Notes from a CSA

Farming is hard—really hard. Whether it is chipping out ice from water buckets and then refilling them five gallons at a time in January, shoveling chicken houses in July or castrating hogs and cattle year round, there are always dirty jobs to be done. As a small family farm sometimes this is a challenge, but we have a secret weapon: we have the connection and support of our amazing CSA shareholders, literally the best group of shareholders in the world. They are a super-vaccine against many of the significant challenges we deal with day in and day out—the weather, the market variations, as well as the personal challenges and straight-up fatigue brought on by over a decade of seven-day work weeks.

Rich and I love our livestock and share a passion for farming, but it took a decade to move from homesteading to full-time farming. In the early 2000s the state of Massachusetts offered a series of business planning courses for farmers and we jumped at the opportunity. The NextStep Business Plan course, then taught by Ray Belanger, was fabulous. It forced us to take an hones look at our strengths and resources, and we determined that a CSA model was perfect for us. Every animal we raised went somewhere; we didn’t have to worry about inventory or other office work (not a strength!!) nor did we have to set up a billing department—hand meat over, get check. Sounded great! In 2005, we launched with our first 12 members.

What we didn’t count on was the tremendous support, compassion, humor and great ideas from our CSA shareholders. Initially, we choose the CSA model to expediently move product. However, we soon realized that we had created a wonderful community that supports our farm and our vision of healthy, humane and small-scale livestock farming. We have been blessed with an amazing, supportive shareholder community. Whether it’s farming challenges, personal crises or business challenges, our shareholders literally have our backs—we ARE all in this together and it is more than local food, more than organic: It is our community. It is our farm family.

Turkeys are our least favorite and most problematic animal. While they taste great, we are not designed to be a turkey farm. We raise one batch a year and hope for the best. The first couple of years we didn’t understand that timing was key for 20-pound birds and nearly all of our birds grew to over 30 pounds. Instead of cooking directions, we handed out sawing directions so our shareholders could cut the turkeys in half to fi t in a home oven (great news: two for the price of one! Half for Thanksgiving, half for Christmas). I tried to spin with humor—after all, there was nothing to be done about the gigantic birds. Fortunately, without fail, EVERY ONE of our shareholders acted happy with the extra turkey size.

Then there was the year we raised Spanish Chocolate turkeys: We paid nearly $10 per bird for 100 birds at hatching (one day old, delivered in the mail). They were skittish from the start, and not at all like our typical broad-breasted, white, placid turkey. All was fine through the summer and into early fall. But we failed to see that they must have been catching the eye of the coyotes at night. One day in mid-October we arrived at the turkey pasture to find all (yes, literally all!) of the Spanish Chocolate turkeys dead outside the fencing. Again, our shareholders kindly took whatever we had—as we had pre-sold these birds.

Harvesting is never easy and one year was particularly difficult as our slaughterhouse ran out of ice an water (no, I can’t make this stuff up) so the distributions were changed at the last minute. Plans were scrambled for several hundred families and again, not a single complaint—rather Rich and I received wonderful, caring and supportive emails, cookies and kindness as we struggled
to get the live turkeys from our farm to the slaughterhouse, back to our farm and to our shareholders. It got so bad that I made Rich sleep for four hours (midnight to 4am) while I spent the night at the slaughterhouse waiting for turkeys to be processed. Livestock farming really is a seven-day-a-week life. Like human children, animals need to be fed and watered and cared for every single day of the week, every week of the year. There are no sick days, no down days and no vacations. Our children know that on Christmas we open stockings, do chores, then enjoy a mid-afternoon dinner with presents under the tree. The lack of sick days was a challenge when, in late 2011, my breast cancer returned and I faced two major surgeries within a month of each other in early 2012. Again, the connection and kindness of our CSA family was amazing. I received many, many wonderful cards, emails, chocolates and flowers and notes of support and connection. Today I am stable, and really attribute my health and designation as an “outlier” by my oncologist, to the love, support and connection of our CSA farm family. There is no greater blessing.

This summer has been tough weather-wise. We experienced one of the driest Mays-through-end-of-Julys on record. As a pasture-based livestock farm, this meant that our feed (grass) didn’t grow. Generally we are able to cut and feed from our farm fields from mid-May through mid-October. This year, we barely got one cutting off of our fields and had to start feeding dry hay before the Fourth of July. This has never, ever happened, and we had to scramble to come up
with $7,000 for a load of hay. Again, our community support was amazing. Rain dances and off ers to contribute to the hay load poured in.

Just when we thought things were tough with the drought our worst nightmare happened. Our friend, partner farm and slaughterhouse owner Pete Roy had to issue a beef recall. The day he chopped 1,000 pounds of ground beef, he also cut up four of our cows. It was a tough week as the USDA and state Department of Public Health were involved and the recall went from just some of the ground beef to all of the ground beef to all the beef processed on a certain day. We thought we were done farming. It was with dread that we sent an email to all our CSA members letting them know what happened and offering a full refund or replacement.

Again, the angels in the form of our shareholders had our backs. The supportive emails started rolling in—offers of financial support and help came from our members. It was amazing. Again, at a very dark and difficult hour our CSA farm family came and lifted us up. We were sad about the
cows, worried about the health of our shareholders and scared about our future, but the strength we are able to draw from our supportive family is carrying us through.

Farming is hard. Days are long, the work is sometimes cold, sometimes hot, but almost always dirty. Our animals are wonderful and our CSA shareholders are even better. What began as a way to farm full time and have a market for our product has evolved into a necessary life choice—without our community we would have long ago hung up the pitchfork.

We are blessed. We are a CSA farm.