End of Season Letter
We’re wrapping up our tenth growing season—something to celebrate, for sure! When Dan and I broke ground on Restoration Farm in 2007, we were unmarried, without staff, and without kids, but with a vision of what we’d like to accomplish. Ten year later, we’re still far from claiming victory, but we can claim progress, which in certain contexts, is just as good.
Fields and Farmers
Our relationship with the fields and soil continues to evolve at a steady pace. We accept that Lower Crooked Field will never be suitable for growing spring crops. We accept that Brussels sprouts harvested in October will be covered in aphids, but those harvested in early December will be beautiful and aphid-free. We accept row cover as an essential, albeit frustrating, component of spring. It’s taken us years to get to this point, but there’s deep satisfaction in knowing it because we lived it, not because a boss told us or because we read it online.
On the labor front, we’re settling into a comfortable arrangement, and we hope it continues into the future. Our full-time assistant, Steve Cecchini, has been with us for over two years, and he’s assumed leadership in field management, which has freed me up to focus on planting, harvests, and marketing. We continue to seek new ways to mechanize, but nothing beats a committed, friendly crew when there are
beans to pick and carrots to bunch. That’s where Peter Notarnicola and Kieran Frodell came in. Their energy was uplifting through the summer months, and I only wish they
could have stayed on through the fall, when
the winter share kept the fields in full swing.
Last but not least, I’d be dead in the water on
Sunday mornings without Elizabeth Rexer to
help with the farm stand harvests.
Changing Business Landscape
While the fields remain steady, this year
marked a significant departure on the
business front. We were lucky to launch
Restoration Farm at a time when CSA awareness and demand was at its height. In 2007, CSAs were all the rage, and with minimal effort on our part, we sold all of our inaugural shares before harvesting a single item. By 2009, we were maintaining a waiting list of 100+ people!
Over the past five years, however, we’ve watched our advantage fall away to competition from supermarkets, delivery services, and middlemen masquerading as CSAs. By 2016, the waiting list had evaporated and we did not sell all of our available shares. I knew that if I wanted to keep the business going, I had to jump into the marketing fray. So this year I joined Facebook, ran an April membership drive, set up online payments, attended local fairs, and welcomed after-hours curiosity seekers when I really just wanted to go home. I even bought a garish roadside sign for the farm stand. At times it felt as though the Tin House was turning into Penn Station (Saturday members, you know what I’m talking about), but I believe it paid off in that we sold all of our 2017 shares and saw a moderate increase in farm stand sales. Business isn’t booming, but it’s holding steady, which is better than it was.
Investing in Current CSA Members
Meanwhile, our current CSA members continue to be our foundation. CSA retention rates are a huge indicator of CSA sustainability, and ours has always hovered around 75%. Given that the industry average ranges from 50%-60%, that’s pretty good! It’s also an indication that while drumming up new members is important, investing in our current members is even more important. Here are some steps we’ve taken toward that end.
Putting in Face Time
The weekly pickup provides an invaluable opportunity to meet and commune with CSA members, and in 2008, Dan and I were always present. But as demands on our time increased (kids, fields, off-farm job), we were happy to have volunteers step in. This season, however, I resolved to spend more time at pickup, rearranging my schedule accordingly. Of course I continue rely on pickup hosts Ann Holdgruen, Arline Garbarini, and Yvette Wang, but I’m also happy to reconnect with the members who have made such a big commitment to us.
Website Members Page
The new Members Page is a
centralized online location with all
information CSA members need,
—the pickup schedule
—the weekly share
—the weekly berry quota
—picking hours & policy
—herb harvest videos
—vegetable curing tips
For the Luddites in our membership, I
feel your ennui. For everyone else, I
hope the Members Page helped.
Field Gleaning & Snack Plot
Last year, as an afterthought, we offered members the chance to glean spinach, basil, and arugula in the fields. The feedback was wildly enthusiastic, so this year we made it a forethought. We added peas and beans to the offering, as well as detailed directions and maps. If you got lost on the way to the spinach, we provided an adventure! And of course, Dan’s “CSA Snack Plot” provided an on-the-spot eating experience for those unable to venture into the fields.
This year’s CSA survey was the first in many years, if not the first ever. I shied away from these surveys in the past because I know that if I ask 100 members what veggies they would like more (or less) of, I’ll end up with 100 different answers. That’s not very helpful when you’re trying to please as many people as possible. Indeed, with this year’s survey, that’s exactly what happened. That said, with 95 of roughly 200 recipients responding, the survey did give me some unexpected insight. More members read the monthly newsletters than I would have guessed. Many members would appreciate longer pickup hours. Some members requested items and services that we already provide. This information is certainly valuable and will give me a lot to focus on over the winter.
