By Mike Watkins
Matt Stukenholtz and Matt Edstrand, owners of Camp Creek Acres Produce and providers of a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, have a simple message for prospective customers: They want to be your food supplier.
“We don’t want to simply provide you with produce. We want to give you the opportunity to have an intimate knowledge of where and how your food is grown,” Matt Edstrand said. “You will be more than a customer. You will be a member in a farm that will allow you to feel a greater connection to your food.”
The same goes for Tim Rogers and Joletta Hoesing, owners of GreenLeaf Farms. They see the value in connecting with buyers in the community who appreciate the opportunity to purchase fresh produce and to form a relationship with the farmer growing it. How did you get involved with Community Supported Agriculture?
Matt Stukenholtz: “I was first introduced to the CSA concept in 2008 at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference. I met multiple small vegetable growers who were operating CSA programs, and I just thought that this is a great way of connecting people to their food and to the land around them. We live in the breadbasket of our country, yet very little of the food we eat is grown locally.”
Matt Edstrand: “In 2010, Matt Stukenholtz asked if I wanted to start a CSA program in Omaha. My response was ‘A CS what?’ After he explained the concept to me, I was really excited. One of my favorite high school and college jobs was working in the produce department at a grocery store. Strange as it may sound, I enjoyed getting the food ready for presentation at the beginning of the day. I also had a desire to open my own business, but I didn’t have any good ideas that I felt met a need. I was quickly convinced that a CSA program was a great idea.”
Joletta Hoesing: “We started our CSA program as an extension of our weekend farmers markets. I was encouraged by my daughter, who was a CSA program member in Minneapolis.”
CSA embraces shared risks between the grower and consumer. How does this work?
Matt Edstrand: “I will admit that when I learned about this widespread and accepted practice in the CSA movement, I wasn’t sure about it. However, while our members share in the risk of crop failure, they also share in the bounty. For example, one of our members loved our potatoes. Since we had a bumper crop last year, I was able to give her an additional bag that weighed between 10 and 15 pounds! Another member loved our hot peppers and asked for extra so he could freeze them. We gave his family a one-gallon bag stuffed full of chili, jalapeno and habanero peppers.”
Tim and Joletta: “The idea of CSA is shared risk. If the farmer is having a difficult season or a plentiful season, the program members feel the effects. If this season was difficult on root crops, for example, the CSA participants will receive fewer root crops and may receive more greens or squash that season instead.”
What has been the biggest surprise or challenge that you’ve encountered?
Matt Stukenholtz: “Putting a farming system in place that will allow us to have vegetables available every week for 20 weeks. Our goal is to provide our clients with seven to 10 types of vegetables every week throughout the growing season.”
Matt Edstrand: “I thought people would enjoy it, but I was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which our members enjoy our food and the experience. They seem to have a real passion for it and appear to really love our crops.”
Tim and Joletta: “A member’s and a farmer’s definition of CSA can vary greatly. It is a challenge to communicate what your program has to offer versus a member’s idea of what CSA is.”
Has CSA changed your production schedules, farming methods, etc.?
Matt Stukenholtz: “From the beginning, we planned for a CSA production schedule. However, this type of production may be one of the most difficult to manage. With conventional agriculture, you plant one or two crops, everything gets planted at the same time and then it all gets harvested at the end of the season. With CSA, you are dealing with 40 to 50 types of vegetables that all need to be planted and harvested at different times throughout the season.”
Tim and Joletta: “Yes, we plan production for our CSA program in addition to our farmers markets. We also plant some crops only for the program. We do this for some specialty crops that are best grown in smaller quantities and for diversity for the program members.”
How have you built relationships/partnerships with your customers?
Matt Edstrand: “I make a point of meeting each member during the season. This allows me to ask them how we are doing and to personally thank them for being a part of our CSA program.”
Do you plant based on requests?
Matt Edstrand: “If a member expresses an interest in a crop that we haven’t grown, we definitely look into growing it and try to incorporate it, assuming that we can grow it in this climate. We have begun to plant fruit trees, since our members have expressed an interest in fruits.”
Tim and Joletta: “Yes, each year we start with a list of favorites and either add vegetables members have requested or eliminate ones that are not well-liked. We also try new vegetables that are unusual.”
Is this year-round for you (even in the winter when most farming in this area stops or changes)?
Matt Edstrand: “Currently, we are not able to grow year-round, however, in the long-term we would like to dramatically extend the growing season through greenhouses and hoops, which is a type of greenhouse with a plastic roof wrapped over flexible piping. In the winter, we work on planning for the next season.”
Tim and Joletta: “At this time, our CSA program is seasonal from May to October. Last year, we were able to offer a fall season from October to November. Our hope in the future is to offer a yearround CSA program. Currently, in the winter we do our planning, attend workshops and conferences and work outside of the farm.”
What do you see (for customers) as the advantages of CSA participation?
Matt Edstrand: “I see it as having a contract gardener or a prepaid farmers market. While people want fresh-from-the-field food, it can be difficult to have the knowledge and/or time to grow the variety and volume of crops that we can. From an environmental perspective, one of the biggest advantages is the reduction of fuel consumed when buying local. When you buy your food from a local farmer, it doesn’t have to be transported great distances to a packer/ processor, then to a distributor and ultimately to a grocer.”
How much better and fresher is the taste than what someone gets at the grocery store?
Matt Stukenholtz: “It is truly amazing how much better vegetables taste when they are picked within hours of when they are delivered to you. In the early spring, green onions have an amazing flavor. The broccoli and asparagus don’t taste anything like you find in the store.”
Do you offer only vegetables, or do you also grow/offer fruit?
Matt Edstrand: “Most of our current offerings are vegetables, however, we have successfully raised melons. Two years ago, we planted pear and apple trees, and this fall we are planting cherry trees. It is our long-term goal to have an orchard with a wide variety of fruits.”
Tim and Joletta: “Fruits for our members include watermelon, cantaloupe and tomatoes.”
Do you recommend getting involved with CSA to other farmers?
Matt Stukenholtz: “Absolutely. In order to create a thriving local food system, you have to have the eaters—people who want local fresh produce—educators who are actively enlightening people about the local food movement, and farmers producing great fresh vegetables. I think the eaters are out there, and the word is getting out in the Omaha area about fresh local food. I think there is a great opportunity for many more farmers.”
Matt Edstrand: “Yes, and I would advise them to be patient. Being from the business world, I tend to want to grow the membership quickly. It takes at least a couple of growing seasons to know what to grow, how to grow it, how to pack it, how to market it to potential members, how to get the produce to the confirmed members and how to give them good service. Without patience, it is easy to overcommit and under-deliver.”
Tim and Joletta: “Yes, it is