My partner, Michael Manos, and I operate a seasonal open air fruit stand (Madrona Grove - Summer Fruit Stand) that highlights Washington grown fruits and veggies. We direct source all of our fruit from small, family farms in Eastern Washington; relationships we have been nurturing for over 9 years now.
For the past three years we’ve also run a Winter produce subscription program and a Summer CSA program. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. CSA’s have been around for several decades and they operate on a shared-risk principle. When members of the community join a CSA, they become a vital link to the success of the farmers who operate the CSA. Members pay in advance for a share of the crop production of the farm, sometimes including a subscription fee which is non-refundable, and which the farmer uses to help capitalize the farming of the crops to be sold through the CSA. This arrangement also makes it easier for the farmer to plant the correct volume of crops to meet the demands of the CSA members. By making direct contact with the farmer growing their food, the community becomes more invested in the farmer’s success and the farmer becomes more invested in the community, and the economy generated from this relationship stays in the community. In this way everyone is working together to be a sustainable, healthy, well-fed community.
We work with Thurston and Mason County farmers for any of the berries and veggies we don't grow ourselves, and Eastern Washington farmers for summer fruits. We live, garden and operate our produce stand at Building Earth Farm, owned and operated by Jason Hurst, Jennifer Johnson and Iris Johnson-Hurst, which provides organically raised poultry, eggs and lamb to customers throughout Thurston County. This makes our CSA a little different from most in that we are not relying only on what we can produce, but utilize a network of farms to provide a diverse, well-balanced selection for our customers.
Michael and I have been building our business for 11 years. Fresh produce is not a high profit business on the scale in which we operate, but it is profitable enough to keep doing it. In seeking to increase our profits we’ve changed our approach to volume and pricing, as well as our location, to lower overhead and reduce waste. Lowering overhead primarily means lowering rents paid out for commercial space, which is why we first went rebel after 3 years and moved from a 20’x30’ tent to the back of our longbed Toyota pickup.
We were allowed to operate in the Grange parking lot for 2 years, paying only the cost of summer electricity use. That was a blessing, but it meant moving away from where our refrigeration unit sits and that meant more back and forth with produce. We own and need the refrigeration unit, so we continue to pay rent for it to sit where it is. Plus we had to flex to the schedule of events for which the Grange could be rented throughout the summer, often times without advance notice. This would always result in reduced sales because the parking lot looked full and this discouraged people from stopping to shop.
At the end of our second season at the Grange, they decided they wanted rent from us and we decided that if we were going to pay rent, we needed space we didn't have to share. We decided to talk to Fred Finn at Steamboat Square and take him up on his invitation to the Fruit Truck to move over there. We ended up moving there and paying rent, but we had our own space that we didn’t have to share, which included a trailer with a small bathroom w/sink and toilet. We were there for three summers.
That brings us to 2010. We terminated our lease at Steamboat Square after a tough 2009 season. The economy affected everyone, even what they spend on food, and many were willing to pay less money for lower quality food. It’s a tough choice to have to make, and I’ve done so myself and don’t fault them. Still, it made our year-end cash flow really tight. Fortunately, we have a fairly consistent customer base that still doesn’t want us to stop doing what we’re doing, so we launched a winter program where we packed up a $30 or $50 box of groceries once or twice a month. Our customers came to our truck to pickup their boxes on Sunday mornings, and they pre-paid 3 months in advance. The program continues to go and we've also begun offering it during the summer in addition to our roadside sales.
Our roadside sales moved again for 2010, and hopefully it’s once and for all, to Building Earth Farm. The farm fronts Steamboat Island Road, the only road on and off the peninsula. We’re all collaborating on the market garden, which has tripled it’s size in three years, as well as the CSA and farm meat production.
Between Michael and I, and Jen and Jason, we already have the farming and gardening knowledge to expand Building Earth Farm food production in a way that will provide an abundance for all of us, plus surplus to sell for putting back into the farm, and have on a small scale done that for the last two years together. Last year we raised veggies, pigs and chickens and all of us have plenty of meat in the freezer and canned goods in the pantry to show for it, plus a little cash at the end of the year.
Our biggest challenge is funding the infrastructure projects at the farm, like fencing, water lines, electric lines, drainage systems, not to mention a better barn and keeping the mortgage on the farm paid. We don’t want to do farming like it’s mostly done, which is always in the red. We look at our relationship to the farm and the community as that of stewards, responsible for maintaining a healthy, sustainable farm that serves the needs of the community, and we look to the farm and the community to reciprocate for our investments of money, time and labor. There’s a bumper sticker that’s been showing up a lot lately, “No Farms, No Food”, and though it seems a simple idea, it’s one most vital to humanity. If farms can’t make a living for farmers, farms aren’t going to last, at least not small, responsible, family farms which account for a huge percentage of the food we all eat, and for wildlife habitat preservation on a scale most people don’t realize.
