The evolution of Early Morning Farm

Early Morning Farm’s stand at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market in Ithaca, N.Y.
Photos courtesy of Early Morning Farm.

In 1999, Anton Burkett started growing organic produce with two good friends in New York’s Finger Lakes region. In the beginning, they tried various ways of marketing their produce to see what would catch on in the local economy: farmers’ markets, a little wholesaling, a stand at their Early Morning Farm, and then a CSA (community supported agriculture).

Burkett says that farmers’ markets were the main focus back then, and CSA customers were an add-on. “I guess, over time, that’s reversed itself,” he says. “Now we do a CSA, and the farmers’ market sales kind of supplement that a little bit. It enables us to sell a little bit of surplus, but our bread and butter has really become the CSA. That’s what the evolution of the business has been.”

At Early Morning Farm in Genoa, N.Y., they grow vegetables organically on 50 acres. Their produce stands always shine at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, which helps lure customers to the CSA. The Saturday market in Ithaca features up to 150 vendors and can have thousands of visitors in a single day.

Carrying their Early Morning Farm canvas bags with the bright red pepper image, CSA members can shop the produce at the Saturday market. Otherwise, most Early Morning member shares are boxed and delivered to locations all over central New York and now the southern tier, with 25 to 30 places to pick up “neighborhood shares.” Just five years ago, they had 250 CSA members; this year Early Morning Farm is shooting to have 950 members.

Anton Burkett, owner of Early Morning Farm, holds a big beet.

Why a CSA instead of a farmstand? Burkett replies, “We like to take the food to where the people are, instead of having the people come to where the food is. Talk about transportation, if we had all those cars coming out to the farm every week, that’s a lot of gas.” The CSA delivery routes are efficient, according to Burkett, compared to the labor that farmers’ markets require.

The synergy of farmers’ markets

However, Early Morning isn’t knocking farmers’ markets. About 300 to 350 of the farm’s CSA members pick up their shares at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market and it’s a great scene. Burkett says, “They’re coming and not just picking up their veggies. They may buy some fruit from another vendor and some wine and lunch at one of the food vendors. They might buy a gift for somebody. There might even be something that wasn’t in the share that week that they see at another produce vendor and they end up buying that too. It’s a good deal for the farmers’ market environment, and also for our business and the other businesses. A good place to be overall.”

The Ithaca area now has many CSAs, but Burkett doesn’t see competition as a bad thing. “A saturated market presents a lot of opportunities if you think about it,” he says. “You have a highly educated market that knows about the product. So, if you are a competent grower, you can come into a saturated market and you have a ready-made public. You don’t have to educate them about local foods. Everyone in Ithaca knows what a CSA is. There’s a market that’s there.”

As strong as the Ithaca Farmers’ Market is, it has only a fraction of the business enjoyed by the local Wegmans grocery store. Burkett points out, “Even in a saturated market, there’s still a lot of room for growth.”

The more the merrier

Another advantage of a saturated market is cooperation with other growers, the shared knowledge and networking. Burkett says, “We’re always constantly innovating, and we’re all constantly trying new things. People call each other and we see each other in the winter and there’s lots of camaraderie and friendships.”

Farm manager Chris Bickford harvests kale.

That happens on the farm with employees too. Early Morning Farm employs around 10 to 12 people through the season. Burkett is the owner and general manager. Chris Bickford, the farm manager, is in charge of crop production. Crew leaders Anna Jesionowski, Dylan Thomas and Caleb Schonfeld are the captains in the field, leading the farm workforce in planting, weeding and harvesting.

Burkett says, “We – me and the top three or four people working on the farm – we’re all relying on each other pretty strongly to make this work. We try to make decisions together about planning the business in the future and going forward.”

Early Morning Farm’s Anton Burkett inspects a field of fennel.

Warm-weather vegetables, like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, are grown in seasonal high tunnels. They sacrifice production by using higher-value heirloom varieties. Burkett says, “We feel it’s worth it, and the CSA type of market we’re doing, that market really craves quality and unique tastes and flavors.”

Their CSA season runs 23 weeks, beginning the second week of June and ending in mid-November. A large share costs $552, and a small share is $437. Early Morning Farm offers a five-payment option, as well as a short academic CSA season for the fall academic crowd, a smart idea in a college town like Ithaca.

Early Morning Farm CSA members pick up produce at the Ithaca Farmers’ Market.

The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural.