Monday, August 6, 2012

Beyond the CSA?

By Luke Tsai
Mon, Aug 6, 2012 at 2:19 PM

Full Circle, an organic produce company based in the Seattle area, recently expanded its farm box delivery service to include the San Francisco Bay Area. That in itself is no big news: Just a few weeks ago I wrote about a small Alameda-based organic produce delivery service called Golden Gate Organics, which implemented a near-identical business model more than a year ago. Both companies offer reasonably priced organic produce boxes delivered to your doorstep. Both pride themselves in their use of user-friendly, Web 2.0-ish online interfaces to optimize customer experience.

At the end of the day, it’s just a box of fruits and vegetables, though, and the Bay Area has those in spades — so ho-hum, right?

Nevertheless, the increasing popularity of companies like Full Circle and Golden Gate Organics seems indicative of a broader trend that not only provides another option for consumers of organic produce, but also offers small- and medium-sized organic farms a new marketplace — one that might prove more sustainable and economically viable than the well-established models of selling at farmers’ markets and distributing community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes.

The Strout family, at their Seattle area farm.
  • The Stout family, at their Seattle area farm.
Andrew Stout is the co-founder (along with his wife, Wendy Munroe) and self-proclaimed “farmer in chief” of Full Circle, which started fifteen years ago as a five-acre family farm that sold mostly to Seattle area restaurants and at local farmers’ markets. Over the years, the farm slowly expanded and eventually began distributing produce through the traditional CSA model.

But, by 2001, Stout had decided that in order for his business to take its next step — and for the sustainable agriculture movement as a whole to move forward — it was necessary to change the model itself.

“The market channels that exist — the farmers’ markets — are fantastic, but they have self-imposed limits,” Stout explained.

Only so many people can make it over to a farmers’ market during the given four-hour window when the market is open. A small farm only has the wherewithal to sell at so many farmers’ markets and may have trouble breaking into the most popular markets, which have long waiting lists. And, for better or worse, a traditional CSA box (which is tied to a single farm) is by definition limited to the fruits and vegetables that are grown at that farm.

Call the new approach “network farming,” then — the idea that small- and medium-sized farms should pool their resources to create a more far-reaching and supportive business infrastructure. Under this model, a company like Full Circle provides marketing muscle, an online distribution portal, and a dependable customer base. In turn, the wide network of individual farms allows Full Circle to offer its customers a greater variety of high-quality produce all year round.

The approach isn’t exactly new — but it has been picking up steam in the past couple of years, especially with the advent of more powerful Web technology. And the questions Stout poses are interesting ones: Have we reached the limit to which small, independent farms, farmers’ markets, and CSAs can snatch market share away from Big Ag? And, if so, do businesses like Full Circle and Golden Gate Organics provide a way to push the sustainable food movement forward?

Within the Bay Area, Full Circle is currently working with thirty or forty local farms over the course of a given year, plus an additional forty or fifty artisan food producers. The company is currently shipping out about 2,000 organic produce boxes a week from a centralized facility in South San Francisco, which serves Full Circle's Bay Area customers — mostly located in the South Bay and the Peninsula, but Stout says he’s hoping to make further inroads in the East Bay and beyond.

That said, Stout stressed that he’s a supporter of farmers’ markets and that he’s friendly with the folks who run successful CSAs in Northern California. He sees himself as an ally — not a competitor — to companies like Golden Gate Organics.

Interestingly enough, whereas Golden Gate Organics co-founder Corey Tufts has said that he finds the local market for organic produce to be incredibly saturated, Stout sees it another way: “The amount that [all of the farmers’ markets and CSAs] here are doing is, I think, less than one tenth of one percent of food distribution.”

The statement might seem hyperbolic, but Stout’s point stands: The real competition is the industrial food system, and the sustainable food movement’s future lies in wresting customers away from the big-box supermarkets — not in fighting over the limited pool of existing converts.

“You either sit back and wait for innovation to happen, or else you force change,” Stout concluded. “That’s what we’re about.”

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