hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





Farm to office

Workplaces become new destination for agricultural deliveries



Contributing writer

As a teenager in the Champlain Valley of New York, Adam Hainer sold vegetables from his home garden at a farmers market.


But he didn’t imagine farming could ever provide his livelihood until he met Melody Horn, his future partner, at a now-defunct microgreens farm. They wound up starting Juniper Hill Farm in 2007 on land his grandfather once farmed along the Bouquet River near the Essex County hamlet of Wadhams.


Hainer was 22 when they started. From an initial 3 acres, he and Horn kept expanding and now raise 20 acres of certified naturally grown vegetables and flowers.


But the duo felt constrained by the limited pool of customers in the Adirondacks as well as the short tourist season in the region, where, as Hainer put it, “You’ve got eight weeks to sell your product.”


Juniper Hill Farm was organized under the model of community-supported agriculture, in which customers pay in advance for shares of each year’s harvest. By 2011, the farm seemed to have reached a natural limit on the number of local member-shareholders it could attract.


So two years ago, Hainer tried a new twist on the CSA model by setting up a workplace delivery program, focusing on larger employers to the south in the Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs areas as well as to the north in Plattsburgh.


In 2012, the first year of the effort, they signed up 100 members at various workplaces. By 2013, the membership at participating workplaces rose to nearly 300.


These numbers add up to significant revenue for Juniper Hill, which sells full shares for $500 and smaller shares for about half that. Shareholders receive nearly five months of produce, which they order online and receive each week as a customized package delivered to their workplace.


“It’s going to be our ticket to growth,” Hainer said.


The people who sign up for shares of a workplace CSA, he pointed out, aren’t necessarily the kinds of people who would otherwise join a community-supported farm.


Juniper Hill’s biggest workplace site in terms of members, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, provides a weekly payroll deduction for any of its 2,200 employees who enroll in the CSA. The number of employees signing up there jumped from 26 in 2012 to 120 last year. Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake boasts the highest per-capita participation, with 30 members out of 70 employees.


But most of Juniper Hill’s sites are in Saratoga Springs and the Glens Falls area.


They range from Tribune Media Services, a television-listings service with about 400 employees in Queensbury, to a pair of small chiropractic offices.


Elsewhere in the region, farms in Washington and Columbia counties and western Massachusetts are working with a nonprofit group in New York City to offer CSA deliveries to offices in Manhattan, while the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link has organized a program in which four farms now have CSA drop-offs at seven workplaces in Vermont.


Support from employers

Based in part on conversations with Hainer, Laura McDermott, a regional agricultural specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, obtained a small grant to introduce the concept of workplace CSA membership to farmers and employers in the Glens Falls and Saratoga areas.


When she organized a workshop in the spring of 2012 with CSA farmers and representatives of local workplaces, she was surprised at the level of interest from employers.


“I did not expect the kind of response we got from businesses,” McDermott said. “I thought it would be a struggle.”


Even so, McDermott said CSA farms encounter a variety of obstacles in trying to build membership through workplace deliveries.


“Every workplace has a different set of problems that farmers have to figure out,” she said.


Some employers have concerns about foodstuffs being left at their facilities. Other companies have raised liability or security concerns.


The process seems to work best when someone at the workplace acts as a kind of champion of the effort.


Becky Birch has been just that kind of enthusiastic promoter for Juniper Hill. A database developer at Tribune Media, Birch was looking for a source for organic produce when she heard that Juniper Hill Farm was seeking workplaces for its CSA.


“I try to get to the farmers market each weekend, but it’s not easy working full time with weekend commitments,” Birch said.


For eight years in the 1980s, Birch had grown fruits and vegetables at a family farm in British Columbia. Her belief in small farmers and the power of wholesome food made her a perfect ambassador for a workplace CSA.


Thanks to her efforts, about 30 employees at Tribune Media enrolled in Juniper Hill’s CSA in each of the past two years.


