Long Island farmers are finding increasing success — and a measure of stability in an unpredictable business — by selling shares of their harvest direct to consumers.
In the community-supported agriculture model, customers pay farmers upfront for a weekly share of produce. Farmers refer to these arrangements as CSAs, and their consumers are called members.
CSAs are becoming so popular that farmers also face competition from copycat vendors who visit farms, buy local produce at wholesale prices, do home deliveries and run “quasi-CSAs” but are not farmers.
And CSA offerings have expanded beyond fruits and vegetables to include eggs, baked goods — even fresh-caught fish.
Dock to Dish, a Montauk-based company started in 2012, and inspired by farm CSAs, provides the catch of the day to local restaurants. The entrepreneur running the company has licensed the concept to other shore communities.
Farmers running CSAs drop off their boxes for members to pick up at preset locations on Long Island or in New York City. Share prices vary but can range from about $18 to $50 a week or about $500 to $1,200 for a season. Members typically prepay.
For farms — which typically are incorporated as businesses — the CSAs can help compensate for the region’s elevated costs, including high property taxes and a $10-an-hour (and rising) minimum wage, which is above that of neighboring states.
“CSAs are a consistent and efficient way for us to sell our produce. We load the boxes, deliver them and come home with an empty truck every time,” said Chris Kaplan-Walbrecht, co-owner of Garden of Eve Organic Farm, in Riverhead, who along with his wife, Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, has been running a CSA since 2004.
In contrast, “When we go to the [farmer’s] market with the truck full of vegetables, we can come back with the truck half full.”
Carl Safina, a visiting professor in Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism who teaches nature and humanity and has written books about conservation and the human relationship with the natural world, said CSAs have grown because they allow consumers a more “intimate” relationship with their food.
“We’ve lost having any sense of who is growing our food. It’s a link that has been broken for a long time, and I think many people are interested in that reconnection.”
Sandy Menasha, a vegetable and potato specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, called CSAs “a major shift from the way farmers typically made money in years past.” About 90 percent of Long Island’s roughly 15 farms that have been certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture run their own CSAs, and active CSAs number about 30 to 35 here, she said.
“Financially, CSAs provide growers with money early in the season when money typically isn’t coming in, and reduce the amount of loans and debt a farmer might otherwise accrue,” she said.
Suffolk County, where most of Long Island’s farms are located, had 604 farms in 2012, a 3 percent gain from 2007, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, the latest available. While farms with CSAs are in the minority, “It is a very successful business model,” Menasha said.
Growers on Long Island said they get as much as twice per pound for their produce from CSAs as they would get from a wholesaler. For many farmers, “wholesale crops aren’t making ends meet,” Menasha said.
CSAs also help farmers share some of their risks with members. For example, if weather conditions make for a reduced harvest of a crop, CSA members will get less of it.
Garden of Eve Organic Farm
Kaplan-Walbrecht said one of the “beautiful things” about CSAs is that members not only share the farm’s risks, “they’re also sharing its bounty.”
“If we have a really good year or a great week, members will get more,” said Kaplan-Walbrecht, who has run a CSA for 13 years.
“They’ll get sweet corn, zucchini, tomatoes, fennel, arugula and several other veggies. For about $27 a week, a family of about four can eat vegetables for a couple of days or have sides for their meals for the whole week. If you went to the supermarket and bought $27 worth of vegetables, it probably wouldn’t get you that far, and the vegetables wouldn’t taste as fresh.”
Kaplan-Walbrecht said the CSA helps their farm survive.
“If we were to enter a wholesale type of system to sell our produce, we’d have to compete with places like rural Pennsylvania or Alabama and countries like Mexico or Canada,” he said.
“In those places it’s a little cheaper to do business, and taxes are not as high.”
Either way, selling at wholesale prices is not profitable, said Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht.
“For a bunch of greens, we’d get $1 to $1.50 per bunch wholesale and $3 retail.”
The Kaplan-Walbrechts founded their CSA in 2004 with about 10 members, mostly family and friends.
Membership spread to Manhattan, Williamsburg in Brooklyn and around Long Island. When it hit 1,000, “it was extremely challenging to fulfill so many memberships,” and competition from other CSAs grew, said Chris Kaplan-Walbrecht. The farm now has 700 members.
To regain revenue after the membership decline, the couple began offering add-ons: eggs laid by their chickens; sunflowers grown on the farm; bread made by Long Island bakers using flour made from Garden of Eve organic wheat; and cheese from dairy farms upstate and in Vermont.
