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Bringing a CSA to Stanford

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm

The idea hatched from a sunny afternoon visit to the ALBA Rural Land-Based Training Institute.  ALBA is a haven of organic polyculture in the heart of the Salinas valley, where rectangular armies of monocultured crops in neat rows make diligent watch over the grid of pavement that hosts the frequent trucker and less frequent commuter—hoping for nothing more than to pass through the salad bowl of America as fast as physically possible.  But ALBA is more than just an organic farm.  The Rural Land-Based Training Institute offers courses to former conventional farm workers to provide them with the skills and expertise to begin their own family-scale organic farms.  The training includes all aspects of organic farming, from soil health to integrated pest management to marketing, with the ultimate goal of providing farmers with a successful business plan that will allow them to take full advantage of their new skills.  The entire 180 acres of ALBA is certified organic, ensuring that new farmers can rent a half acre of land their first few years of production and sell their produce under the organic label without dealing with the inhibitive costs of organic certification.  All in all, ALBA is an inspirational place, as are the farmers who work there.

Pablo takes a break from harvesting to speak to a group of us at his organic plot at ALBA.

Pablo takes a break from harvesting to speak to a group of us at his organic plot at ALBA.

That sunny Friday, as we toured the fields, one particularly jovial farmer, Pablo, came in from harvesting his raspberries to tell us his story.  Pablo, originally from Mexico, worked in a rose factory for most of his life at home.  As a kid he used to build models with sticks and mud of the farm he dreamed of owning, but life at the rose factory ran far shy of his vision.  The workers were forced to prune the flowers mere hours after applying grade three pesticides.  Pablo’s brother’s wife gave birth to a severely brain damaged daughter, most likely as a result of exposure to those harmful chemicals.  Not long thereafter, Pablo decided to immigrate to the US.  He first found work in a nursery in the Salinas valley, where he worked 18 years at minimum wage and never once received a raise.  Nearly five years ago, Pablo heard about ALBA from his sun, JP, a graduate of California Sate University at Monterey Bay, and decided to see what it was all about.  Within those five years, Pablo went from growing half an acre to five acres of organic produce in an elegant dance of intercropping, crop rotation, and polyculture that has produced consistent yields and a bounteous cornucopia of produce—and all of this in his free time outside of his day job at the nursery.

Recently, Pablo lost his job at the nursery and decided to pursue organic agriculture as his primary livelihood.  His son, JP, decided to take over the marketing component of the newly formed business, J&P Organics.  Their primary product, it was decided, would be an ultra-flexible Community Supported Agriculture program.   Individuals can opt in and out of the CSA on a week-by-week basis, so if someone is going out of town they can simply not order a box for the week.  Different items can be substituted in and out of the box—don’t like kale? Get spinach instead.  Allergic to citrus? Why not exchange your oranges for raspberries?

Pablo’s shy but wide-mouthed smile and unbelievable story inspired me to try to create a market for his CSA at Stanford.  While most Stanford students are connected to a dining hall and cannot opt out of their meal plan, there a few on-campus housing options where students cook for themselves, and there is an entire community of professors and staff who could also be interested in the CSA.  Turns out, finding a market has been the simplest task of this process.  The first week he only had 8 boxes, but by this week, our third week in operation, we had over 30 boxes and the list continues to grow.  Information is spread by word of mouth and with emails and flyers, and the general response has been overwhelmingly positive.

The biggest challenges, which I didn’t foresee, have been simply hammering out the kinks with our farmer.  I sometimes worry that their plan is almost too flexible for their own good.  While many people new to the CSA really appreciate being able to substitute out more “exotic” items like summer squash or rainbow chard for less daunting ingredients in the kitchen, personalizing boxes leads to a confusing delivery system.  Trying to determine an appropriate number of drop-off locations that maximizes outreach to the Stanford community without making too much work for the delivery team was another challenge.  We currently have five drop off locations on and near campus, but if the numbers of boxes at any one drop-off location falls too low, we may have to eliminate one of those points.  Another big challenge was determining how involved my role should be as the liaison between JP and the CSA members in the Stanford community.  I wanted to simply pass on all the contact information for those who were interested in the CSA to JP and allow him to make contact, figure out all box individualizations and the drop-off point for each box, and handle all of the logistical details; but, understandably, he has been harder to communicate with via email and slower to respond than someone like me, who has internet access virtually all day.  When emails get lost and deliveries come late it can be hard to maintain interest of people who were on the fence to begin with.

Hammering out these details has been a trial and error process, and more than anything else has simply required the patience of everyone involved.   At the end of the day, however, lots of happy people get delicious produce, and Pablo is one step closer to making his dream come true.

