Unique CSA option leads to success for Red Earth Farm

A healthy bed of carrots at Red Earth Farm, flanked by leeks and red beets.
Photos courtesy of Charis Lindrooth, Red Earth Farm.

The quality and variety of Red Earth Farm’s weekly harvest is similar to what other farms provide. What sets the operation apart are its delivery points and choice services, basically customized CSA offerings.

Family-owned and operated in Schuylkill County, Pa., near Hawk Mountain, the farm offers what it calls a “Choice CSA,” allowing members the opportunity to choose from a list of seasonal fresh produce each week. Everything is coordinated online, and deliveries of the custom-packed boxes are made to a number of neighborhood drop-off sites, mostly in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.

Owner-operator Michael Ahlert says, “Offering choices is unique, and customers appreciate quality food along with the service. As such, we’re really serving more than just one need.”

The advent of the CSA movement was a unique opportunity for growers to migrate away from traditional types of farming, but Ahlert and wife Charis Lindrooth’s spin on the movement provides what they figure is long-term sustainability. He says no one knows what the status of CSAs will be in 10 years.

“They may not be as hot as they are now,” Ahlert says. “I know more and more young farmers are getting into it. There are lots of growers growing crops in the Philly area, so I always thought we had to do something that others don’t do. I’ve always thought [customization] is a bit of an insurance policy for us.”

Red Earth Farm (http://www.redearthfarm.org) is one of the largest CSAs in Pennsylvania. This year, the farm has three delivery routes that are saturating Philadelphia neighborhoods and nearby suburbs. Three times a week, drivers make seven to nine stops for a total of 20 pickup sites each week. Members get a delivery 22 weeks a year, from the beginning of June to the end of October. A partial share gets a member six items, and a full share is 10 items every week.

Spring radishes and Swiss chard waiting to be packed.

The couple owns 100 acres and farms 25 acres, enough to support 700 CSA members and two weekend markets. There are a dozen employees, both full and part-time. This past spring, the couple added three greenhouses, including a nursery greenhouse that doubled the size of their nursery space. They now have a total of seven greenhouses. The farm has one refrigerated truck and is looking to add another.

The focus of all the recent growth is based at a second farm property they purchased in 2009. The new greenhouses are located there, and they added a packinghouse last year. It represents the fruits of their labor and is part of their success story.

Between 2003 and 2005, Ahlert and Lindrooth were nomadic farmers. They were renting land, operating their unique CSA on a shoestring, and quickly running out of space.

By 2006, they were able to buy what they call the home farm, located in Orwigsburg, Pa. The home farm has 14 acres, but less than half of it is tillable. In 2009, they purchased a 90-acre parcel of south-facing land in Kempton, Pa., 17 miles from the home farm. Fifty of the farm’s acres are tillable. Now the move is on to gradually shift all operations there. The drive between the two farms is taxing. Those 17 miles are up, through and around Hawk Mountain.

“We just went for it,” Ahlert says. “We knew there would be inefficiencies in running back and forth.”

Red Earth Farm has a total of seven greenhouses.

The genesis of an idea

Ahlert started farming as an employee and manager for another vegetable grower, Covered Bridge Produce in Oley, Pa. Owner-operator Joe Griffin said he never understood the CSA concept.

“He didn’t like the idea that there wasn’t a choice, so I said, ‘Why don’t we give them a choice?'” Ahlert says.

They developed a list of options in advance, allowing subscribers – about 50 of them initially in 2000 – to make selections. When the box was delivered, inside was a list of options for the following week, and customers would call the farm with their selections.

For three of the four years Ahlert worked at Covered Bridge Produce, that’s how they ran the CSA. It worked. When he left to start his own farm, he took the idea with him. “Essentially, we’re still doing it the same way,” he says.

In 2005, Ahlert began expanding his Red Earth Farm, in part because of a connection with Bob Pierson and his Farm to City initiative in Philadelphia. Farm to City works to facilitate the influx of fresh, local produce into Philadelphia neighborhoods. “It helped grow our CSA,” Ahlert notes.

Initially, Red Earth’s online order form was on Farm to City’s website (http://www.farmtocity.org), and CSA membership grew from 200 members to 300. By 2008, Red Earth launched its own website, and since then its CSA membership has increased to 650 to 700 members in a 10-year span, growing steadily at a pace of 50 to 75 shares a year.

Red Earth grows all of the vegetable shares, but outsources to local farms for eggs, cheese, yogurt and other products.

A special buying club, again started with Farm to City, allows members an opportunity to order extra shares a la carte.

Ahlert figures the online ordering system has helped grow his bottom line, but he also acknowledges that it costs money to operate the site, and that there are labor costs associated with packing the custom orders.

“It all has its expense,” he says. “If we didn’t have it or do it this way, I’m not sure if our business would be smaller. We do it because our customers are so positive about it. They like the service. They tell us that they have come to us because of the service. So if it has brought customers to us, then it’s safe to say it’s been an advantage.”

The packinghouse

Until last year, Red Earth was packing in a bank barn that was too small and was hard to keep clean and up to codes and standards. Also, there wasn’t enough cooler space.

The new 40-by-60-foot pole building was a $75,000 investment, but it offers four times the cooler space and includes a wash line area. Ahlert says the wash line was long overdue and has sped up efficiency.

An early start for tomatoes in the Red Earth Farm hoop houses.

The farm’s labor force is split into two crews, with about seven employees in the field and five workers in the packinghouse.

Orders are printed from the online orders, and labels are premade for every customer, noting the pickup site. Once the box is packed, the printed order goes inside the box so customers can easily check their order at the pickup site.

This year in the packinghouse they’re experimenting with an assembly line system to hopefully streamline the packing process.

“By the nature of the way we pack boxes, we need to try and improve,” Ahlert says. “We’re implementing [the assembly line], and I have a strong feeling that it will work better.”

At the end of the line, the boxes are double-checked, but the goal with the new system is to eliminate that step.

Young plants are seeded and started in a nursery heated by an outdoor wood furnace.

Still growing

Lindrooth is a chiropractor and herbalist, but she handles much of the growing operation’s communication, fielding questions and making changes to keep customers satisfied. She also handles the office, bookkeeping and a growing cut flower initiative. There are plans to hire someone to lessen her workload.

“It’s a busy life, but it’s rewarding and it has taken care of us,” Ahlert says. “We should have another five to 10 years of growth ahead of us. That’s the vision, then it levels out thereafter. We’ll probably get to 1,000 [CSA shares] within the next five years, ring the bell, then relax.”

The author, a gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.