“Without the CSA, running the farm wouldn’t be financially feasible,” Chris Kaplan-Walbrecht said.
Golden Earthworm Farm
Maggie Wood, who with her husband, Matt Kurek, co-owns Golden Earthworm Farm, a certified organic farm in Riverhead, said her farm is “a one-trick pony.”
“We solely focus on our CSA members,” said Wood, who started running a CSA 17 years ago.
“It’s a challenge and a lot of hard work making sure members are really happy all season long and that we can recreate that wow factor every week when they open that box.”
Wood said she and Kurek started the CSA “with only a handful” of members. They now have more than 2,000, each paying $565 to subscribe for a 25-week season from June to November.
Wood said her revenue this year will near $1.2 million.
“For us, the CSA model is great in that since it’s presold it gives us the security of knowing how much work we’ll have and how much money we’ll make,” said Wood.
“And it allows us to maintain our staff and have them coming back year after year. Though many people may not think so, fieldwork is skilled labor, and we really value our employees.” The farm has 35 employees, including delivery drivers.
Green Thumb Organic Farm
Farmer Bill Halsey, 65, who along with his four siblings co-owns Green Thumb Organic Farm in Water Mill, a 100-acre farm that has belonged to his family since 1644, has run a CSA for 22 years. He has mentored others running CSAs, including Golden Earthworm.
Halsey, whose CSA has 400 members, said he first ventured into the business by supplying two groups, a synagogue in Brooklyn and members who collected their produce at a storefront in Queens. The first members learned about the CSA through word of mouth and from flyers. Nowadays, Halsey often finds members through Facebook.
He expanded to a group in Huntington, and to Brookhaven National Laboratory employees in Upton, among others.
“About 40 percent of the farm’s revenue comes from CSAs,” Halsey said. “But the other 60 percent, brought in by the farm stand, is condensed into two very busy summer months, while the CSA income is spread out over the whole year.”
Halsey and his family also run a winter CSA.
“After Labor Day, people who have second homes here [in the Hamptons] have already left.” But the farm still has crops such as leeks, spinach, squashes and sweet potatoes, he said.
Still, the CSA, he said, has its share of challenges.
“The whole local food movement has created awareness about the importance of locally grown, organic, healthy-for-you food,” and that has brought competition.
Green Thumb’s CSA in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, has shrunk to 85 members from 230 at its peak.
“CSAs now, for me, are part of the whole plan,” he said, rather than the entire solution.
Dock to Dish
Sean Barrett, of Hampton Bays, founded Montauk-based Dock to Dish in 2012 after reading farmer Scott Chaskey’s 2006 book, “This Common Ground,” about running one of the country’s first CSAs at Amagansett’s Quail Hill Farm. “Why can’t we do this with fish?” Barrett asked himself.
After three years, the demands of delivering filleted fish to 150 members became overwhelming, and the company refocused on supplying only restaurants.
Dock to Dish provides just-caught fish such as fluke, striped bass and sea bream to restaurants in Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Montauk, each paying about $1,000 a week for the service.
The company has expanded by licensing the business in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., the Bahamas, Canada and Costa Rica. It will launch its first freshwater fishing operation in Nicaragua in September.
Dock to Dish also has “institutional level” members like Google Corp. in New York — that company’s membership dues alone are enough to sustain his business, Barrett said.
“When we started in 2012, our grass-roots gross sales were $300 per week . . . and [we] are now on track to exceed over $500,000 in gross sales this year in New York alone,” Barrett said.
Joe Realmuto, chef and partner at Nick & Toni’s restaurant in East Hampton, said he has been a Dock to Dish member “since its inception.”
“Aside from the freshness of the fish and getting it hours after it reaches the dock, I liked the sustainable practices they were using and knowing local fishermen would be paid a premium.”
Montauk fishermen are paid by Dock to Dish depending on the fish species and other factors. They get paid 25 percent to 75 percent more from Dock to Dish than they would selling wholesale.
Rudolph Bonicelli, a Montauk fisherman who has worked with Dock to Dish since 2012, goes out on the boat at 5:30 a.m. seven days a week, from May to December.
“The expenses of fishing are ridiculous,” he said.
“And government regulations on commercial fishing really put a damper on what we can catch and how much of it we can catch. So if we get a little bit more money per pound per fish, it makes a big difference at the end of the day and allows us to provide for our families doing the work we love.”