in the summer of 2018, we happened to find a piece of land that was perfect both for us and the friends we were searching with, and we all bought it together!” To make the purchase, Fabian, Jenkins and their friends formed an LLC through which the purchase was made and then subdivided the land with a parcel for each of them and a parcel held in common. “We’re all folks that want to have a land-based life but also people who want community out there and not be isolated.”

In the winter of 2018, Ten Mothers moved to its new location. “It was a bare field!” Fabian says. “There was no electricity, no water, no infrastructure of any kind. We quickly did the work of turning this field into a farm.” Fabian and Jenkins are currently building a house on the land and hope to move in June. “There are a lot of wonderful things about sharing the land,” Fabian says. “What we were able to afford as just the two of us would have been really small and unsuitable for farming. ”

Fabian says their space-saving strategies at Ten Mothers Farm have come from limited access to land, but their efficiency can actually offer encouragement to others who might never be able to afford a large property. “For our 180 shares, we farm only one acre of land. Being able to farm on such a small footprint means that it’s so much more accessible to people.”

Selecting Varieties to Offer in a CSA

In choosing varieties, Ten Mothers Farm started with what they enjoyed cooking and eating. “For a CSA, we have to grow a ton of different things to keep our customers happy.” Fabian says. “We grow 60 different vegetables.”

Fabian recommends CSAs keep close tabs on what their customers want.

“Every year, towards the end of the year, we send out a survey and use that survey directly to crop plan for the coming year. That way we’re growing more of what people want and less of what they don’t want.” Always mindful to make sure their products pencil out financially, Fabian notes that there are vegetables they can’t offer because the numbers don’t work, or their methods won’t allow them to grow or harvest those offerings. “For example, we don’t grow potatoes because we’re not a tractor farm.” Fabian explains. “The labor just doesn’t work out.”

As long as a vegetable offering can be produced with financial, space and labor efficiency, it’s just a matter of taste.

“We are into strange vegetables!” Fabian says with a smile in her voice. “One year we tried molokhia, or Egyptian spinach, which does beautifully in the hot, humid summers that we have, but people hated it! It’s just too weird!”

They’ve found at Ten Mothers Farm that customers enjoy experiencing one or two new vegetables occasionally among a steady offering of recognizable staples. “Most of the time people want to see the things they love and know how to cook.”

Amid the changing climate, Fabian thinks about how certain varieties of vegetables offer more resilience and have adapted to their bioregion better than other foods that may enjoy customers’ favor. Using their weekly newsletter, Fabian is constantly working to educate CSA members on how to use new foods or varieties that are particularly hardy to their bioregion.

“We’re constantly explaining why we grow things and when, and as people have that kind of background information they become more open to trying things and more understanding when they don’t have broccoli in July.” They also host events at Ten Mothers Farm to teach their customers about the farming process. “That really brings it all to life; some of our CSA members haven’t been to the farm yet, and it’s our goal to get them all out here.”

Overcoming Challenges

Fabian encourages farmers considering starting a CSA to be aware of its unique quirks. “It’s a lot of logistics: lots of crop planning and then executing to make sure you have enough vegetables for everybody. It’s a lot of different crops.” Fabian recommends that potential CSA farmers get used to staying aware of details and putting in place good tools to help keep abreast of the various tasks and considerations. “Making sure you’ve packed the right boxes and didn’t pack boxes for people on vacation.”

The second element Fabian brings forward is marketing and customer service. These elements are both critical to this direct-to-consumer, subscription-based model and will either make or break the business. “When we talk to new and beginning farmers we recommend you go with your personality.” Fabian says. “We happened to really like customer service stuff. We like answering our questions and writing the weekly newsletter. But if you don’t like customer service, you probably shouldn’t do a CSA.”

Fabian also recommends that new CSA operators pad their estimated timeline and hold it loosely. “Everything has taken longer than we’ve planned.” She says. “We try to be patient and not too hard on ourselves when things haven’t happened as quickly as we’d hoped.”

Jenkins and Fabian had part-time off-farm work and slowly built up their customer base before making a big land purchase – an excellent example of how being flexible with the timeline is necessary for smart business planning. “Farming and land are so long-term. We’re talking about either the rest of our lives or at least the next 30-40 years. You have to have a long-term vision or else you’ll get frustrated that it’s not all happening in a year or two.”

Collaboration has been another winning strategy of Ten Mothers Farms. While Jenkins’ and Fabian’s landmates are not partners in the farm, they are working on adding another business partner, Luke Howerter. Fabian says adding additional opinions and voices must be done thoughtfully, but such collaborations can make big things happen on the farm. “You have to keep reminding yourself what can we do together that we can’t do alone: it’s a lot of things! We’re more resilient as three people than just as two of us.”

