The Buckhill Farm CSA Philosophy: Make a Profit

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

LITITZ, Pa. — Consumer-supported agriculture began as a movement.

A philosophy.

In the 1960s, Japanese and European consumers, concerned about the environment, land use issues, and the nutritional value and freshness of their fruits and vegetables, began working with local farmers who agreed to produce for their specific wants.

In the 1980s, the movement spread to the U.S., growing slowly at first, but gaining momentum in the last decade. Farmers and consumers alike have warmed to the locavore, organic, sustainable and biodiversity philosophies that are key to the success of any CSA (community supported agriculture).

But while philosophy is a shining ornament to any civilized society, and while a business plan may incorporate philosophical ideals, you cannot take philosophy to the bank.

Buckhill Farm is a CSA in Lititz, Pa., with both a philosophy and a six-year record of business success. When Andrew Buckwalter talks about Buckhill’s sustainability, he means that it is a business which can sustain a family without the need to work 15-hour days and 80-hour weeks. He also talks about the philosophical underpinnings of community supported agriculture — particularly the partnership of shared risks and rewards that join farmers and consumers — and the role his morals and values play in his business.

Buckwalter and his wife, Coral, are starting their sixth season as the owner-operators of the Buckhill Farm CSA. They began with just 50 members, and now provide fresh vegetables throughout a 26-week season to some 300 families. The families buy full shares, half-shares and shared shares. A full share costs $685 for the season, and nets the member a weekly box of assorted vegetables that varies with the season. A full share could supply most of the dietary needs of a couple of vegetarians, or all the vegetables a family of four or five non-vegans can eat.

The $685 share cost figures out to about $26 a week, and compares favorably with the cost of a similar box of vegetables at local supermarkets.

“Our prices are competitive,” Buckwalter said on a recent morning, just before his season got rolling. But he noted that price isn’t the whole point of a CSA.

“When a member comes in to pick up his share on a Tuesday, that food was harvested that morning. It’s extremely fresh, the nutrient content is high because it hasn’t been sitting on a truck for a week, and, obviously, our members are supporting a local grower, putting money back into the local economy and keeping their dollars here.”

Coral Buckwalter works part-time off the farm. She helps out as needed, is mom to the couple’s 2-year-old son, Hugh, and oversees the fresh flowers that are part of Buckhill’s non-vegetable offerings.

Members pick up their weekly shares — every other week for half-shares — either at the farm on Tuesdays or Saturdays, or at two off-the-farm pickup points in Lancaster, Pa., or Berwyn, Pa., a suburban Philadelphia locale about 60 miles from the farm.

The farm itself covers just eight acres, and is carved out of a Buckwalter family-owned farm just north of the Lancaster Airport on Pennsylvania Route 501. The area surrounding the farm is heavily developed, but because the farm itself is zoned for agriculture and used as such, it receives a favorable tax treatment available through Pennsylvania’s Clean and Green program.

That helps to keep Buckhill economically sustainable. Its sales of flowers and honey from the bees that have pollinated the Buckhill crops also add to the bottom line. Buckwalter has established relationships with like-minded nearby farmers from whom he buys meats from pastured animals, eggs from hens that scratch in the dirt, and artisanal cheeses. Sales of Christmas trees purchased from a grower in neighboring York County also bolster the farm’s finances.

Still, the bulk of their income comes from the sale of CSA shares, and the nice thing about that arrangement, said Buckwalter, is that their operation starts out in the black. Seed and other inputs, labor costs, irrigation supplies, electricity to run the irrigation pumps — all the expenses that face a traditional farm enterprise at the beginning of a growing season are paid for up front.

That kind of accounting has tempted a lot of farmers to get into the CSA business. But there’s a lot more to success than getting paid in May for cabbages a member will pick up in November.

Although he grew up on the family farm, Buckwalter was not a farmer, nor was his father, and his grandfather’s primary occupation was as an executive with New Holland, the farm equipment manufacturer. Growing up, he and his brother had chores, and they grew some peppers for sale at a small roadside stand, but the land was farmed by others.

“My brother’s and my primary jobs were to go to school, get good grades and go to college,” Buckwalter said. Which is what he did. After graduating from Muhlenberg College, he joined a prep school for boys in New York state, where he was a teacher, a counselor and a soccer coach. In the summers he worked on farms, mostly organic operations, and gradually realized that he wanted to be a farmer. In preparation, he studied organic methods and CSA models, so he was prepared to deal with many of the issues that would face a new sustainable agriculture enterprise.

His wife, Coral, was a certified horticulturist with her own business in New York, and she was well-prepared to deal with the floriculture that would become part of Buckhill.

Upwards of 40 vegetable varieties will be planted on Buckhill’s eight acres for the 2013 season, and some of the varieties will have varieties. Carrots, for example, will come in the regular orange color, plus yellow and purple.

The Buckhill approach to CSA member service involves education and inspiration. New members may not be accustomed to vegetables like fennel, celeriac and Swiss chard. Those members learn through newsletters, recipes and personal contact how to use those unfamiliar foods. And in a family that’s trying to get the kids to eat more vegetables, a carrot of a different color may be inspiration enough to get the vegetable from the dinner plate to the stomach.

The job of a CSA operator is not one for a hermit. Buckwalter has hundreds of members to deal with. He interacts with other like-minded producers of meats, cheeses and fruits. He’s in frequent contact with other CSA farmers and organizations, and he speaks from time to time to groups about sustainable agriculture. Plus, there are potlucks, the occasional hoedown and frequent visitors to the farm.

If a would-be CSA operator aims to follow the Buckwalter path, he or she would almost need to be able to cultivate people as well as he or she cultivates crops.

But the crops do come first. Buckwalter uses a spreadsheet template from Small Farm Central to help him decide when and how much of each crop to plant. Small Farm Central is a Pittsburgh company that offers website development and other computer services geared specifcally to the needs of CSA operators.

Buckwalter plants enough crops to take care of member needs, adds a bit for insurance, and sells his surplus to local restaurants. He does not measure yields by the acre, he calculates by the foot. And he irrigates. It would be too scary, he said, to depend on the vagaries of the weather to fulfill the expectations of members who had plunked down $685 at the beginning of the season.

Members expect seasonal fluctuations in their weekly shares. The average weight of a share in the spring is about 4 to 6 pounds. At the height of the season, a share will run 8 to 12 pounds. Because they are invested personally as well as financially in the CSA, members expect to eat with the seasons, and they expect that they’ll be getting their watermelon in August rather than in June.

Buckwalter has toyed with the idea of developing a roadside market stand. The busy Route 501 sees 30,000 cars a day going by the farm. And he has experimented with farmers markets.

“But growing for a CSA is a lot different from growing for a market,” Buckwalter said. “You need more varieties, and timing is really important. You don’t want people showing up and all you have for them is cabbage.”

“There are a lot of farmers markets, which is great. But a farmer producing for that market spends a lot of time running from here to there, setting up, breaking down. It can be a stretch to get it all done.”

So, for the time being, at least, farmers markets are just something to think about as the Buckwalters dive into planting season.

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