Week 51, 2022|Kristin Kimball|December 23, 2022

The storm has passed and the weather has shifted and in the little pause after Christmas I’m sitting down to update you at last. Thanks for your patience as we have worked to figure things out after a year of change.

But first, the weekly farm news. We took advantage of mild temperatures on Thursday to get the 2022 potatoes sorted, bagged and into storage in our basement before the torrential rain and plunging temperatures hit. This is a job that normally would have been completed three months ago, and we just didn’t have enough people to get it done. Potatoes must be sorted for rot before storage, or else the rot will spread through the whole bag; they will likewise be ruined if they freeze, so when the job didn’t get finished in October or November they became a 12 ton albatross of temperature control. For the last month they have been filling our home garage and our machine shop, with space heaters on them to try to keep them from freezing. But Thursday was our window, and we had the best crew: Dennis and Lydia Miller, making a cameo appearance, plus alumnae Susie T, our own Barbara Kunzi, Catherine and Ben, Sofie F, Beth D (who powered through the day despite fighting a cold) and Nick J, and a Kimball crew that included Miranda, Jane, and Jane’s roommate, Rebecca, whom we get to host for the holidays because she’s from China and can’t get home. Mark made a little fire next to the sorting table to keep people’s hands warm, and Dennis mentioned that the fire put him in mind of roasting hotdogs, so we had a lunch of hotdogs over the fire, with potato chips and soda. We almost never eat like that and once a year, it’s really fun. But best of all, the last bag of potatoes went down the chute to the basement just as dark settled on us, before the heavy rain began to fall. No more fussing with space heaters, and what a lovely novelty to be able to put the car in the garage. Thanks so much to all who made it happen. If you missed out on potatoes we still have a few days of cabbage cleaning to do before the 2022 harvests are all tucked away.

Now, the news for next year:

Our full diet membership is a monument to the conflict between the ruthless efficiency of monoculture – of the industrialization of our food supply, of increasingly large economies of scale – and the wild beauty, flavor, life and health that comes from this farm’s flagrant agricultural diversity. Our goal, from the very first season, has been to leverage the power of a community of people who see the benefits of that diversity – for themselves, for the farming community, for the soil and for the planet –  in order to bridge the difficulties inherent in such a complicated system. We’ve done it for 19 years now. The membership grew from seven to over three hundred people in that time, and spread from our local community to communities throughout the Adirondacks, in the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley, and New York City. We’re so proud of what we have all accomplished together, and grateful for the food we’ve all enjoyed.

Farming teaches us that the only constant in our entire existence is change. The cycle of creation, fruition, and decay is one big beautiful whole. Resistance to that truth creates tension. There was some resistance on the farm in 2022, as we tried to make the membership work as it always has under changing conditions: too much inflation against our set share price, sharp rises in the cost of labor, and fewer people on the farm team. We are not alone. Every independent farm we know is working with the same difficulties.

Organic soybeans went from $745/ton two years ago to $1710/ton this year. The cost of hay went up 50% in a year. The doubling, tripling, or quintupling cost of some very specific materials and supplies also took a toll. The reusable crates we use to deliver our shares, for example, went from $6 each to $30; berry boxes, to name one small item, went from five cents apiece to twenty five. Tractor parts, glass jars, insulated liners – in the wake of the pandemic they all became scarce or expensive or both. Delivery charges at the Hub doubled during 2022. Meanwhile our share price, set at the end of 2021, made our revenue side fairly inflexible. That’s the double edge sword of CSA: we know our revenue at the beginning of the year, which is wonderful, but we can’t easily adjust for a rise in expenses.

Even more challenging on a farm that requires a lot of skill and work was the increased cost of labor and dearth of skilled farmers. Our farm requires a minimum of about 400 hours of work per week just to keep the cows milked, the animals fed and watered, the vegetables harvested and washed, the food going from the dirt to your kitchen. To do it right – maintain the infrastructure, keep the weeds from going to seed, clean up behind our work, add value to the share with some processed items, and stay one step ahead of the curve with our animal care – we need more like 800 hours per week. So, that’s somewhere between 10 and 20 full time farmers. At an average pay of $15.50/hour (one dollar above the new minimum wage, and much less than any of our farmers could make doing other work) the cost to the farm per employee is $35,750/year, so we are looking at somewhere between $360,000 and $700,000 per year in labor costs. The farm also provides free food to all full time employees, and subsidized housing for people living in our group house, neither of which are accounted for in that number. One way I think about it is to calculate the total revenue we need in order to support that many employees. With labor at 35% of our expenses we’d need to sell somewhere between $1,260,000 and $2,450,000 in memberships. 2022 revenue is just around $1,000,000; Scaling up that much, even assuming the market is out there, is too big of a leap to make work in a healthy way.

