by Max Taylor
I met my wife, Kerry, planting garlic. It was an unseasonably warm October day during a crew exchange between the farm I worked for and the farm she worked for. I knew from our first date, that if we were going to stay together, we would be farming together. Our wedding planning was intertwined with farm planning, and our gift registry contained more items for the barn than the kitchen. We started Provider Farm in the winter of 2010 searching through classified advertisements and pouring over the details of our business plan. After spending hours driving all over New England looking at “farms” that were really gravel pits or swamps we finally found our farm in September of 2011. Provider Farm is located in Salem, Connecticut. Salem is a small town that you pass through on your way from Hartford to the ocean. Other than that, we don’t seem to get much attention.
We raise a small herd of mostly Devon cattle for beef and compost on twenty acres of pasture and we grow vegetables for a 200 share CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Farmers’ Market, and wholesale on twelve acres. We use organic and biodynamic practices but we are not certified. We lease all of the land and buildings that we use but we own our business and we own our equipment. I don’t know if this situation will be appropriate for us forever but it was a great way to get started.
We both believe strongly in the CSA model for small farm viability. Although we have branched out into farmers’ markets and wholesale, we are at our hearts a CSA farm. It is our goal to provide the best possible share at a reasonable price. I want our members to feel like our farm is essential for their lives. If people are buying a share from us because they think it is trendy, or the ‘right thing to do’, as soon as times get tough, we will be the first thing they stop spending money on. However, if we can make our farm essential to how they feed their families, when times get tough, we will be the first check they write.
We strive to achieve this goal by distributing high quality produce, keeping good communication, and offering our members choice. We put our CSA first when it comes to produce. While one of the major advantages of the CSA is that your crops don’t have to be perfect like they do for market, we make sure everything that goes into the share is fresh, clean and high quality. We spend as much time and energy setting up the display in the share room as we do setting up our farmers’ market display.
We have found that offering our members choices makes our share more appealing to a much broader customer base. We offer three share sizes, and distribute all of our produce through a mix and match system. This allows people to take more of things they like and not be stuck taking home stuff they will never eat. We encourage people to try new things and are always delighted when we get requests for more Kohlrabi and Rutabagas. While in some ways, this creates more work for us in managing and planning the different share sizes, I think that the benefits for our business vastly outweigh the draw backs.
As much as possible we try to build good will with our shareholders so that if we do lose crops, or have bad years, they will remember the good times and forgive us. We strive to do this with regular reliable communication through our weekly newsletters and quick responses to business inquiries, regular facebook updates, and always staffing our shareroom with a farmer who strives to meet every shareholder.
Our CSA faced a major challenge this year when we lost 100% of our tomato crop to Late Blight in early July. At that point in the season, we had only had six distributions and our members had only been members for six weeks. The decision to destroy our crop was a tough call to make, but ultimately I believe that we made the right decision.
I felt physically sick from the moment I saw the first oily Late Blight lesion on our crop. This feeling stayed with me as I spent hours talking with our extension agent and other farmers about what we should do. The pit in my stomach would keep me up all night and was certainly present as we cut down thousands of feet of what only days ago had been beautiful healthy tomatoes.
Sitting down to write the newsletter informing our members that they would have no tomatoes this year was equally as tough. However, within hours of sending out this email, responses started to pour in. We were completely overwhelmed with the amount of supportive and positive feedback we received from our members. Finally, the terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach subsided. Not only were our members willing to accept the loss, but rather than blame us for letting them down, they viewed it as a collective disappointment. Our members seem to be more committed to the farm after this loss.
Now that we have reached the tail end of our first year, I like to look back on the time we spent last winter trying to conceptualize the farm that we are now running. We would spend hours pouring over maps of farmland available in New England and looking through our bank statements, tallying up our meager net worth, trying to figure out how we were ever going to start Provider Farm. I can remember sitting with Kerry, overwhelmed and over caffeinated, thinking to myself that if we ever do make it into the field, the actual farm work would feel like a relief from the stress of starting a business. Well, between late blight, tractor tires flying off the tractor, weed forests and too much or too little rain, the hands-on work hasn’t presented the relief that I had imagined. The farm seems to present a new challenge almost every day, keeping us on our toes and keeping our minds in a constant state of problem solving.
This year we grew just over half an acre of Sweet Potatoes: 8 rows, about 550 feet long, just over 1,000 pounds of sweet potatoes per row. With 100 feet of full sweet potato buckets behind me, 400 feet of unpicked sweet potatoes in front of me and beautiful, brilliant sky above, it was in the sweet potatoes that I finally found the relief I had hoped for. Covered from ‘head to toe’ in dirt and sweat, I couldn’t think of anything I would rather be doing on a fall day than picking our sweet potatoes. I don’t crave a Caribbean vacation and I don’t covet the iPhone 5. All I need, all I want, is a long row and a good day.
Max Taylor owns and operates Provider Farm with his wife Kerry in Salem, CT.