I have a friend, Mark, who works for USAID. He’s an agriculture expert and he gets sent into the most devastated areas of the world after major drought, war, hurricanes and other calamities. His mission is about getting farming going again, so people can feed themselves, so the aid they receive can pay for other urgent needs the people can’t supply for themselves (like medicine, clean water, electricity), and so that agriculture can become an income stream to help bring them out of poverty. Give a person a meal and he eats for a day, teach a person to farm, and they feed themselves and others for a lifetime. If we let farming go in this country, it will be a calamity like those Mark faces in the “third world”. It feels good to feed myself and help to feed a community. It feels good when that community tells me how much they appreciate what I do and how good it makes them feel. It’s so warm and fuzzy! It makes me feel secure when that community steps up and says “Here, we’ll help ensure you can keep feeding us; we’ll share some upfront cost and some of the risk; it’s worth it to eat well while helping sustain a farm, a farmer and their family.”
We drive a lot to get to the small family farms we work with to get summer fruits for our community. It’s a trade off of time, energy, bigger ecological footprint, etc. to be able to eat fresh, Washington grown summer fruit; we’re still willing to make that trade. As we drive through the landscape of farm country in Eastern Washington we see farm after farm that is fallow or under development into housing. We drive through miles and miles and hours and hours of jammed up traffic, burnt out and impatient drivers and worn out highways farther out from cities as more people leave small agricultural communities to get work enough to pay ever rising housing, insurance and healthcare costs, not to mention trying to buy some quality of life with what is left over. It’s no wonder that so many people on the highway are uptight, rude and reckless; willing to endanger themselves and everyone around them just to get a car up on the car in front of them.
On one trip during the 2010 season, we left in the evening to drive up into the mountains to sleep in our van overnight. It’s a great way to miss some early morning traffic, plus get to sleep with the smell of fresh air and pine trees filling our lungs and dreams. It usually means we can get back before the late afternoon traffic, which can save 2-3 hours time on the road and immeasurable frustration and annoyance. Usually. A trip that should have taken 6 hours instead took 12. There was road work, a bad car accident four cars in front of us, a bridge repair, rock blasting, more road work and finally Friday afternoon commute traffic on a pristine summer day (an all to infrequent reality here in the Great North Wet; the summer part that is, not all the other stuff which is all too frequent). We got rewarded by the first peach of the summer; a super sweet and peachy juice ball called Queen Crest. Our customers and us all agree, it was worth the trip to eat that little gem.
Truth be told though, that peach “should” cost about $10.00/pound if you’re going to calculate the real cost of growing it and moving it from East to West. Food and fuel are some of the first things that people cut back spending on in hard times, even though they are heavily subsidized which means that though prices rise a bit, they never actually reflect the true cost of production. Imported hard goods, housing, insurance, healthcare, education; these things are what people spend that money they’re saving on food and fuel on and the price for these things rise hundreds, sometimes thousands of times. We see so many people in need these days because they can no longer keep up with the rising costs of everything, and they have less and less food and fuel to keep themselves going forward to work and earn the money needed to pay the rising prices on everything else. It’s a tragic circle that benefits the providers of hard goods, housing, insurance, healthcare and education while impoverishing the consumers of those things.
Eventually, it would seem, there will no longer be anyone who can afford to consume anything. Eduardo Galleano, a Peruvian writer, has a book entitled “Upside Down World” and I frequently reflect on how upside down the entire world is in its systems and policies relating to money, power and the well being of individuals and communities. You’d think all of the blood rushing to all of our heads would make us wake up and realize how upside down our way of life has become. We try to buy the cheapest thing we can to put into our bellies in order to save money, to pay money to big corporations whose executives earn big salaries and bonuses, to “insure” ourselves against the financial burden of getting sick (maybe from malnutrition, disease or food poisoning from industrial fast food). We get less rest and relaxation in order to commute to jobs that pay barely enough to cover the cost of living, wearing ourselves out physically, emotionally and mentally so that we have less and less energy and time to put into ourselves, our families, homes and communities. We are using ourselves and our planet up at an alarming rate; heading nowhere fast with no sign of slowing down or recognizing that we are upside down and hurtling toward disaster.
In the final analysis, I’d rather pay $10.00 a pound for an outstanding peach than waste it on low quality, non-nutritious (actually toxic) cheap food just to be able to send what I saved to some fat cat for the pretense of providing something of value to me. I’d rather stand on my feet, take responsibility for my well-being and support all the extended people and systems which directly support me in doing so. I can do that; I have two feet that hold up a whole, thinking, feeling, caring human being; I can do that. I also have the knowledge that I have an entire community backing me up which makes it all the sweeter and more satisfying. Supporting sustainable family farms and businesses is a win, win, win proposition; that’s sound investing in the collective, healthy future of our bodies, communities and planet.
copyright 2010: Jeannine Anderson – is a cook, market gardener, fruit monger and writer living on a farm in the Puget Sound region of Washington State.