With ten years under our belt, we’re now gearing up for the next ten. Dan and I anticipate some software upgrades in the office and some new equipment in the field. We look forward to seeing our kids more active around the farm, though we’re careful not to push (I swear!). There’s a lot we can’t anticipate, but a lot that we can count on—our soil, and our community. If we’ve got that, we’ve got all we need. Thanks for being a part of it!
Changes Through the Years
Discontinuing the Berry Share
In 2009 we added an optional berry share. It turned out that with only four crops in the share, people judged it more harshly than they did the vegetable share. We also found that members who didn’t purchase shares would still walk to the berry for “just a little snack.” By incorporating the berries into the vegetable share, which we did in 2013, we eliminated both problems.
Around the same time, we were alarmed by a growing trend of members splitting their shares three or more ways. Membership has always included pick-your-own herbs and flowers, and we were facing a situation whereby people with no interest in our vegetables were gaining free access to the pick-your-own items. So we instituted a “two partners per share” limit, and we implemented the membership fee, so that we would be compensated for partner participation.
Laying Hens & Meat Birds
In 2011, chickens arrived! Donna Sinetar, aka “The Chicken Lady” took on responsibility for the laying hens, and our intern, Tricia Hardgrove, piloted a meat bird share. I was passed the meat bird baton in 2012, but my enthusiasm quickly waned. Dead-on-arrival chicks, repeat predator attacks, and zero profits took their toll, and we processed our last batch of birds in 2015. Donna, meanwhile, continues to keep laying hens, thanks in large part to help from Judy Stratton.
Arts & Education
In 2013, Nassau County began construction on our beloved “Tin House,” which replaced the old trailer and 12x20 tent that had been our previous shelter. Before the cement was even poured, Dan and I met with long-time volunteer Susan Salem to hatch plans for an arts and education program. In 2014, we wowed everyone with a monthly concert series, Sunday yoga in the fields, adult workshops, and school tours. Oh yeah, and we raised two pigs for a farm-to-table dinner. The pigs turned out to be a ton of work, so we dropped them the following year. By the end of 2015, I was completely burned out. It was clear that the arts and education program was too much of a drain on the vegetable operation, and we decided to let it go. It was a sad decision, but a necessary one.
Restoration Farm Timeline
Signed 5-year contract with Nassau County. Cultivated a 2,500 sq ft garden to supply a small weekend farm stand. Began recruiting new CSA members.
60 weekly shares
First full season with
Tuesday and Friday
CSA pickup and
Saturday farm stand.
3 ½ acres
75 weekly shares
Added berry share as
an optional add-on
and Saturday CSA
pickup. Lost entire
tomato crop to late
80 weekly shares
90 weekly shares
90 weekly shares
Added Wednesday farm stand. Shifted Saturday farm stand to Sunday.
90 weekly shares
Discontinued berry share as an add-on. Added membership fee to cover pick-your-own items.
90 weekly shares
Tin House replaces
trailer and tent.
Launched arts and
Raised two pigs for
farm-to-table dinner. Signed 5-year renewal with Nassau County.
100 weekly shares
100 weekly shares
Discontinued meat chickens and arts program. Added winter share.
100 weekly shares
Lost entire onion planting to pests. Implemented smaller, second planting with donations from fellow farmers.
Some Quick Replies to a Few Survey Comments
Someone asked for pastured poultry and/or meat shares. Our personal experience with meat birds aside, animals require a lot of land, which we don’t have. For the past year, however, we have been a site host for Pleasant Pastures, a Pennsylvania farm that delivers grass-fed meat and dairy. These Amish farmers do not have an online presence, but we have brochures at the Tin House. Dan and I have been buying from them for over ten years.
Someone asked about purchasing multiple Makinajian egg shares. Yes, that’s an option! This wasn’t the case years ago, when space in the trailer was limited, but it is now.
Several people asked about being provided with weekly recipes. I’ve added it to this winter’s project list.
Someone asked about being able to reschedule pickups. Yes, that’s an option! You can read our rescheduling policy here.
Someone asked about being able to pick berries, flowers, and herbs outside of the regular pickup hours. Yes, that’s an option! You can see the picking hours and policy here.
Quite a few people requested extended pickup hours. I feel your pain, and I wish there was an easy solution. With two little kids at home, however, I don’t think it’s in the cards, at least not for several years.