Founding a community supported agriculture (CSA) organic farm wasn’t something Paul Martin approached flippantly. It took him several years of interning, research and planning before he turned over the soil at Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, NY.
Martin didn’t grow up farming, but perhaps the “gene” skipped a generation, as both sets of his grandparents farmed in Lancaster, PA. He began college to become a math teacher, but dropped out to intern on a farm. He hasn’t looked back.
After several internships and jobs at farms, he not only honed his agricultural knowledge, but also his business sense.
“I didn’t realize that being a farmer also requires you to be a business person,” Martin said. “That took a little bit more book learning.”
He obtained information from the Small Business Association and read business books. He also put together a business plan to ensure his farm could be viable. After observing the CSA model firsthand, he realized that was the direction in which he wanted to go.
“I like the idea of the community paying upfront or multiple times throughout the season,” said Martin. “We don’t have cash changing hands every week. The community shares in the risk and rewards.”
His 21 acres (along with 15 rented acres) comprise Sweet Land Farm. About two-thirds of his land is in production and one-third in cover crops. Crop rotation helps keep the soil fertile.
Members pick up their items from the distribution barn, which is in the center of the farm. Martin offers two versions of “you-pick.” Anytime between dawn and dusk anytime they would like, members can pick from among the 15 or so types of harvested items in the barn to fill their bag and, in addition, literally pick flowers, strawberries, raspberries, green beans, peas, tomatoes and herbs.
Martin selected items for customers to harvest that are particularly prolific and more labor intensive for picking.
“People put in the work they want to get the produce,” he said.
He had worked on a farm before where members were required to perform work on the farm, but bad weather, child care responsibilities, members’ schedules and other issues made it difficult for all of them to participate sufficiently. With his current farm’s method, people can spend more time harvesting if they would like, but if they don’t, that’s okay, too.
He likens the farm to a large garden and he and his four employees work to keep it well-tended and attractive so members can enjoy it more.
Martin said his location, an 18-minute drive from Ithaca, helps him attract enough members to make his farm successful.
“It’s hard to find land close to a good market like that,” he said.
About 300 members join for the summer season and 80 for winter. Martin provides the winter share every other week. He keeps the lane plowed and the woodstove in the barn stoked for visitors’ comfort. Sometimes he offers live music, in addition to the spinach, chard, parsley, lettuce and arugula grown in the passive solar greenhouse, as well as the stored root crops.
“It’s a fun way to keep the community together,” Martin said.
He also sells root crops wholesale in the winter as another revenue stream for the farm.
Martin said the biggest surprise he has encountered in his decade of CSA farming is that he is still learning about farming and adapting to the environment and its weather.
This past summer was cold and rainy with 12 inches of rain in just July; in 2016, drought plagued the northeast.
“We have a few new pests we hadn’t had,” Martin said.
Sweed midge has made it difficult to grow cruciferous vegetables and spotted wing Drosophila has plagued soft fruits. Martin is even questioning whether to grow fall raspberries on the farm because they do so much damage on the farm.
Many of Martin’s decisions on what he grows he bases upon what customers like and take home with them.
“We try to provide and sell what people want to buy,” he said simply.
He sells wholesale or composts leftover items after the CSA pick-up for the week. Martin has come to realize how important composting is to his farm’s fertility system.
He markets the farm through word-of-mouth advertising and social media, the latter of which is proving more and more important to the farm’s success. Martin primarily uses Instagram and Facebook.
Martin hopes to maintain the farm’s growth. He feels proud to pay his employees a living wage. Charging on a sliding fee scale based upon how much customers value the farm has enabled him to pay higher wages.
Sweet Land Farm has participated with Healthy Food for All since the farm’s founding. Cornell Cooperative Extension organizes the program which subsidizes the cost of CSA shares for families that would struggle to afford them.
The program has enabled people to use WIC benefits to help pay for a share, along with money supplied by fundraisers and grants. One fundraiser that’s been particularly successful is the harvest dinners prepared by volunteer chefs with donated ingredients. Local wineries or cider makers donate beverages as well.
“Every dinner we host provides for about 10 to 20 subsidized shares for the season,” Martin said. “It’s a really great event. You leave feeling pretty good about the event.”
People involved in Healthy Food for All can also use EBT cards to apply towards their shares. About 200 CSA members are part of Healthy Food for All.
Though the program does bring more people to Sweet Land as members, Martin said it’s a lot of work to apply for grants and run fundraising events.
Martin advises anyone interested in starting a CSA style farm to first work for “a good farmer who has a good business plan. Work on a business plan and learn about running a business. Get big quick. When we started, we didn’t have a lot of capital to make mistakes.”
He wrote a business plan and then a spreadsheet to track cash flow. By doing so, he could plan to quickly pay off his loan from Farm Service Agency.
Sweet Land Farm also serves as a pick-up point for other farms.
For more information visit www.sweetlandfarm.org.