ypsilanti’s boxelder acres csa closes

Our friend Lisele just left a comment in last week’s thread about farming, alerting us to the fact that our local CSA, a farm called Boxelder Acres, was closing down. According to their Local Harvest write-up, the farm, which had for the past ten years been Certified Organic, discontinued certification last year in order to spend more time on farming and less on paperwork. I have no idea why things came to an end, but one wonders if perhaps their business model may have been the reason. From what I understand, they required people to pick up their shares weekly at the farm, and pay weekly. That’s quite a bit different than, say, Tantre Farm, another local CSA, that requires payment up-front for the entire growing season. (If memory serves, their CSA is divided into 100 shares, each of which costs $550, giving them $55,000 at the beginning of each season.) Of course, the reason for their closing might not be financial at all. I just wonder if maybe their model played a part… Or, for that matter, if they might have lost people after losing their organic certification.

OK, I just did a little Googling and found a 2006 email posted at the old YpsiDixit site by someone from Boxelder Farm. In the letter, he or she explains the reasoning behind their pay-as-you-go system. Here’s the relevant bit:

…”The way we see it, there are only three ways for a farmer to retail their vegetables. Farmer’s markets, roadside stand, or a CSA. In the first two, the farmers grow their crops, offer them for sale, and customers may chose what and if to purchase. Somehow they are able to stay in business, year after year, without a whole bunch of people sharing in their risk. Then there are the CSA farmers, who need all of their customers to give them a $500 interest free loan before planting because their operation is so risky. What’s up with that? What’s up is that an experienced, knowledgeable, properly equipped farmer on good ground, with a diversified mix of crops, an adequate irrigation system, field tiling and a good market, is going to be moderately successful year in and year out. Will the business be wildly profitable? Will there be ups and downs, drought and flooding? Will the work be long and hard? Will there even be times you might want to quit? Let’s guess. 

“CSAs are often started by someone with a walk behind rototiller and a large garden who thinks that if they just make it a little bigger they can start a CSA and quit their day job. They call us all the time asking for advice on getting started. You should hear the conversations. What really excites them is the idea that they don’t even have to actually be successful because they get paid up front by all their risk sharing customers.

Let’s see, $500 times 100 customers is? We are going to be RICH!!! If you decide to join such a CSA we can guarantee that you will able to enjoy some risk sharing. 

”We have a 100 family CSA. Most of our customers return year after year. They also show up week after week to get their vegetables, paying with checks that don’t bounce and tell us over and over how great everything tastes. To us the most important defining feature of our CSA is that we are providing healthy, locally grown food to local families who appreciate all of our hard work. It’s all pretty simple, and hey, it works for us.”

Whatever the reason, we wish all the best for Asa Wilson and the folks at Boxelder…. Hopefully, someone else will step in and fill the gap. I don’t know how seriously she’ll pursue it, but Lisele mentioned the possibility of operating a coop farm at Boxelder, if the land were available. I’ll keep you posted if I hear anything more aobut it.

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  1. Kirk
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    When I first conceived the idea for my flower business I was inspired by the idea of a flower CSA. I decided the market for weekly flowers is different than the market for weekly vegetables and ended up using a subscription model instead – weekly delivery of locally grown flowers for a flat weekly price. However, it is still small scale, retail, agriculture so I have a pretty good idea what is involved.

    I love, Love, LOVE everything about my flower business and am very grateful that I am able to make some money doing this work. But, regardless of your business model, this is not a way to make a lot of money. Maybe not a way to even make ENOUGH money. The expenses are higher than you might think, certainly higher than I thought they would be. Affording middle class niceities like health insurance, owning a home, and saving for retirement or a child’s education are a challenge.

    It is also REALLY hard physical work. Small scale agriculture, particularly organic agriculture, depends less on machinery and more on sweat. Age or a minor injury could create big problems.

    Local, community based agriculture is one of those things that is truly ALL GOOD – good for the community, good for the people growing the crops, good for the land, good for the customers. I hope Lisle or someone is able to continue Boxelder Acres as a local CSA or co-op farm. Mark, thanks for keeping everyone informed about this.

  2. Posted March 29, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Well, I bet Asa would be surprised to hear that I’m planning to farm his land! Not likely. I was thinking (just thinking out loud) that here was a nearby, organic, recently worked piece of land –and that some enterprising young enthusiasts in Ypsilanti had been talking about coop farming. Seems like a match made in heaven.

    Asa sent the above letter–we had a couple of long talks about it at the time. He’s just too much of an iconoclast to fit in traditional models of ANYthing, including a traditional CSA. Boxelder didn’t “lose” their organic certification, they decided to forgo all the hoop jumping that certification entails: inspections, rigid guidelines, endless paperwork, and so on — especially since they had a base clientele who knew their ethics and that they were farming organically. PLUS there are a great number of certifying agencies out there –all with different standards– it just seemed like a waste of valuable time to Asa.

    Asa has been getting into art and metal work and Peggy works for the Steiner School. I don’t know if his passion for metal work has trumped farming for him. He also has serious asthma which I assume has been a challenge working outdoors all the time. Honestly, I’ve been so broken-hearted about the closing, I haven’t contacted them yet. I just don’t know what to say.

    From his closing letter:
    “Peggy and & started this business about 20 years ago when she sold some extra green beans from our garden. We had a lot of youthful energy and came up with the idea that farm life would be a smarter way to go than working for the man. We were both kids from the suburbs who knew a little bit about gardenin and cared about Organic foods. In those early years, we worked as hard as we physically could, learning as we went, and hope things would eventually get easier and more financially rewarding. …I had to learn about equipment [we started out with just a rototiller] and figure out how to keep out of trouble while bidding at farm auctions. You can’t afford much new equipment, so I also had to learn how to repair our old implements. Peggy dealt with our customers… and managed the employees and the harvesting. On top of all this, we both made deliveries all over town. We worked long, long hours, seven days a week and did all this while keeping house, cooking from scratch and being “the primary caregiver” for our two children. Looking back on it now, it all seems crazy but when you are young and idealistic, you don’t know it’s crazy or care if it is. I expect that when we reminisce about our farm years when we are a little bit older, it will make a little more sense than it does right now.”

    He goes on to talk about his joy that he raised his two sons on the farm. Then Peggy began working full time at the Steiner School.

    “As I took on all of her responsibilities, it became an awful lot of work for not much money as well as not enough fun. I was always a lot happier by myself on the tractor or in the greenhouse with the plants [than with the customers]…I didn’t let myself feel it until I was 100% sure that farming was over, but I am pretty worn out, both physically and mentally.”

    He goes on to say he loved his workers and his customers, especially watching their children grow, and ends with suggestions for other CSAs and the local farmer’s markets. And that we should start our own gardens, saying “The best advice I can give any gardener is to start small, try using some clean mulch, water the soil not the plants, and kill the weeds as they are just emerging. You might find that the time you get to spend alone in the garden with your vegetable plants is the most enjoyable part of your day.”

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