Growing a CSA-driven 'Small Family Farm'
I remember working on an apple farm when I was 17. I was up on this ladder, up in the trees in the Driftless area and the wind was blowing and it was this gorgeous fall day. I just remember feeling, 'This is amazing. I love being out here in the countryside, up on this ladder.' I kind of fell in love with the idea of becoming a farmer on that day. I was like, 'I'm a hard worker and I can do this.' Everyone says to be a farmer you have to be a really hard worker. I'm like, 'I can do it.'"
- Jillian Varney, Small Family CSA Farm, Viroqua, WI
"At one point I took a job at Angelic Organics in the Chicago area. They are a 2,000 member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. They were very well organized, financially viable, and had added the community aspect to it. I was like, ‘Wow. This is so great.’
But I knew I couldn't start a farm that was that big on my own. So I started working smaller family farms so I could learn more. I was working on this little farm in LaFarge, Wisconsin. They were trying to grow all the products for their own pizza business. They had a small certified kitchen and farm. Unfortunately, that CSA fell apart the first season I worked there.
But then a great thing happened. They were like, 'You have a lot of experience, why don't you go ahead and start your own CSA here? We can't offer you employment on ours anymore, but you can start your own if you want.' I was like, 'Okay.' They supported me by providing the infrastructure, the greenhouse, and I gave them produce for their pizzas for the use of their land.
The beauty of CSA model is that everybody pays you upfront and then you deliver vegetables to them throughout the season. When I did it that first year, I got all these checks in the mail in March, April, May and then I was able to buy the supplies and everything I needed to get started.
So that was the beginning... I was 21 years old and running my own little 23 member CSA farm!"
Jillian: I met my husband while I was running that first CSA. He was working in the pizza kitchen on the farm. It wasn't one of those love-at-first-sight situations, but it really grew. He was compassionate, and he was so good with kids. I saw how well we communicated and worked together. I realized I was ready. I knew I wanted a farm, I knew I wanted a family, so let's do it. It didn't feel like I needed to keep searching.
Adam: She is the boss of everything. When we first met she was the farmer and I was just a cook in restaurants. In order to win her over I needed to be able to do whatever she wanted me to do, so now, I'm a farmer. It's just about as simple as that.
Jillian: Adam and I decided to buy our own farm in 2007. The USDA Farm Service Agency loaned us the money. They are a government organization and they have offices in several counties. They give loans to a wide range of people and they focus on giving loans to minority groups. As a female farmer who had been working on farms for several years, I qualified.
Adam: In our first year, Small Family CSA Farm had 63 CSA members. The second year, 100, and now we're at 300 members. Around the time our second daughter was born, we took a big leap and I was finally able to quit my day job.
Jillian: I was really happy because Adam’s attention wasn’t divided anymore and it meant we were making a living for our family on our farm income. It was like: ‘Okay, now we have two kids and the farm is fully sustaining us. This is really great.’
"Right now we have about 35 members who are worker shares. They work three and a half hours every week in exchange for a weekly CSA box. I just love having these different people with different backgrounds and perspectives come every week together and work with us. I feel like they really enrich the community aspect of our farm.
We harvest on Mondays and Tuesdays. On Monday morning, a group shows up and we get right to harvesting. We make it clear that yes, we're working,but we also try to make it fun too. We laugh a lot and just talk about whatever comes up. We try not to get too political or too religious, but those two subjects do come up a lot. Then it always makes for an interesting morning. I love it.
Our worker share program is another reason I appreciate the CSA model. It really feels like the community is really making this farm happen."