The idea hatched from a sunny afternoon visit to the ALBA Rural Land-Based Training Institute.  ALBA is a haven of organic polyculture in the heart of the Salinas valley, where rectangular armies of monocultured crops in neat rows make diligent watch over the grid of pavement that hosts the frequent trucker and less frequent commuter—hoping for nothing more than to pass through the salad bowl of America as fast as physically possible.  But ALBA is more than just an organic farm.  The Rural Land-Based Training Institute offers courses to former conventional farm workers to provide them with the skills and expertise to begin their own family-scale organic farms.  The training includes all aspects of organic farming, from soil health to integrated pest management to marketing, with the ultimate goal of providing farmers with a successful business plan that will allow them to take full advantage of their new skills.  The entire 180 acres of ALBA is certified organic, ensuring that new farmers can rent a half acre of land their first few years of production and sell their produce under the organic label without dealing with the inhibitive costs of organic certification.  All in all, ALBA is an inspirational place, as are the farmers who work there.

Pablo takes a break from harvesting to speak to a group of us at his organic plot at ALBA.

Pablo takes a break from harvesting to speak to a group of us at his organic plot at ALBA.

That sunny Friday, as we toured the fields, one particularly jovial farmer, Pablo, came in from harvesting his raspberries to tell us his story.  Pablo, originally from Mexico, worked in a rose factory for most of his life at home.  As a kid he used to build models with sticks and mud of the farm he dreamed of owning, but life at the rose factory ran far shy of his vision.  The workers were forced to prune the flowers mere hours after applying grade three pesticides.  Pablo’s brother’s wife gave birth to a severely brain damaged daughter, most likely as a result of exposure to those harmful chemicals.  Not long thereafter, Pablo decided to immigrate to the US.  He first found work in a nursery in the Salinas valley, where he worked 18 years at minimum wage and never once received a raise.  Nearly five years ago, Pablo heard about ALBA from his sun, JP, a graduate of California Sate University at Monterey Bay, and decided to see what it was all about.  Within those five years, Pablo went from growing half an acre to five acres of organic produce in an elegant dance of intercropping, crop rotation, and polyculture that has produced consistent yields and a bounteous cornucopia of produce—and all of this in his free time outside of his day job at the nursery.

Recently, Pablo lost his job at the nursery and decided to pursue organic agriculture as his primary livelihood.  His son, JP, decided to take over the marketing component of the newly formed business, J&P Organics.  Their primary product, it was decided, would be an ultra-flexible Community Supported Agriculture program.   Individuals can opt in and out of the CSA on a week-by-week basis, so if someone is going out of town they can simply not order a box for the week.  Different items can be substituted in and out of the box—don’t like kale? Get spinach instead.  Allergic to citrus? Why not exchange your oranges for raspberries?

Pablo’s shy but wide-mouthed smile and unbelievable story inspired me to try to create a market for his CSA at Stanford.  While most Stanford students are connected to a dining hall and cannot opt out of their meal plan, there a few on-campus housing options where students cook for themselves, and there is an entire community of professors and staff who could also be interested in the CSA.  Turns out, finding a market has been the simplest task of this process.  The first week he only had 8 boxes, but by this week, our third week in operation, we had over 30 boxes and the list continues to grow.  Information is spread by word of mouth and with emails and flyers, and the general response has been overwhelmingly positive.

The biggest challenges, which I didn’t foresee, have been simply hammering out the kinks with our farmer.  I sometimes worry that their plan is almost too flexible for their own good.  While many people new to the CSA really appreciate being able to substitute out more “exotic” items like summer squash or rainbow chard for less daunting ingredients in the kitchen, personalizing boxes leads to a confusing delivery system.  Trying to determine an appropriate number of drop-off locations that maximizes outreach to the Stanford community without making too much work for the delivery team was another challenge.  We currently have five drop off locations on and near campus, but if the numbers of boxes at any one drop-off location falls too low, we may have to eliminate one of those points.  Another big challenge was determining how involved my role should be as the liaison between JP and the CSA members in the Stanford community.  I wanted to simply pass on all the contact information for those who were interested in the CSA to JP and allow him to make contact, figure out all box individualizations and the drop-off point for each box, and handle all of the logistical details; but, understandably, he has been harder to communicate with via email and slower to respond than someone like me, who has internet access virtually all day.  When emails get lost and deliveries come late it can be hard to maintain interest of people who were on the fence to begin with.

Hammering out these details has been a trial and error process, and more than anything else has simply required the patience of everyone involved.   At the end of the day, however, lots of happy people get delicious produce, and Pablo is one step closer to making his dream come true.

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