Growing Produce and Community at Wellspring Farm CSA
By Beth Holtzman
Mimi Arnstein has been growing organic vegetables and flowers at Wellspring Farm CSA in Marshfield since 2003. Her five-acre operation has blossomed from a 40-member community supported farm to this year’s 125 members, and now employs several apprentices and part-time staff.
Mimi recently sat down with a group of beginning and aspiring farmers enrolled in WAgN’s fall Growing Places course to share what she’s learned about establishing and growing a successful farm business over the last six years. Mimi’s energy and enthusiasm for farming is abundant, but her approach is disciplined.
In starting her farm, Mimi carefully researched market opportunities in the Montpelier area to determine her niche. “I very specifically thought I want to do one thing and one thing well, and that is the CSA,” she says.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, a model in which consumers purchase a “weekly share” in the farm’s harvest at the beginning of the growing season. At Wellspring, about two-thirds of the members come to the farm weekly during the growing season to pick up their produce. The other third pick up their share at a drop-off point in Montpelier, about 13 miles from the farm.
Wellspring’s limited acreage has shaped both production and marketing strategies. On any given year, about three of Wellspring’s acres are planted to vegetables, and approximately two acres are in cover crops.
“I have to pick and choose what I do,” Mimi explains. Crop selection is a balance of Mimi’s expertise, customer preferences and how labor intensive a crop is to grow and harvest. Peas, cut flowers, and other crops that are labor intensive to harvest are generally offered to members as pick-your-own.
“People love doing it,” she says. “Pick-your-own is a great thing for a CSA.”
To accommodate customers, Mimi now offers two share sizes. Annual production planning starts in January, so that Wellspring can offer a good mix of vegetables from the first pick-up week in late June through the last pick-up in October. But getting a weekly supply of high quality, fresh, organic produce is only part of the reason members sign on and stay with a CSA, Mimi found in an early survey of her members.
“The number one reason most people joined a CSA was to support a local farm. That was very powerful,” she says. “I sell much more than vegetables —the experience of knowing the farmer, of cutting the flowers, of connecting with the land. The lifestyle value is very important to people,” she says.
Mimi uses a variety of marketing techniques–including a newsletter, website, on-farm events, providing recipes, and making good use of public relations opportunities with newspapers and other media outlets. She also works to market her farm to potential employees – the productivity of the operation depends on the quality of her employees.
Mimi has found that she needs to invest a significant amount of her time in marketing in order to reach her membership goals, themselves derived from Mimi’s overall financial goals for the business. My goal is to have a sustainable lifestyle that I enjoy,” she says. For that reason she has decided to offer a winter CSA with a one-time pick-up, rather than weekly pick-ups during the winter. “I want the time off,” she says.
Mimi avoided debt in her first few years, but in her fourth year took out a loan to purchase equipment necessary to scale up operations and increase productivity. “It took a number of years to feel secure enough to take on the debt to become more sustainable,” she said. “I’m glad I didn’t take on the debt in the first few years but I needed the equipment.”
Mimi has also tapped in to the wide variety of technical assistance and educational resources available through the Vermont Farm Viability Program, USDA’ Natural Resources Conservation Service, NOFA-VT, WAgN, and UVM Extension. “There are incredible resources for beginning farmers,” she told the Growing Places students. “They really want everybody in this room to succeed.”
Each year gets easier, Mimi says, as Wellspring streamlines systems, equipment, infrastructure and soil building. But Mimi’s still learning.
“It takes a long time to learn all the skills you need to run a sustainable farm business, which is why it is so exciting and why you are never board, and also why you are often overworked,” she says with an enormous grin.
Visit http://www.wellspringcsa.com/ to learn more about Wellspring Farm CSA.
Last modified January 20 2010 02:37 PM