Tuesday, September 8, 2009

SAITA presents Fernbrook Farm, CSA - Creative Partnership

Interns are returning to school, but we did have 4 attend the workshop this past Saturday, September 5. Fernbrook is a 400 acre preserved third generation farm of good sandy loam located in Chesterfield, NJ near large populations of people. The people/market quotient is half of what makes the farm's 260 memberCSA work, according to Farm Manager Jeff Tober. Owner and family patriarch Larry Kuser hired Jeff in 2006 after interviewing quite a few folks. They met via the NJ Farm Link program and Larry suggests that Jeff had as many hard questions for him as a landowner as he did for Jeff.

Some of those questions involved the infrastructure that the farm already provided; water, greenhouse, parking, equipment and community contacts. Jeff gave us great handouts that itemized some of these challenges. He suggests that when reviewing a farm to develop a possible CSA, you should be aware of either advantages or disadvantages that the land offers. If you're renting or leasing from a landowner, make sure you paint a visual picture of how the process will look and be specific. Remember that some people like the idea of running a farm and have a more romantic, rather than practical, vision. Fernbrook is diversified - there is a wholesale nursery and tree farm that Kuser has operated since the early 1980's, they offer a charming circa 1750 Inn and locale for weddings, and there is an Education Center and summer camp for children. Fernbrook Farms Education Center is the NJ liaison of the National Farm to School Network, working to advance greater knowledge about nutrition and health for schools and youth.

Kuser suggests that preservation of farmland is increasingly important as communities grapple with development and local fresh food sources. As people become aware of the concept of shipping distances for food contributing to global warming, they are also beginning to take responsibility for their own health. Questioning the relationship between nutrition and disease has compelled large numbers of urban citizens to seek out farmers markets and CSA's for their food sources. Jeff also maintains that value is a big motivator and spends time educating the public about the holistic spectrum of farming and the environment, health and fresh foods.

The CSA began in 2007 with 65 shares and is fast approaching Jeff's goal to financially break even. In the third year of production, his staff of 1 full-time apprentice (Rob Ekman, working on his memoir 'The Apprentice Who Cried Himself to Sleep') and 2 part-time apprentices (Brooke McGinn and Jennifer LaMonaca) work 10 acres. Jeff hires hourly labor as needed, during the summer months. The CSA also has a full-time bookkeeper to keep them on track. For an overview of farm happenings and seasonal challenges, you can read Jeff's newsletters here.

There is no delivery, folks can choose one of two days weekly for pickup at the farm store and there is a weekly and Saturday 'UPick' offered as well. When Jeff has surplus he offers discounts. Except for potatoes, everything is offered by bag, which makes combining produce a bit easier than weighing. For example, if he has only 60 melons, he'll replace those with another choice extra in the bag for those who didn't get a melon. (Jeff plans to replace the current plastic bags with biodegradables, so if you have any ideas send his way)

The farm also raises young pigs for sausage, pork and bacon, about $6.50 per lb in the shares- at our visit there were about 11 piggies happily milling around in their pen, charming the local children- and sells some chicken from a local farm near Princeton. In addition, the store offers Bob Hughes' Buzzy Bees honey and eggs, along with a few books.
The farm shop was the original stable on the farm, recently expanded and an 8'x10' walk-in cooler was added on top of a poured concrete pad. An ingenious cooling system was added via a small Energy Star window air conditioner and a 'CoolBot' device. No need for a costly compressor, Jeff says this system is a lot cheaper. The 10 acres for the CSA are watered by a well on site, with drip irrigation. Other parts of the farm farther away are watered via the traditional overhead system. Row covers like Remay are used for seedlings and spinach gets a deer repellent spray. This year Jeff trapped 35 pesky groundhogs.

Jeff uses a 5210 John Deere tractor for disking with a spader and power spreader. He mows the cover crops, lets it sit for a week, than uses the spader. He also employs a 1982 International 274 that he bought for $6200 with 600 hours on it. Rob demonstrated the Buddingh wire basket weeder's magic, and they use a Dibbler and a Planet Jr. seeder.

With a 75-85% renewal rate, Fernbrook has accomplished one of the more important tasks to building a CSA, forming trust with their customers. There are also advantages to being close to other farmers and specifically, Jeff orders his yearly seed with Honeybrook Farm, one of the largest CSA's in the country. Jeff suggests that an empty field is extremely high risk and to remember that infrastructure is immensely helpful in setting up a partnership with a landowner. Someone who has farming experience will most likely be a better candidate.

He advises attending a workshop that will help in fleshing out ideas; 'Exploring the Small Farm Dream', offered in various states in conjunction with the New England Small Farm Institute. Fernbrook's CSA is now close to accomplishing Jeff's projections and he's thinking about offering winter shares and adding another 25 acres to the project. He admits that expansion might increase inefficiencies. It's easier to control the process when you start small. His mantra; don't give your customer too much food or over promise food. In other words, manage their expectations and keep them happy.

Jeff builds on one customer base at a time and tries to stay personally involved with all of his. I watched as people came into the farm shop, calling Jeff by name, their young toddlers high five'ing him. It was a happy sight.

Stay tuned for the next SAITA presentation on Saturday September 19th, 11am to 1pm at Misty Hollow Farm. Topic will be the Small Scale CSA with a business workshop - and possibly a canning demo.

Happy harvesting! See schedule and addresses for workshops here.

Victoria Webb
SAITA Coordinator

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