The roots of entrepreneurialism: The Farmer

Image by Karla Conrad.

The real roots of entrepreneurialism include the farmer. From weather outlooks to marketing, farmers are responsible for their land, crops, workers and the environment.

Although row crops like corn and soybeans are prevalent in the Midwest, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are starting to pick up, and new names and distribution methods keep farming at the forefront of the startup circle.

About CSAs

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or “shareholders” of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production.

Data collected in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that 7,398 farms in the United States sold products directly to consumers through a CSA arrangement. CSAs accounted for $226 million (or 7 percent) of the $3 billion in direct-to-consumer sales by farms.

Grinnell Heritage Farm

Grinnell Heritage Farm, owned and operated by Andrew and Melissa Dunham, produces USDA organic vegetables, flowers and herbs. Andrew is a 5th generation Iowa farmer.  The 80-acre farm, located northeast of Grinnell, has been in the family for more than 150 years, and is counted amongst the oldest family farms in central Iowa.

Andrew became interested in pursuing a career in local agriculture as an agricultural extension officer serving in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, East Africa. His experience working with subsistence farmers and growing vegetables on a one-acre plot nudged him in the direction of undertaking an internship on an organic vegetable farm in northeast Iowa upon his return to the United States.

“We’ve gone from three acres of produce to 22 since 2007,” said Melissa. “We want fresh food accessible to all people.”

Grinnell Heritage Farm has 300 annual participants, and sells both wholesale and at the farmer’s market.

“If you haven’t tried a CSA before, go to the website, see the food we grow and see if it’s a good fit. A CSA is great for people who like to cook a few times a week and try new foods, like new veggies. You ride the wave of the seasons with the farmer. Every new season, you have something to look forward to.”

What’s next for them?

“We’ve focused on the mechanics of farming, so the next chapter is about community in hopes to increase volume of fresh fruits and veggies in Iowa, and availability and accessibility of them.”

In addition to the CSA, Melissa is taking on a new role as the executive director at Local Foods Connection, an organization that raises money to buy food from farms like theirs to give to people in need.

Grade A Gardens

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Jordan Clasen, Grade A Gardens. Image by Karla Conrad.

Jordan Clasen was first introduced to the business of food as a 14-year-old working in the produce department at Hy-Vee. “I started working with organic produce before ‘organic’ was a word anyone knew,” Clasen recalls. “I remember thinking ‘Who would buy this stuff? It’s like $10!”

What started as a part-time teen job turned into a serious career path as Clasen went on to become a produce manager for Gateway Market and created connections to serious players in the local farming industry, like Larry Cleverly. It was then, Clasen says, he realized “farming was the coolest thing ever.”

He began with a 100×100-foot plot of land with the hopes of growing garlic. Today, Grade A Gardens has become a farm of more than five acres of organic fruits and vegetables sandwiched between ag giants DuPont Pioneer and John Deere Financial in Johnston.

In 2013, Clasen became a self-taught, full-time farmer and kicked off the Grade A Gardens CSA program. Although CSAs weren’t a new concept to him, as something he knew rose to popularity in the 1980s, he thought it would be a way to ensure he could keep an income stream going through the winter months. He began with 25 individuals signed up for the program and is now at well more than 100.

In addition to the CSA, Grade A Gardens now markets through the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market and several Des Moines restaurants and specialty grocers.

“Farming is really romantic, but it’s hard to make a living,” Clasen says. “But I believe farming is a young man’s game. And I’ve gotta long way to go.”

Lutheran Services in Iowa

For the second year, Lutheran Services in Iowa fills the need in the community for local, chemical-free vegetables. It works with about 25 local farmers to market their fresh vegetables with Global Greens CSA. Each week, members receive typical vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, etc.) and one or two vegetables that are popular in the countries where the farmers are from.

“CSAs are important for a host of reasons,” said Daniel Bowser, community garden associate at Lutheran Services in Iowa. “CSAs are a way for customers to share risk with farmers. Farmers have most of their business costs in the late winter and early spring. Seeds, equipment, fertilizer, and so on are all purchased before the season begins. Revenue is generated throughout the growing season. When CSA customers pay up front, farmers have money to buy these things without taking operating loans.”

In addition, he said CSAs give farmers flexibility.

“Crops fail for a multitude of reasons. There are also bumper crops of other vegetables. CSAs give farmers the flexibility to give customers more of a certain crop and less of others when unforeseen circumstances arise.”

And, perhaps most importantly, a CSA gives customers an opportunity to have a real relationship with where their food is coming from. Customers are able to meet farmers and connect to how their food is grown in a way that is not possible through market outlets, he said.

Impact on Farmer’s Markets

The Downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market is one of the most popular in the Midwest. Each Saturday from May to October, the Historic Court District becomes an open-air street market for nearly 300 local farmers, local food artisans and entrepreneurs and a community gathering place for 25,000 people who are eager to support local growers while experiencing the lively, vibrant atmosphere of The Market that represents the community. And with the popularity of CSAs built into farmers’ business plans, it’s grown a diverse market.

“We have a mix of new and experienced farmers representing a diverse age range from 28-80,” said Kelly Foss, market director with the Downtown Des Moines Farmer’s Market. “With nearly 300 producers selling at The Downtown Farmers’ Market. Many have been selling at The Market for 10, 15, and 20 years while there are others that began selling at The Market within the past five years.”

Consumers are seeking food raised naturally and organically. The Downtown Farmer’s Market has seen an increase in patrons asking for more certified organic and chemical-free produce, naturally-raised meat varieties, and pastured free-range eggs. Additionally, products created for specific diets such as fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut are popular, along with gluten-free foods like breads, sweets and granola.

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Image by ZTS Photo

Fresh, local, organic at a controlled price

For Lori Lovstad and her family of six, she sought out a way to get fresh local and organic produce at a controlled price point – around $25 a week without delivery fees.

“With four kids eating lunch and dinner at home all summer, I wanted healthy food available,” she said. “And, I wanted a way to introduce new foods to our menu that might be a little out of our routine.”

She and her family are part of the Wabi Sabi Farms in Granger, and joined spring 2017. For them, it’s been easy.

“We can choose to have our produce delivered for a small fee, or go directly to the farm outside of Granger to pick it up for no fee. There are set days, times and locations of deliveries and pick-ups, so it’s really easy. Each week, we get a newsletter reminding us of delivery or pick up, along with a description of what is in our ‘boxes’ for the week and some fun recipes that go along with our share.”

Some of their favorites so far?

“My family has been huge fans of the asparagus and mixed greens so far. Having the greens come in the flats where we can cut them when we are ready to eat them is perfect. So much less waste that way.”

Lovstad had the growing schedule before she purchased her share, so she could see what the scheduled growing season would be, and what crops were available.

“We could also go back through their Facebook page and look at previous years’ deliveries and see how much was typically in each week’s boxes. That was great to see the value we would typically expect to get.”

Amy Kort is a freelance writer based in Ankeny and a contributing writer to Clay & Milk.