“It was great to see how excited everyone was to get their delivery,” she said. “Lots of people ate things they’d never tried before.”


Birch first met Hainer at a workshop McDermott had organized on workplace CSAs. Together they planned for delivery and payments and figured out how to let each member choose their veggies.


“Most CSAs give you what is in season with no choice,” Birch said.


She introduced the idea to her co-workers through an e-mail she composed and sent out with permission from Tribune Media. She also talked it up, gaining support from her own manager, who was already getting vegetables through a CSA, as well as other managers and her co-workers. She pitched the program as benefiting employees and their families -- and the company as well, by improving workers’ health and outlook.


“I think it’s key to have a motivated person driving it,” Birch said.


Another essential element is for the employer to allow its resources to be used to support the program, Birch added. Someone has to manage the drop-off, the pickups, mixups and forgotten or missed pickups. This could be a facility person or a receptionist, for example.


Despite Tribune’s support for the program, Birch said she has had one disappointment. In addition to weekly CSA drop-offs, Birch also convinced Juniper Hill to set up an actual vegetable stand at her workplace for three hours a week in 2012. For some people, she said, it became “the highlight of their work week,” and it inspired a lot of conversations about healthy food. But without weekly reminders, it didn’t generate enough sales for the farm.


At a much bigger CSA site – the Plattsburgh hospital, with 120 farm shares -- Juniper Hill has found it financially feasible to hold a farmers market at the same time as the CSA pickup.


Expanding offerings, flexibility

Hainer said the Juniper Hill program is structured so that members receive only the items they want, when they want them. A shareholder who goes on vacation, for example, faces no penalty for not ordering while she’s away; she can instead order more later, perhaps when visitors are expected.


In addition to its own produce, Juniper Hill offers complementary items from other area farms and food producers. This year, for example, the CSA generated more than $7,000, paid upfront, for Mace Chasm Farm and North Country Farm, two start-up enterprises producing pastured meats and Jersey cow dairy products in Essex County.


“I value their cooperation, and it gives us a competitive advantage too,” Hainer explained.


And Juniper Hill is competing with other farms as it pushes to add new workplace delivery sites.


Dan Durkee, the Warren County community health educator, has been doing the legwork for more than a year to set up a workplace CSA at the county municipal center in Queensbury. The project started out with a request from an employee to Durkee, who is chairman of a workplace wellness committee.


Durkee said he anticipates starting out strong in time for this year’s growing season.


So far, he has researched farms (Juniper Hill’s online system for customized orders is a big selling point, he acknowledged), surveyed the work force (more than 100 employees, or about 25 percent, are interested) and responded to most of the concerns and requirements of the county attorney and Board of Supervisors.


Supervisors have already given conceptual approval and allowed the project to bypass a competitive-bidding process required for vendors providing services to the county.


“The county is not endorsing it,” Durkee said, but final approval from supervisors is needed to allow the wellness committee to have a drop-off on county property.


Wide range of workplaces

Juniper Hill has two distribution sites, in Saratoga Springs and Queensbury, at the offices of Jonathan Gerber, a chiropractor specializing in weight loss based on a healthy diet. Gerber’s employees and patients both receive farm shares at his offices.


The compatibility of Gerber’s and the farm’s missions makes for a very supportive site, Hainer said. But the connection only came about because one of Gerber’s patients happened to have been a Juniper Hill member at another workplace until leaving that job.


The staff at Saratoga Springs Public Library chose Juniper Hill as their CSA farm with the knowledge that their money would go directly to the farmer. The other option they’d been considering was Field Goods, a for-profit nonfarm business that aggregates products from many farms to supply its customers.


At Genpak, which has its corporate offices in Glens Falls, the CSA has been small but consistent. The company, which manufactures disposable food containers, employs 1,700 people at 13 U.S. locations. Of the 65 employees in Glens Falls, eight or nine have bought shares each year.


