Organic CSA in Rochester, WA Finds Success in Sticking with What People Know
March 7, 2013 | Andrea Watts
During this time of year, Rising River Farm’s namesake, the Chehalis River, flows fast and steady, and even though the rainy weather makes it seem that spring is months away, Jennifer Belknap is itching to get outside. Even after 15 years of co-running Rochester, WA-based Rising River Farm with her husband, Jim McGinn, she is still anxious to begin planting the seeds that usher in another season.
Rising River Farm began in 1994 when Jim and two friends started a three-acre community supported agriculture (CSA) farm on land leased from Betsie DeWreede of Independence Valley Farm, located just outside of Rochester, Washington. After three years and a rotation of new farm owners who eventually left to pursue other ventures, Jennifer joined Jim on the farm in 1997. As the two were dating at the time, it “made sense for me to join,” she says. Jennifer was an environmental studies major at Evergreen State College, with an emphasis on food systems, and also had experience working on farms in Vermont and the Skagit Valley in Washington State.
Gradually the farm expanded from its three acres to 10 acres, and during this expansion, Jim and Jennifer built enough capital to purchase the equipment previously leased from Betsie. “Betsie was a mentor to us,” Jennifer says; she had farmed for twenty years and decided she wanted her summers back. With the farm now spanning 25 acres, of which over 12 acres are cultivated, Jennifer considers this a nice size. The “bigger we get, the less in touch” we are with the fields.
From the farm’s beginnings, it has always been organic and offered a CSA. Though managing a CSA brings more administrative work, Jennifer admits, they have developed a loyal customer base with some families having “kids [that] grew upon the [our] vegetables” and it has become a tradition to purchase from us. On average, 135-140 families take part in the CSA option, choosing either a Full Season Share (18 weeks), Height of the Season Share (8 weeks), or the Fall Share (4 weeks). Their CSA shares aren’t available through the winter, because Jennifer wants everything in the CSA box to be produced on their farm.
CSA customers receive a regular newsletter highlighting what is happening on Rising River Farm, and there’s a recipe section so people can learn how to cook the vegetables in their CSA box. Jennifer is proud that their clients “get really attached to their farm.” Though they have a website, word of mouth is how the farm primarily lands new customers, Jennifer says. To make it easier for their customers to purchase CSA shares, she recently offered the option of signing up online.
Because Jennifer and Jim also sell Rising River Farm produce at the Olympia Farmers Market, they have to balance the produce availability between their customer bases, especially since more produce is sold through the farmers market than through the CSA share program. They also have to compete with the many other CSA farms in Thurston County. All CSAs around here are different, Jennifer explains; some produce gourmet vegetables, flowers, or Asian greens. “Our niche would be ‘we stick with what people know.’” They offer over 100 varieties of herbs and vegetables, along with strawberries. Jennifer says the varieties grown are those that have the best success on the land; they had to quit growing raspberries since the plants weren’t becoming established and the planting of certain vegetables was guaranteed to attract pests.
Yet even with their loyal customer base at the farmers market and CSA share offering, Jennifer has noticed that “people have switched to smaller shares and at market are purchasing less” with the economic downturn. Yet “it is important to us that good food is accessible to all income levels,” so we offer a flexible payment plan for CSA shares and accept food stamps. Some of our customers have even donated shares to people in need, Jennifer says.
The farm recently expanded beyond selling vegetables to also selling organic vegetables starts. Thanks to a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jim and Jennifer built a high tunnel (a type of greenhouse) to grow early and late crops. “Because our soil is so heavy, we cannot get into the fields very early,” explains Jennifer. As part of the five-year vision of the farm, Jennifer hopes to add more early and late season produce so as to improve crop rotation on the farm. Jim has also started seed saving to both reduce expenditures on new seeds and to cultivate plants that are adapted to the microclimate of their farm’s floodplain.
Closing in on its 20th anniversary in business, Rising River Farm has worked doggedly to adapt its business model and operation in order to meet consumer demand, adjust to prevailing market condition and remain economically viable.