For many in the U.S. today, getting something healthy to eat may be no farther away than the refrigerator. But as some regions of the country see the number of places to purchase what are considered “healthy” foods diminish, many residents in both the country and the city are taking advantage of Community Supported Agriculture groups or CSAs. These loosely affiliated groups of investors pay a local farmer to produce fruits and vegetables that are delivered fresh each week during the growing season.
U.S. farmers have been cashing in on the idea since the early 80s and, according to USDA, the number of CSAs has hit nearly 13,000. And while having farmers travel a short distance to your door or just to a bucolic location to distribute fresh farm produce may be the expected protocol, one CSA has an altogether different delivery model. Laurel Bower Burgmaier explains.
Among the first settlers of Westminster, Vermont, the Holton family has been farming in New England for over 200 years. Representing the eighth generation, Seth Holton took over the 250 acre farm in 2009 when his parents retired.
Seth Holton, Westminster, Vermont: “There’s a learning process of course. You know you grow up around it and you think this is easy I know exactly what to do but when you’re actually running it yourself, you find out there are a lot of different things to look at and it’s not as easy as I first thought.”
Holton co-owns Holton Farms with family friend George Hornig and his cousin Jurrien Swarts.
Jurrien Swarts, New York, New York: “That kind of legacy is just amazing and if we can show that agriculture is something you people can do and make money at, that it’s not a dying profession. Having a new endeavor and an exciting endeavor that I can get behind in so many ways. That gives me a real reason to go up there a lot and a reason to be a steward of my family’s farm that’s been in the family for generations.”
Holton Farms produces a diverse selection of agricultural products sold at farmers markets, farm stands and at restaurants and specialty grocers. But, Holton and Swarts say the overall vision of the family business is to bring fresh food to neighborhoods where healthy options can be hard to find. In 2010, this vision led to the creation of what they call The Holton Farm Truck, a unique hybrid of community supported agriculture, or CSA, greenmarket, fresh direct and food truck concepts.
The Holton Farm Truck brings just-picked produce from Vermont to New York City. The 4-hour trip is made multiple times a week to 60-plus drop-off locations throughout Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
Holton heads the farm operations in Vermont while Swarts manages the business side of things in New York City. Rounding out the team are Adam Foreman and Brad Fleming who run the truck operations.
Brad Fleming, New York, New York: “People love us. People love us. They love the idea. They love the convenience. A lot of times, people come up and say this is great, such a great idea. I wish Adam and I could take credit for it. It wasn’t our idea, but a lot of our ideas go into it. It’s still a developing thing.”
The fact that the Farm Truck is roving around the five boroughs of New York, already makes it a unique CSA model. The 29-foot-long, specially designed truck is less a delivery vehicle than a farmers market on wheels. But another way the Holton Farm Truck stands out from other CSAs is its “CSA Select” membership. The innovative concept allows customers to order what they want, when they want through the Holton Farms website.
Adam Foreman, New York, New York: “The conventional CSA, they establish one drop off location and you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to get. You get a box of stuff every week whether you’re in town or not. You know you get that box of stuff. We decided to completely change that model around. New Yorkers are busy. They travel in the summer time. So, we let you pick your order specifically. You don’t have to order every week unless you want vegetables and fruits every week.”
CSA memberships range in price from $250 to $1,000 per year. In the future, Holton Farms would like to offer a 20-percent discount to customers who can demonstrate income-based need and to allow food stamps for the purchase of fruits and vegetables from the truck. The city of New York’s permitting process has made it difficult for the Farm Truck to sell its produce to non-CSA members.
Annie Burke, New York, New York: “I originally thought it was vegetables in a truck and I thought I’ll pick something up for dinner, why not. And the more I heard about it being an ongoing process and you can order on a regular basis and have fruits and vegetables brought directly to you. I think it was maybe five minutes before I signed up.”
In its first year, the Holton Farm Truck CSA saw exponential growth in its membership. It went from 30 members in the spring of 2010 to 1,300 members in the summer of 2011. While the membership numbers are impressive, the farm has been dealt several weather-related setbacks. A wet spring delayed harvest for most of the crops. Strong winds blew down the sweet corn later in the season. And by summer’s end, Hurricane Irene brought the worst flooding ever to Vermont destroying the farm’s potato crop. In addition to volatile weather, Holton Farms has struggled to make ends meet.
Seth Holton, Westminster, Vermont: “When you’re doing this stuff every single day counts. It’s not lie you have a two lag and normally that’s not a big deal. It’s a big deal when you’re doing vegetables. It’s a lot of money that you end up losing by not having it ready. But that’s just the nature of the beast and that’s how it works.”
Jurrien Swarts, New York, New York: “You know coming up with a totally new model and trying to project how much cash you’re gong to need or burn through versus how many sales you’re going to have, that’s a fairly common problem for any start-up. But it’s really tough for a small group like us where a thousand bucks a month for refrigeration is a huge deal for us. We don’t have a lot of money. If we make mistakes, buy things we don’t need or don’t anticipate things it’s a lot scarier. The beauty of the CSA is our members are literally funding what we’re doing and God bless them. They’re sticking it out with us.”
Despite this season’s hurdles, Holton and Swarts remain optimistic. They want to stay true to the overall mission of the Holton Farm Truck –to serve areas of New York that lack access to farm-fresh produce. Holton and Swarts say they hope to keep the family legacy strong, but in a way that doesn’t leave them financially vulnerable.
Seth Holton, Westminster, Vermont: “I think probably most farmers would feel it. You have a sense of responsibility to the farm and land. It’s basically my turn and I have to preserve it and keep it going and run it the best way I know how to do it. I haven’t really figured that out yet. You have to evolve with the changing times and then I have to try and pass it on to my kids.”
For Market to Market, I’m Laurel Bower Burgmaier.