Despite all the challenges, we made it through the year without taking on extraordinary debt. We grew some of our own grain, avoided new projects and purchases, made due with a very small crew, and deferred maintenance on buildings and infrastructure. But when there is insufficiency for too long, things and people break down. Weeds went to seed, harvests came in late. We were so tightly scheduled that when something normal but unexpected happened – like two farmers coming down with COVID while one was out with an injury – it became an emergency that kept us in a state of panic and overwork. And it’s expensive to be understaffed. Right now we have 12 roofs (!) that are leaking. Without enough staff for our on-farm butcher shop, we had to send animals out for butchering at more than twice the cost. We don’t have anyone dedicated to sales, marketing, or customer service, which limits our ability to generate revenue, and the administrative side of the farm is insufficiently tended. There’s a psychic cost to being too busy to be still with your family, generous with your team, and with yourself.

Of course, small-scale diversified farming has always been hard, and there are good reasons we’re still in it. We have enormous gifts and blessings and resources here. Foremost, we have the people who love and support the farm. Our members, some of whom have been with us since 2003, are the reason this complex agroecosystem works. They have become, over two decades, the most loving community I could have ever imagined. The other set of amazing people, the farmers who work here, and those who have worked here in the past, who number in the hundreds now, are a constant source of inspiration. I look around the region and across the country and see what they have built, both in and out of farming, and it makes me very happy.  Then, there’s the glorious, living soil, which was full of potential when we arrived, and has become the most vibrant living resource, after two decades of careful tending. Really, our soil is the reward for our extraordinary diversity – the source of the healthy plants, animals, people and planet we strive to husband.

And another thing in our favor: We have put almost all of our income into the land and buildings for 19 years, and so we have built some equity, which helps the future outlook. That’s thanks also to Lars Kulleseid and his family, who were generous and kind enough to sell us this place at a price and on terms we could manage. And also to Barbara Kunzi who sold us her house in the village at a family rate, which allows us to affordably house some of our farmers in a quickly shifting local real estate market.

We also have our experience, our passion, and our abiding love for this land and what we do with it, which are forces to reckon with. There is no shred of me or Mark that wants to stop farming. The beauty of coaxing life from sun, dirt and work is undimmed. The joy of feeding so many people good whole food is as big as it was when we started. There’s still a ton of satisfaction in connecting people to the work we humans have done to feed ourselves for ten thousand years. We also have a large inventory of food and resources on hand, in the form of vegetables, meat, and our dairy cows – in other words, our usual winter fare, which is the fruit of last summer’s work.

None of us wants to go through another season of impossible margins and a skeleton crew. We need some time to reevaluate how to make the farm and the share work. We’d like to move forward thoughtfully and deliberately, so if the year goes sideways again, we can correct before we get too far out over our skis. So, we’re pausing the delivered share for at least a month, and we are offering a four month share for on-farm pickup. We are looking at structures that could lend more stability to the farm without fundamentally changing the model that we love and that has worked so well on so many levels. For example, we’ve been talking with facilitators about forming a cooperative that would enable employee and/or member ownership, either alone or with other farms in our region. These have been exciting conversations and we look forward to making space to continue them in 2023.

When I look out on this edible landscape, at what we have all wrought here together, I know there’s a path forward that is healthy for all of us – our family, our farmers, our members, our community, and the living matrix that surrounds and supports us all. We just need a little time to find it.

ON FARM PICKUP 

We are offering a four month local membership, from January through April. This should look much like it always has, with meats, dairy, grains, and storage vegetables. The price of the local share is going up to meet the cost of inflation and the special increase in costs of farm inputs and labor. The true cost of this increase is about 30%, but we know that puts the share out of reach for most members. We think we can make it work by raising the price by 15%, and asking anyone who can contribute more to do so. Contracts will be available at distribution on Friday.

Please help us keep revenue coming in by signing up for this four month membership, and tell your friends and neighbors. Anyone who can pick up at the farm is welcome to join. We have some members who come once a month from as far away as Massachusetts, stocking up for the weeks they don’t make the drive.

DELIVERED MEMBERS

We are pausing our delivered membership at least for the month of January. With delivery costs from the Hub doubled we need some time and space to consider options, structures and pricing, and we’ve been too mired in operations to be able to do this with any clarity. We hope to have something to offer beginning in February, but it might not look exactly like it has in years past. Please bear with us!  We are so incredibly grateful to all of our members for supporting the farm and hope we can count on you to stick with us as we figure out the next chapter. Please look for communication from us in the next month. We will keep you updated. And consider coming to the farm for monthly or bi-monthly bulk pickup if you are close enough, and interested (see above). We will schedule a pickup for all your glass and packaging in the next week or two.

We welcome your help and input at this juncture, whether in the form of time, your particular talent, or financing. Text or call Mark at 518-570-6399 anytime. I’m so grateful to all our readers, our members and our farmers for the massive amounts of love, work and support the farm received in 2022, and look forward to a bright new 2023 for all of us. That’s the news from Essex Farm for this Yuletide 51st week of 2022. Find us at essexfarm@gmail.com, on Instagram at essexfarmcsa, or on the farm, any day but Sunday.

-Kristin & Mark Kimball