Community shares, full-scale farming in New Jersey

With over 12,000 community supported agriculture(CSA) farms in the U.S. (per the USDA’s 2007Census of Agriculture), and 81 in New Jerseyalone, standing out from the crowd might seem difficult toaccomplish. CSAs, which first came to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, were originally built around biodynamic farmingprincipless. They function by selling memberships (shares).These shares entitle the shareholder to a weekly box of foodharvested on the farm, connect the shareholder to the farmerby assumed risk, and provide the farmer with an up-frontoperating budget and a predetermined customer base.

Honey Brook Organic Farm in Hopewell, N.J.
PHOTOS BY TAMARA SCULLY.

More than an economic relationship, CSA shareholders traditionally were a community of people with shared beliefs about sustainable farming and transparent food systems. While this philosophy continues to be an important focus of many CSA farms today, this type of direct marketing is attracting a wider audience of consumers and farmers.

The CSA appeal is no longer necessarily rooted in deeply held philosophical beliefs. Yet integral in this type of farmer-consumer relationship is community. Customers are members who prepurchase a share in the bounty of the upcoming harvest well before a seed is planted. It’s that faith that connects the member to the farm.

Honey Brook Organic Farm has 3,000 shares available for the 2011 growing season. That’s a far cry from the 60 members it started with in 1991. Those early members, farmer Jim Kinsel said, were either “true believers” in the CSA philosophy or were “gourmands.” Today, members are “more of a cross section” of the local population, representing a variety of ethnic backgrounds, income levels and varying level of thoughts on the environment, farming, food and the economy.

What hasn’t changed at Honey Brook is the farmer, his attention to the soils and the crops, his commitment to certified organic farming, and his belief in the CSA system. Honey Brook Organic Farm is one of the oldest operating organic farms in New Jersey, and is the oldest certified organic CSA program in the Garden State. At one time, they were the largest CSA in the nation.

The CSA model has allowed his farm to grow and prosper, Kinsel said. With over 60 types of crops grown, and 350 different varieties of produce, customers here receive a diverse array of produce. Kinsel operates farms in two different locations – Hopewell and Chesterfield Township – about 25 miles apart. Both farms supply the CSA shareholders, who sign up to receive distributions at one farm or the other. Each site has picnic tables, pick-your-own fields and a chance for the customer to interact with Kinsel.


Greenhouses allow seed starting for vegetable crops.

The CSA model is “not as much of a strictly financial arrangement. It’s more satisfying for me,” Kinsel said. A part of his business model is to keep the CSA shares affordable for the average family. “A well-managed CSA can be a better value than buying retail. There are things a farmer can do to make it more accessible. We are not asking people to pay a premium,” he says. Kinsel views the CSA as a “mutually beneficial” system.

The CSA model has helped him to avoid operating loans, as the operating costs come from preseason share sales. It has also allowed him to farm on a scale large enough to be profitable, in a manner in which he has a direct relationship to his customers. He grows for taste and diversity, not uniformity or shipping ability.

Kinsel estimates that he receives twice the price for his produce when compared to wholesale pricing. If he sold retail via a farm market or farmstand, he would be able to sell at slightly higher prices, but would incur staffing costs and would not have guaranteed customers.

Kinsel says he did not really see a profit until the farm had grown to accommodate about 500 shares. Any smaller, and he feels that direct-market, traditional retail sales would have proven more profitable than a CSA. “Every year that we added members, it got easier and got more profitable.”

Member relationships

Sherry Dudas, Kinsel’s wife and the farm’s planner, emphasizes that they “try to give people the greatest value possible.” Dudas routinely compares prices on organic produce at local markets, such as Whole Foods, with the items in the share that week. The cost, if purchased retail, of the produce in the share distribution would typically be about 50 percent more than the shareholder is paying, Dudas said.

Dudas and Kinsel have found that selling shares became easier during the recession of the last two seasons. They theorize that new members previously may have opted for the convenience of shopping at Whole Foods, but chose to save money by purchasing directly from the farm as the recession took hold. Other customers have chosen to feed their family on local, organic food, and have opted to purchase shares as “our reputation of giving value for the money has grown,” Dudas said. The rate of shareholder retention from season to season is high, Dudas said, and the customers that do leave usually cite issues other than quality, quantity or value of the share.

Kinsel also credits the appeal of “reality agritourism” with helping the farm grow. At Honey Brook, agritourism involves normal farm activities, not hayrides and petting zoos. Families can go into the fields to pick some of their own crops on distribution days, so they learn exactly what it takes to bring in a harvest. They see Kinsel and the farm staff doing real chores out in the fields. They see the dirt, the sweat and the satisfaction on workers’ faces each and every time they come out to the farm.

Of course, it does take some organization to handle 3,000 shares. Not only is the labor divided up between employees with specific job duties, but staff communication is a primary focus, as one snafu can cause a systemwide failure. Kinsel directs the overall activities of both farms. He has seasoned farm workers who specialize in certain tasks, such as equipment maintenance and repair, irrigation, harvesting or distribution. There are a dozen H-2A workers, who are housed on-farm, as well as three interns, two part-time office workers and five part-time distribution workers. Kinsel relies on his field manager, David Comacho, who has been with the farm since 1993, to carry out Kinsel’s farm plan independently, and to help direct field workers.

