Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Market, To Market!

My paternal grandfather worked at IBM, so my earliest memory of the concept of shared risk and reward was in TV news broadcasts of the ’70s and ’80s, noting the rise and fall of the Southern Tier's tech behemoth. It wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in the early ’90s that I learned about Community Supported Agriculture, a business model that brings a taste of Wall Street to the kitchen table. Customers pay ahead for a season's produce; as members in the farm enterprise, they assume both the risks and rewards of the growing season. Back in the early days, there was an extraordinary volume of kale involved. At Tree Gate Farm, the 2012 season promises cut flowers, green beans, beets, berries, broccoli, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, ginger, herbs, horseradish, leeks, lettuce, lemongrass, licorice, onions, peas, peppers, plums, potatoes in shades of the rainbow, rhubarb, spinach, tomatoes, tomatilloes -- and kale.

Across town, CSA offerings across town have expanded to include meat, bread, arranged and u-pick flowers, fruit, and produce. They come as shares for a single person or a large household; include spring, winter, and summer options; even prepared foods -- known as Community Supported Kitchens, an idea we think is just brilliant. There are so many options in this area that for the last few years, Cornell Cooperative Extension has organized a late winter CSA fair to bring together prospective customers and CSA farmers all in one place (mark your calendar: this Saturday, March 3 at Boynton Middle School).

Like everything else at Tree Gate, we're modifying the standard approach with our own special twist. With most CSAs, the farmer sets the parameters, filling a box with the week's harvest or detailing choices available to members. We've decided to offer something we're calling "on-demand." Other farmers call it a "market share." Members pay $100 for a $110 credit for the season. In addition to insider scoops on what we're harvesting and special discount offers, they can choose from among our Friday afternoon happy hour offerings at Felicia's Atomic Lounge. The model works best for folks who are as quirky as we are -- they want a lot of tomatoes, or no kale, or just a bouquet of flowers every few weeks, or they know that between out-of-town travel and house guests, their needs ebb and flow through the season, making a weekly distribution tough to handle. We'll also offer $25 gift cards good for the Friday afternoon market -- the perfect birthday present or hostess gift -- and we'll be selling shares in our pastured pork.

As beginning farmers, we learn a new set of skills every year -- OK, every day. It looks like 2012 will be the year for getting serious about marketing, customer outreach, and . . . maybe even weed management.

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