Small farms are built on dreams. You dream that you will figure out a way to coax enough produce out of a couple of acres to make the sweat and hard work worthwhile. You dream you can find customers for your arugula, blueberries, boc choy, whatever, and they will be so delighted they will come back for more, and bring their friends.
In short, you dream big, or at least bigger. No doubt, that was Howard Schultz’s game plan in 1992 when he started pushing Starbucks from a local Seattle coffeehouse to 16,000 outlets. And it is how Andy Stout says he dreamed of growing Full Circle Farm when he and his wife, Wendy Munroe, started farming three acres of land in Carnation in 1996.
“We began Full Circle Farm with a few acres, strong values, and expansive dreams,” Stout says on Full Circle’s website. All true, especially the expansive dreams part. Full Circle now boasts 400 acres, with subscribers across Washington and Alaska. Its subscriber-based CSA operation is a marketing juggernaut, pushing produce for 13 farming partners and seven other food businesses.
So we had mixed feelings when a sign went up recently in the window of the Indianola General Store announcing that Full Circle was soliciting CSA subscribers here in our backyard. That kind of sign leaves you feeling like a local bookstore owner after Barnes & Noble announces plans to build across the street. Out of the 3,229 CSAs around the U.S., tallied by Local Harvest, which tracks small farm statistics, most, like ours, have less than 100 subscribers. Sixty have 500 or more subscribers. Full Circle’s 9,400 subscribers makes it the Mega-Mart of CSAs.
Persephone Farm raises produce on about three acres in Indianola and our CSA subscriber list is small enough that our stack of weekly produce boxes would hardly fill a corner of one of Full Circle’s delivery trucks. Still Full Circle is the realization of Stout’s dream and the CSA model is one of the reasons local farms like ours are thriving. And as Full Circle’s subscriber list has grown mightily in the last decade, its reputation for integrity has been fairly high among western Washington’s farmers.
So Rebecca wrote to Dave Hughes, Full Circle’s Kitsap County Site Manager, noting that our farm, and other small CSAs in the county, are worried that Full Circle’s huge scale and marketing budget could roll over us. Our small farms, she said, underscore community values as well as provide fresh produce, something that giants like Full Circle can’t do. She invited Hughes to reply with his thoughts–“Farmer to farmer.”
Back came a reply that sounded more like pr man-to-farmer. Full Circle, Hughes assured us, isn’t “in the business of putting other farmers out of work or stealing CSA members.” He promised that Full Circle’s entry into the local market would mean “collaboration, cooperation, shared enthusiasms and meaningful relationships.”
He signed the note: “peace and carrots”.
That was cute. But his assurances might have carried more weight if we had not just read the latest issue of Growing for Market, a newsletter that closely follows small-farm issues. “Super-CSAs” like Full Circle Farm are a growing trend around the U.S., the Lawrence, Kan., newsletter says, and marketing in many cases has replaced local relationships as their driving force.
Growing for Market singled out Full Circle’s push into Alaska, a campaign that sounded a lot like its current effort back here in Kitsap County. Several years ago, Full Circle began posting CSA flyers on local bulletin boards in Fairbanks, inviting new subscribers to join its program. After a ferocious marketing effort, 70% of Full Circle’s CSA subscribers are Alaskans and its CSA is ten times as big as the dozen combined local CSAs in Fairbanks. Its boxes of produce, flown in weekly from the Lower 48, include some of its own produce but mostly items grown by someone else around the U.S. and the world.
When a group of Fairbanks growers met with Andy Stout last spring to tell him his operation was crushing their own CSAs, they pointed out that the bulk of the produce in Full Circle’s CSA boxes wasn’t even from his farm and asked him to stop calling his operation a CSA.
“I understand your point,” Stout wrote back. “I totally get it. But the best working definition of what we do is CSA.” The CSA label, he assured the Alaskans, was not done with the intention to deceive or harm the locals.
Now one nice thing about the CSA model is its flexibility. You can be small or big, deliver honey or chard, collect in advance or on delivery, go to your subscribers or have them come to you. But as a rule, most farm CSAs offer produce they grow, or at least process, themselves.
Stout acknowledges that only 35% of Full Circle’s annual CSA delivery to its subscribers comes from his farm. But, he added in his note to the Alaskans, “I’ve yet to see the harm done. What I’ve seen is the ability to have a small farm become successful. All we’re doing is chipping away at the grocery industry that has done everything in its power to take away the viability of farms.”
If you have trouble parsing that message, Full Circle apparently did too. It has since dropped the CSA label from its program, replacing it with an even less specific marketing slogan: “Farm to You”. It now promotes its service as an “organic produce delivery program.”
Stout may certainly be excused for his pride in marketing Full Circle to a successful niche in a tough business. But along the way his farm has apparently lost most of its small-farm roots and its original agenda—tying consumers more closely to the food they eat and the farmer who grows it. It’s a long way from that goal to a “delivery program,” shipping thousands of boxes of California strawberries and Mexican mangos to Alaska.
“The first part of Community Supported Agriculture is ‘community’” says Brad Jaeckel, who teaches at Washington State University and runs the school’s organic farm and 110-member CSA.“You need some boundaries to define that—five miles, ten miles, some kind of foodshed. My CSA members bump into each other every day, share recipes, swap vegetables. There are all kinds of neat interactions that take place in that community.”
“I just can’t imagine how that kind of interaction could be accommodated in such a large CSA,” he says of Full Circle’s business.
Neither can we. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time such a shift in priorities has taken place in agriculture. The organic movement began with a bunch of renegade small farmers rejecting chemical herbicides and pesticides and setting high standards for their produce. These days, “organic” is a marketing tool, lobbied into near-meaninglessness by big agribusinesses, enabling them to reap fat profit margins while continuing their industrial farming practices. Can CSAs featuring “locally” grown produce raised a thousand miles away be far behind?
Maybe. Or maybe not. Last we checked, Full Circle had just one subscriber for its CSA here in Indianola. Ours is nearly full and we expect a waiting list.
Take that Big Guy.