Keeping connected with shareholders requires farmstand attendants, who are knowledgeable about the harvest, to answer questions, check members in, oversee the share distribution, and maintain communication between the farm and the members. A monthly newsletter is crucial, and members are reminded to read the newsletter to keep up to date.

Customer surveys help to plan what types of crops are most desired, eliminate unpopular crops, and allow members to request specific items they’d like to have grown. It also gives members an opportunity to express what they feel the farm is or is not doing to their satisfaction, and to make suggestions or comments. Members are required to wear name tags to pickup, which is both to prevent theft and to help build community, as “nobody’s anonymous,” Kinsel said.

“Members have a certain idea of what the place [farm] should be like,” he said, and they are not shy about letting staff know about their expectations.

With the CSA format, Kinsel can be on the farm working, but still be accessible to members during pickup. They can see him and relate to him, without his needing to take time away from the actual farming. He does not have to spend time selling, as he would at a farmers’ market, in order to connect with customers. “Now I can farm and still have interaction,” he said.

The land

Honey Brook Organic Farm originated on 3 acres of property leased from the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, in Hopewell. Today, this original farm parcel has expanded to include 60 tillable acres and a composting facility. Two additional farmland parcels surrounding the watershed land have been added as well.

Two more parcels of land, in nearby Chesterfield Township, were recently purchased by Kinsel. These parcels add over 125 acres to Honey Brook, and provide the base for infrastructure to be added to the farm, such as walk-in coolers and other permanent structures, which Kinsel has been reluctant to invest in on the leased portions of land.

Wells at both farm locations provide irrigation – a mix of drip and overhead totaling 178 acres of irrigated land. The well at the Chesterfield farm is superior to the one at Hopewell. The Hopewell farm sits in a frost pocket, so the harvest season is often cut short. Chesterfield soils are responding much more positively to organic inputs than those in Hopewell have, Kinsel said. Soils on both farms are enriched with compost, either of decayed leaf matter, or of leaves, manure and wood chips.

“In an organic system, it [compost] is important for feeding the soil system and improving certain key physical aspects of the soil, like tilth and water retention capacity,” Dudas said.

The separate locations and the diverse soil and climate characteristics allow Kinsel to better select which land is best suited to which crops. Should the worst happen – an early/late freeze, late blight or a hailstorm – the geographic separation could prevent a total loss. The challenge, as well as the opportunity, is in “how to integrate those into an overall seasonal cropping plan,” Kinsel said.

Growing and marketing

Being certified organic, only approved inputs under select circumstances can be utilized. Few pests, Kinsel said, actually affect yields to a significant degree. He has never had to treat the carrots or lettuce in any special way. He plants early potatoes to avoid some pests, avoids planting midseason arugula due to pest pressures, and sprays only the cucumbers, not the summer squash, with approved inputs to prevent damage from cucumber beetles. Row covers also help here. Reflective plastic mulch is used as a deterrent to early insect threats. Kinsel’s biggest challenge is the corn earworm in the tomato and pepper crops. Stinkbug damage has also become a real concern.

Learning to work around known threats is a part of the cropping plan, Kinsel said.

He has to plant with diversity in mind, and popular items like tomatoes may be allotted more acreage than he’d ideally like to dedicate to meet the shareholders’ demand throughout as long a season as possible. In general, he plants crops where they are best suited. However, because his clientele expects a certain output of popular items, he does sometimes have to plant outside of optimal conditions.

The CSA is the only outlet for the farm’s produce. In order to determine how much to plant, Kinsel decides how much of what product will go into a share, how many shares he will sell, and then scales up a bit to plan the actual planting acreage. The goal is to have a steady volume of produce, within reason, throughout the share season. This requires double cropping much of the acreage, and some intensive management of the land, both to maintain health and to plan crop succession. “It’s more complicated as we get bigger,” Dudas said.

Kinsel plants about 7 acres of tomatoes, 2 of garlic, 3 of onions, 2 of pumpkins, 1 of sweet potatoes, and has several acres devoted to blueberry and raspberry crops, along with the popular pick-your-own strawberry acreage. In total, about 160 acres are devoted to produce each season, with the rest rotating in and out of cover crops.

Excess production can cause problems, as an abundance in the share can cause shareholders to expect this as the norm. As a result, they might downsize to a smaller share, or they may become disillusioned the next season, when the bumper crop doesn’t materialize. Communication is the key. Excess produce can be offered free choice to members, outside of the share, and they can be encouraged to give some to neighbors or co-workers, as a form of word-of-mouth marketing.

Three greenhouses allow for seed starting. A small cooler provides postharvest storage if necessary, while a packinghouse allows for distribution of the harvest into shares. A refrigerated walk-in cooler is planned for the farm, as well as some parking lot improvements, in the upcoming season.

After 20 years, Honey Brook Organic Farm continues to expand. Shares continue to sell out each season. The farm has become self-sustaining and profitable, continually exceeding the expectations of shareholders. This well-managed farm has remained true to the CSA philosophy, yet has grown to provide a significant amount of produce to area residents. Kinsel’s initial goal in developing and expanding the farm was twofold: to be affordable for mainstream customers, and to make enough profit to purchase land. He has achieved both.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.