Stephanie Kelly, Genpak’s benefits and wellness manager, said the company sought feedback on how much employees valued the farm deliveries.


“Our survey results were very positive,” she said. “I think it means a lot to people.”


Manhattan connection

Paula Lukats, who manages the CSA in NYC program at Just Food, a nonprofit group in Manhattan, said her group noticed that interest in community-supported agriculture had begun to level off five or six years ago. So the group began looking into alternatives to the traditional approach of organizing CSA member groups by neighborhood.


Just Food, organized in 1995, works with 29 vegetable farms that distribute their produce to members at 108 sites in all five boroughs of New York City.


So far, Just Food has helped people develop eight workplace CSA sites linked to three farms in upstate New York and western Massachusetts. Participating companies run the gamut from clothing retailer J. Crew to a small architectural firm with 25 employees.


For instance, Windflower Farm in Cambridge, N.Y., delivers to a Google office in New York City.


Another participant, Katchkie Farm of Kinderhook, is unique in growing vegetables primarily for workplace CSA groups. Last year, the farm served about 800 shareholders at 20 different workplaces in Manhattan -- twice as many as the previous year. Most members receive their CSA share every other week.


Katchkie Farm is owned by Great Performances, a New York City catering company, and it established most of these sites independently of Just Food. Its members are invited to the farm for three special events a year, including a farm-to-table dinner, a natural outgrowth of the close relationship between the farm and the caterer.


The third farm in Just Food’s program, Mountain View Farm of Easthampton, Mass., had already developed a workplace CSA program near its home base amid the corporate office parks, colleges and universities of the Pioneer Valley.


Lukats said the motivation for organizing workplace programs in New York City came from people who wanted to join a communitysupported farm but found their work responsibilities didn’t mesh with farms’ delivery schedules.


At workplaces, she said, it’s usually the greening team, corporate responsibility office or a wellness committee or program that is receptive to the idea. But mere interest doesn’t automatically translate into a functioning workplace CSA. When it does, Lukats said, it indicates “someone in management was game.”


Just Food has put together a toolkit to help people understand and overcome the hurdles to starting a CSA in their workplace. One set of questions not to overlook relates to building operations and logistics -- things like the rules for using freight elevators in Manhattan buildings. Other thorny issues include how to justify an employee’s involvement with a farm program in a firm that bills clients by the hour for its services.


Bob Walker, the farm manager at Katchkie Farm, said workplace deliveries pose other challenges that can affect the range of food offered.


“An office is not an ideal place for a bag of produce to sit,” Walker said. “I don’t know any office building that has a walk-in cooler.” For that reason, Katchkie shies away from offering salad mixes and other tender greens that don’t stand up well to hours without refrigeration – even though members typically would love to have these greens.


There’s also typically no place in most urban offices to set up a farmer’s bulk offerings so that members can pack their own boxes. The result means more work for farmers to pre-pack boxes – and often fewer choices for members in what produce they receive.


“Everything has to be bunched or packed in a bag or container,” Walker said. “If we did salad mix, we’d be weighing and bagging 430 units.”


He said his CSA members expect to receive the same amounts and the same items as fellow members, so the farm crew packages each identical share into a tote bag.


Rutland: Growing locally

In Vermont, the nonprofit group Rutland Area Farm and Food Link started what it calls Farm to Work CSA in 2010. Its first site was the Rutland Regional Medical Center. Since then the project has expanded so that four farms now offer CSA shares at a total of seven workplaces, with two farms per site. The workplaces run the gamut from health and human services to manufacturing.


The Rutland group brokers deals with employers, then introduces the farms to them. It also takes charge of marketing. The farmers set their own prices.


In four years, the program has generated $120,000 in new income for farmers. But it remains small, with 64 participants in 2013.


One of the farms offering workplace CSA memberships in Rutland is Radical Roots Farm. It’s run by Carol Tashie and Dennis Duhaime, who moved to the city 10 years ago and later leased four acres on the outskirts of town to start growing for the local farmers market, their own CSA members and area schools.