Regenerative Farming is Giving Back

“Farming regeneratively for us means giving back more than you take,” Fabian says. “ We try to think about how we can give back more both in terms of the land and the people. We often leave humans out of the equation when we talk about sustainable agriculture. One doesn’t really work without the other.”

In addition to structuring Ten Mothers Farming practices and land use strategies around environmental considerations, Jenkins and Fabian are mindful of how their farm can care for those who work there. “A lot of customers ask ‘is this GMO’ or ‘is this sprayed,’ and our methods address those issues, but they might not be asking if the person who grew their food is making a living.”

Given the legacy of extractive agriculture, both of the soil in extensive tobacco farming and of humans in the enslavement of African families, Jenkins and Fabian are hyperaware of how their farming model needs to put nutrients back into the soil and resources into the community. “If you’re going to farm organically in NC you have to be giving back a lot more than you’re taking, because you simply can’t grow anything if you’re not giving back a lot.”

In their first year on their current property, the Ten Mothers Farm team amended their soil according to soil test results and found their soil nutrition was still so low that their spring crops would not grow. “We spent the past year doing so much to increase the soil fertility.”

No-till farming is another aspect of how Ten Mothers is practicing regenerative agriculture. “We stared out no-till for practical reasons: we heard it reduced weed pressure, we didn’t have money for a tractor, we weren’t particularly interested in tractors and we preferred small hand-scale tools. It turns out doing those things is really great for the soil!”

Thanks to their small footprint and their on-the-ground approach, Ten Mothers Farm has been able to improve their soil quickly through major additions of compost and close observation of soil and plant health.

“I think a lot of growers hear about no-till and they’re skeptical. They assume it wouldn’t be too labor intensive or just wouldn’t work. We’re so used to tillage it’s hard to give it up.” Fabian says. “A turning point for us was when we were able to visit Singing Frogs Farm. They were a small, no-till operation and their soil and vegetables were beautiful and they were making it work. Then, we knew it was possible! Now, so many small farms are switching to no or low-till. We visited Singing Frog Farm in California just to see an example of how it was done, and they have such great soil. It’s so productive. They made it feel totally possible, and now we’re seeing so many farms doing no-till.”

Fabian recommends the No-Till Growers podcast to hear directly from farmers practicing no- or low-till methods.

Building Trust is the Best Strategy

Fabian is always excited to hear about farmers who want to try the CSA model. “Make sure it’s something you’re excited about – you’re asking people to become a member of your farm, and that’s a big commitment.” Fabian says focusing on just one or maybe two sales strategies has worked for them. “We’ve been able to build a loyal customer base through the CSA because we weren’t trying to do a bunch of markets or different income streams. It takes a lot to keep customers engaged each year. If you spread yourself thin, your CSA members will notice and your retention rate will decrease.”

Fabian’s secret sauce for CSA success is gratitude, trust and sharing. “Your members are making it possible for you to farm,” she says. “Part of them coming back the next year and the next year is giving them the feeling that they’re deeply appreciated members of the CSA. They have to learn a whole new way of meal planning, cooking and eating, and you have to be their coach. You have to share your love for your produce and the farm with your customers. Part of what they’re buying when they join a CSA is you, your story and your passion for the food and the work.”

To this end, Fabian says it’s tempting to take on too many members at once, but this should be avoided. Doing well with a small batch and working out the kinks in production and distribution will establish the trust that will lead to more customers. “Build a loyal customer base and they will be your marketing; they will get their friends and neighbors on board.”

Having established trust also helps when crises like the COVID-19 pandemic arise. Showing customers online and in a newsletter the additional sanitation practices should be a reinforcement to the work that’s already been done all along in maintaining a good relationship between producer and consumer. Fortunately for Ten Mothers Farm, while farm sales outlets like restaurants and farmers’ markets are drying up, the boxed CSA model is already compliant with increased health restrictions.

Fabian says, “I’m very inspired to see how farmers around here are figuring out ways to cooperate more to sell their goods during these uncertain times.” In addition to their partnership with additional local farms to include a flower and grain share in their boxes, Ten Mothers Farm is working on adding meat and maybe eggs from other local sources, both to help their fellow farmers and to safely provide customers with more local food. Fabian and Jenkins are also working out ways to offer boxes to unemployed members for little to no cost. “Everything’s happening so fast, and we certainly haven’t figured this all out yet, but it’s clear that we’re all going to have to cooperate more and be more generous in the days ahead.”