Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Vegetable CSA membership...Value proposition?

I do not market my farm's vegetable CSA membership as a financial value proposition.The pricing of individual vegetables in the boxes are never as cheap as vegetable prices at No Frills, though lately, seem to be a better value than vegetable prices at mid/high level grocery chains (Loblaw, Whole Foods). The point of joining a CSA is to have a direct relationship between food producers and food eaters, such that we're all invested in local, ideally organic, financially sustainable food production

Currently in Ontario, most of the food in grocery stores is imported, not just in the winter months, but also in the summer/fall. When the various regions around the world that grow the produce experience any fluctuations (drought, flooding, etc.), food prices go up. Import prices also go up when the value of the Canadian dollar goes down. Under current conditions, signing up for a local CSA vegetable box starts to become a value proposition based on price. But pricing shouldn't be the reason you sign up for a CSA. The actual value proposition in CSA membership is participating in your own food security. You are actively choosing how you want your food to be grown and investing in that cause.

The prices assigned to the various vegetables produced at Black Sheep Farm are based on cost of production. The farm needs to break even financially, or it cannot survive. It is a small scale, almost 100% manual operation, with all labour supplied by your farmer, Brenda, and part-time help (Brittany's back for 1 day a week this year!). The planned purchase of a tractor this year will replace paying for outside tractor work, which for the vegetable field, involves disking of the fields that are not in vegetable production for the year, harrowing after they've been seeded with cover crops, and mowing in early fall. The vegetable field is rototilled completely by a neighbour on a small tractor at the beginning of the season, with any subsequent rototilling done by Brenda with her BCS rototiller (walk-behind). Otherwise, all bed preparation, seeding, transplanting, row covering, irrigation set up, weeding and harvesting, are done by hand with non-motorized tools (Earthway seeder, collinear hoe, spade, digging fork, wheelbarrow, wheel hoe, harvest knives, bins, water hoses, and most importantly, hands!).

The choice of manual over mechanized labour is a personal one. On an environmental level, minimizing motor use (tractor, rototiller) decreases the farm's use of fossil fuels. Deliveries to the GTA are made with a full minivan, delivering to various pick up locations that are close to people's work/residences, so as to minimize mileage to food pick up. For my downtown Toronto deliveries, I park centrally and then walk the packages to various office buildings, which works out to approximately 5 km of walking for me on Thursday mornings every second week.

On a physical level, I really enjoy the manual labour involved with growing vegetables. I've never liked motorized machines (noisy, smelly, sticky with oil, super scary when moving blades are involved) and even as a teenager, would only mow the lawn with a non-motorized push mower. Working in the field with my hands, squatting beside a bed to weed or harvest, is totally meditative. Anyone who practices 'mindfulness' would recognize the mental and physical benefits. The various tasks I undertake in the field are not seen as a burden or somehow intellectually beneath me, but rather as a privilege. I get to farm this way because I want to. And though I may not produce as many pounds of food per acre as a farmer with a tractor just growing potatoes, I harvest, package, deliver, preserve and eat around $1500 worth of vegetables each week of the harvest season, grossing around $24,000 per year in vegetable sales from 1 acre of vegetable production. That may not satisfy the federal government's scale of farming for export, but it certainly works for me, feeding my household and around 30 other families each week.

Production could go up if I had more labour or mechanization, but then I'd have the stresses of increased management (of people and personalities ;P), marketing, delivery logistics and machine repair. And frankly, increasing production and sales probably wouldn't increase net income by too much as more labour involves higher labour costs and good machines are not necessarily cheap. Things may need to change in the future as life changes, but at least for 2016, I will stick with this happy medium for work life balance and hope to ride out this year of the fire monkey relatively unscathed ;P Sign up for your Black Sheep Farm vegetable CSA membership today and see what it's all about :D

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