Although most of Radical Roots’ 68 members pick up at the farm, nearly one-third get their share delivered to their place of work. Because all of the farm’s deliveries are within a four-mile radius, Tashie and Duhaime are able to set up new workplace sites if as few as three people at the site sign up. The farm’s current workplace drop-offs include a credit union, a mental health agency and Green Mountain Power.


Tashie set up the farm’s first workplace CSA at the Community College of Vermont, where she teaches writing. She recruited nine members by putting brochures in every mailbox and by talking up the idea with co-workers in the college’s staff room.


She said the visibility generated by a workplace CSA, especially at sites that are public places, is a big benefit to farmers.


“It gives other people the opportunity to see what a farm share looks like,” Tashie said.


At the credit union, for example, drop-off days help to attract new customers for the farm.


“I’m walking into their main branch, and customers and people who work there are oohing and ahh-ing,” Tashie explained, adding that some of these admirers become new Radical Roots customers at the farmers market.


Shifting to online sales

Another project in the Rutland area that aims to increase access to fresh local food diverges sharply from the CSA model.


Elizabeth Theriault, program manager at the Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, describes it as an online farmers market, with eight worksites and 15 to 20 local farmers and bakers participating.


Theriault said this online marketplace has generated about $38,000 in additional income for local farmers in less than two years. But in contrast to a workplace CSA, the online customers make no commitment or advance payment, and people don’t enter into a relationship with a particular farm as members or shareholders.


The Vermont Country Store initiated this program through its wellness program using the local Web platform YourFarmstand.com. The company, which has 450 year-round employees at four locations, reached out to RAFFL to find interested farmers and invited other area businesses to participate.


“We wanted to be able to offer healthy choices through area farmers,” explained Rhonda Williams, a manager at the company’s distribution center in Clarendon.


Theriault said one benefit of working with the Vermont Country Store is that farmers only have to deliver to one place. The company provides a staging area at its distribution center for assembling the individual orders, a streamlined process that goes very quickly. Orders are bagged, labeled and put on ice in coolers supplied by the company, and Green Mountain Power picks up the orders in an electric vehicle and delivers to the other worksites.


The Rutland hospital also has switched from hosting a standard workplace CSA to the online farmstand.


Volunteer coordinator Sheri Sammis, the hospital’s liaison to the program, said it’s part of the hospital’s commitment to healthy eating.


“At its peak, I may get 50 orders a week” through the online program, Sammis said. “The produce comes so fresh, so convenient. Our folks can order up to midnight Tuesday for delivery at noon on Wednesday.”


Changing focus?

Farmers are coming to recognize the need for extra legwork to create a strong connection with shareholders at workplaces.


Hainer said he and Horn are asking themselves what they can do to build stronger allegiance to their farm. Among their ideas is a membership dinner with a chef. He said he also realizes the need to “make a bigger deal” about building a core group at each worksite. But small sites present a challenge, and it makes more sense to put their limited energy into the largest sites, he said.


Tashie noted that among her members who pick up at the farm, most continue their membership from year to year; members typically quit only if they move out of the area. But she said she expects a higher rate of attrition among workplace CSA members.


“When share members come to the farm for pickup, a relationship develops,” Tashie explained. “We know their names, their kids’ names and when they go on vacation.”


That kind of connection is harder to cultivate with workplace shareholders.


“With some of our members, we don’t even see them,” she said.


In fact, Tashie said she met one workplace share member for the first time by chance in mid-December at Rutland’s Gift of Life marathon blood drive.


This level of anonymity is one way in which she worries that the CSA movement may be losing its essence, which historically was about supporting farmers.


“Now it’s very dollar-driven,” she said. “We say you’ll get 35 percent more [value], or even more, than if you bought produce at the farmers market. In 2014, that’s mostly what CSA is.”





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