Scale matters

Sugar snap peas coming very soon! Lots of them!

Earlier this week I did something that I haven’t had to do in many years. I closed our CSA to new members — not permanently, as we’re continuing to take names for a waiting list and may still let more people in later this year once we get a “feel” for our CSA after we add more members starting in June.

We haven’t had a waiting list for our CSA in quite a long time. For years now, we’ve been in a sweet spot where the demand for our CSA matched up really well with our growing plans every year. Our farm’s production peaked in the years 2012-2014, and since then we’ve been intentionally scaling back our production, meaning that we haven’t had to work hard to retain every single member (let alone work hard to grow our numbers). We’ve still had a steady supply of interested new folks (mostly thanks to word-of-mouth advertising) — just enough to replace the inevitable attrition and fill our program every year without too much effort on our part. We also didn’t have too many people signing up either in these years, as our community has seen tremendous growth in quality local buying options since we started our CSA in 2006. It felt as though we’d hit a groove in our place in the community — our small farm filled a perfect-sized niche for what we were wanting to produce at this point.

But this year, everything feels very different. We are observing a huge renewed interest and demand for locally produced food. Every farm we know is receiving many more queries than typically expected, including us! We’ve been adding new members for a June start because we needed time to actually grow the produce to meet the increased demand.

However, inquiries continued to flow in at a steady rate, and we were realizing that if we keep accepting everyone, our farm would actually have to shift our scale of production. Our tools and rhythms and procedures would no longer be as well suited to what we’re trying to produce.

This isn’t impossible to achieve, of course. We have plenty of land available to grow on. Our farm has operated at a much larger scale in the past, with several employees and machinery running somewhere on the farm during most business hours. But, as we’ve experimented over the years with different ways of running our business, we’ve found that — for us — bigger isn’t better. We operated with just the two of us on the farm for the first three years, which were exhilarating, hard, fruitful years of us building our business from scratch. In our fourth year, we added our first employees (and also a baby!), and things shifted a lot. Over the subsequent years, we added more employees, more land, more equipment, more customers, more different products.

What we found was that every time we scaled up or added something, we were still always just shy of feeling like we could really meet our goals for the farm, whether those be financial or agricultural. I think a lot of businesses feel that pinch and think that maybe in the next scaling up, I’ll get closer to my goals.

Thankfully we had had our earlier experience of operating a farm with just our labor, and we remembered how that felt. Certainly it was (and is) a lot of work, but we also experienced a large amount of flexibility in operating a smaller farm with fewer people. We found that it was easier to save money for important purchases without an ongoing payroll. We also found that we could be incredibly efficient when all our labor (i.e. us) already knows how to do all the work and well. No teaching required!

So, from our peak in 2014, we’ve slowly worked our way back to a two-person farm. We said good-bye to our last (very beloved) employee at the end of 2015.

Our farm today isn’t exactly like it was in those early years. In some ways, it’s much simpler and smaller. We spend fewer hours overall per week farming — partly because we’re not in “building” and partly because we’re more efficient at the work and partly because we have better tools. We have more high tunnels, which has helped tremendously with our shoulder season growing. But our farm is also much more diverse in terms of crops and growing methods now too. We have two mature fruit orchards (we planted them in 2009 and 2010). We also now grow micro-scale OLCC-licensed cannabis as well as operating the CSA. Also, Casey and I both have full-time jobs aside from the farm as well: he’s a county commissioner and I homeschool our two growing kids.

We love the balance of the work on the farm these days. The scale of the farm feels very sustainable to us — it’s big enough to justify its existence and pay its own costs, helps our family earn an income, and feeds a large number of people in our community (we’re providing food for 50 households every week right now, and that will go up in June). But, the farm is also not so big that we can’t run it well and we can still take on these other projects in our life too. We love being able to really pay attention to every part of the farm in a significant way. We missed that intimacy when we were bigger and there was more to manage. We love this work, and we love doing it at this scale.

And so, this year for the first time we had to pull back and reaffirm that we really truly do want to stay a small farm. We do hope people who are interested in the CSA will contact us about the waiting list, since we could very well find ourselves in July with more extra produce (and more extra time) than we predicted.

In regular farm news, we planted in the fields this week, and more will come soon! We also received our potato seed order (finally!) and will be getting those in the field soon along with winter squash transplants. I’m always amazed at how early in the season we plant for the next fall and winter of eating. And, right around the corner are more good spring treats …

Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

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