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Whole Diet CSA

WAgN members visited Yeehaw Farm to learn about their unique marketing concept of a Whole Diet CSA.

The Whole Diet CSA is a joint effort by farmer and eater to render the conventional grocery store obsolete. Nearly everything a CSA member might need or want is raised, grown, made or sourced by the farm. A Whole Diet CSA makes all the major food groups available to CSA members who wish to source the majority of their food locally. Yet, a Whole Diet approach abandons the food pyramid, instead focusing on food and farm cycles. These cycles include providing members vegetables, meat and dairy products appropriate to seasons and in relation to natural and human resources at the farm. Reducing the amount of food purchases at the grocery store allows eaters to directly invest in local people who constitute the local economy, shortening the distance both food and money travel away from the people who put food on the tables of others. The increasing number of eaters interested in supporting localized growing and distribution provides opportunities for farms wishing to diversify an operation and secure a dependable market. 

The foundation of the Whole Diet CSA model diverges little from the traditional CSA framework (members pay in advance for an unspecified amount of food over a particular number of weeks, in this case usually the entire year). However, the word “Whole” generally denotes that members receive a wide spectrum of food offerings including meat, eggs, milk, dairy products, vegetables, herbs, fruit, grains and flours, baked goods, beans, fats or oils for cooking, natural sugars (honey or syrup) and perhaps bonus items made from farm products. Every Whole Diet CSA will vary according to the farm resources and farm style. The benefit to the farmer is that often these products can be grown in a system that supports the health of natural resources and alleviates the pressure of looking for different summer and winter markets. 

Judi Radel is a fourth generation farmer in Perry County, Pennsylvania. With her husband, parents and four children she operates a Whole Diet CSA that serves several families in her community. We asked Judi to share what she’s learned as a Whole Diet CSA farmer. 

PA WAGN: How do you decide what foods to offer members? 

Judi: “We grow the foods that we (our family) like. Simple as that.”

The Radel’s CSA accepts only a few families each season as a function of the food that can be produced on the farm and administrative resources available to coordinate the CSA (there’s a lot of farming to do!). Members are encouraged to give informal input about foods they like and their tastes are taken seriously in farm planning. But the final decision about what to grow is based on the farmers’ appetites. That said, the Radel’s are foodies and their CSA offerings are extensive thanks to the variety of food the farm family likes to eat. The farmers are committed to self-sufficiency and therefore grow a diversity of food to meet their food needs. But they also grow additional products to barter for food they do not grow for the CSA and items needed for the farm (number one on the barter wish list is a track hoe). 

PA WAgN: How do you determine what to charge for a share?

Judi: “We did our research.” 

Pricing a Whole Diet CSA requires comparing prices of other vegetable and meat CSA's, dairy and grain products, and in the case of the Radels, value added items. They went to neighboring CSAs, farmer’s markets and direct-market outlets to get a sense of what people were paying for farm grown food. There’s no magical formula that Judi is willing to share to determine an equitable price for farmer and eater (perhaps for a track hoe she would reveal the formula). But as is the case with any CSA operation, planning and accounting are critical to making the finances work. In a Whole Diet CSA there is often more product and a greater diversity of product type but the importance of tracking costs and inputs doesn’t change. 

PA WAgN: Is it difficult to offer a variety of foods? 

Judi: “You can only stir so many pots at one time.” 

For the farmers at Yeehaw Farm, the hardest part about offering a variety of products is that some crops will inevitably fall short in quality. The Radels focus primarily on dairy, meat and grains, which they consider to be strengths. Planning for the CSA, they reduce the number of crops that don’t do well and invest more energy and resources into those that they can grow successfully. This effectively eliminates some of the “pots on the stove.” They barter with nearby farms to make up for product deficits throughout the year. 

PA WAgN: Important lessons from a Whole Diet CSA farmer 

Judi: “I don't know that I am a better CSA farmer yet to give you lessons that I’ve learned, but I'll make up something.” 

1) Have a sense of humor (Judi’s got this covered) 

2) A family that depends on a farm for the majority of their food needs is a family that will need to communicate their food needs to the farmer(s)

“One of the things that we have learned was that we needed to communicate and listen to what our CSA members really want” says Judi. Sometimes the critical feedback is hard to receive, but after an initial reaction (which likely may be defensive), Judi reports that “some of the things brought to our attention by our members has been really important to improving our farm.” 

3) It’s impossible to do everything

“Learn to say ‘No’ and stick to it.”

Know your limitations and be very aware of what you are capable of (sanely) accomplishing on a daily basis. Not everything has to happen at once. Judi cautions, “Do not try to do (grow or produce) everything at once. Barter with other farmers to supply your whole diet model with different goods and then, work on one project at a time. Get good at growing or producing one thing and then and only then, move on to something else. This will definitely help when determining if you can successfully run a whole diet CSA model. “  

 Check out the slideshow at YouTube