CSA: Community Supported Agriculture is a win/win solution for Cape Codders in search of fresh fare.
If you’re having trouble finding local fish on Cape Cod, you aren’t looking in the right place. “You won’t find it in the big supermarkets. You have to look a little harder for it,” says Dave Henchy, a Brewster resident and the founder of Cape Cod Fish Share.
Henchy’s business is one of the Cape’s many community supported agriculture (CSA) programs striving to satisfy current consumer demands for quality, local food. A CSA is essentially a subscription food delivery service: A customer pays a fee to a farmer up front, then enjoys a regular haul of fresh, quality food from harvest. The payments provide a guaranteed customer base for the providers. Reminiscent of an earlier time when we bought milk from the milkman and meat from the butcher, this business model allows for a more direct connection between customer and farmer—or fisherman, as the case may be.
As Henchy sees it, a CSA has no downside. “It’s all good as far as the business model and the customer service model,” he says. “People like that they only pay once and the price points are low enough. We have a good relationship with our customers and people help the business grow organically—they’re all talking to their neighbors and their friends.”
The biggest challenge facing these businesses might be what farmer Carrie Richter, of Peachtree Circle Farm in Falmouth, calls the “supermarket mentality”—we are used to getting what we want when we want it. Says Richter, “People always want me to have more than I have. I do run out of stuff and I run out pretty early.” A CSA program gives consumers a taste of what it is like to live and eat with the seasons while also exploring and experimenting with types of local foods that may be new and unfamiliar.
The fact that most CSAs on Cape Cod have wait lists speaks to the popularity of the concept and the strength of current demand. Here, we feature two local businesses that use the CSA as a critical component of their success. Each is dedicated to the idea of offering high-quality local food and educating the public—proving that agrarian businesses survive and thrive here on Cape Cod.
CAPE COD FISH SHARE, Brewster
While brainstorming business ideas a few years ago, entrepreneur Dave Henschy and his partner Ed Struzziero were determined to solve the challenge of finding good, locally caught fish in Eastern Massachusetts. “I lived in the Netherlands for 19 years,” Henchy says. “We lived next to a farm, so we always had fresh everything and it was fantastic. Ed and I were doing the MBA program at Suffolk University and we’re walking around Boston Common wondering why we can’t get fresh food in the best country in the world?” Consumer research confirmed that they weren’t the only ones looking for fresh fish.
In October 2011, they launched Cape Cod Fish Share. Spreading the word through a robust website and exposure through the Buy Fresh Buy Local newsletter run by the Barnstable County Extension Service, they started with 36 customers at three pick-up locations around the Cape: Brewster, Barnstable, and Falmouth. Flash forward to 2013, and they now serve 1,000 customers at 40 pick-up locations across the state, including Greater Boston and Amherst. They are currently developing their own processing facility in Harwich and are working with UPS to find an economical way to deliver their product directly to the doorstep of consumers, thereby expanding their range throughout New England.
Despite the growth, the basic concept of the business hasn’t changed: Customers sign up for a five-week subscription and select a convenient pick-up location as well as an option that fits their family. (Two typical choices, Family Share and Working Couple, each offer varying amounts of fish to fit different size households.) Over a five-week subscription, Cape Cod Fish Share offers two species a week, all sustainably caught and packaged, providing customers with a chance to try new fish, like dogfish and skate. An e-mail newsletter accompanies each weekly catch with stories about the fishermen, news about fisheries, and recipes. Freshness is key: Fish goes from boat to processing to consumers in a maximum of two days.
Sustainability is also a hallmark. Henchy’s team works either directly with local, small-scale fishermen or through Andy Baler, a Chatham fisherman closely involved with the Chatham Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance, who acts as a buyer to get the “top of the boat” catch—literally the fish on the top of the boat, generally of the highest quality. Henchy pays a slightly higher price than what the fishermen would get at auction and is also able to take advantage of the variety of fish caught at different times of year. “We interact directly with several boats all the time,” says Henchy. “Scallops come from off Monomoy, tilefish and tuna out of Fairhaven, the lobster boats are out of Cape Cod Bay, squid comes from a Hyannis boat, redfish out of New Bedford. We give folks variety that they won’t see in the grocery store.”
The business is truly a 21st-century operation. Says Henchy, “We’re trying to put the business into fishing by taking some of the pressure off the fisheries. The fishermen have the hardest job of all—they’re already working huge hours, then how are they going to do the marketing?” Cape Cod Fish Share uses a website and social media to connect and interact with customers.
Cape Cod Fish Share has thus far managed to retain a local, hands-on cottage-industry feel to it. Throughout the process, the team has remained close to both fishermen and government authorities to handle delicate issues like safety and sustainability. “The fishermen have been doing nothing but helping us to improve our products,” Henchy says.
In particular, he credits the late Gary Oldsturm, a lobsterman and cod fisherman, with giving both him and Struzziero a crash course in fish preparation and safety. “He spent hours and hours with us on how to handle things, how to keep things safe—just a wonderful, open great guy,” Henchy says.
Ultimately, the consumers appreciate that attention to detail and the fishermen appreciate the business. Says Henchy, “What really matters to people are two things: that it’s local and that it is high-quality. The CSA model is a very smart model to get high-quality product to consumers.” With increasing concerns about the health and status of fish stocks, customers are also satisfied knowing they are supporting small-scale fishermen who are committed to sustainable fishing practices.
PEACHTREE CIRCLE FARM, Falmouth
No one has ever said that farming was easy. “Nine months out of the year, I never walk into my living room,” says Carrie Richter, owner of Peachtree Circle Farm in Falmouth. “I work every day on the farm. In the winter, it is a six-hour day instead of a 13-hour day.”
For many years, farming was on the decline on Cape Cod and it seemed like nothing could be done to make a viable living anymore. Slowly, that seems to be changing, thanks to the herculean efforts of those dedicated farmers and to their customers who relish fresh flowers on the table and the incomparably sweet taste of fresh, homegrown produce.
Richter relies on a business model balanced between participation in a weekly farmers market (she is a perennial presence at the Falmouth Market) and a CSA program. For the past two years, she has run two CSAs, one for vegetables and one for flowers (her bouquets are a favorite among market regulars). The Peachtree Circle Farm CSA runs 17 weeks from spring through fall and offers a weekly selection of $20 worth of vegetables and $10 worth of flowers, respectively. Richter grows everything organically.
A typical week of vegetables always includes greens, herbs, and whatever is in season whether it be potatoes, bean, beets, carrots, onions, or garlic (a specialty). When she first opened sign-ups for her CSA, it filled within minutes.
As a one-woman operation, Richter keeps things small and is intent on staying that way. In her first year, she took on 12 customers. This year she has expanded to 24, which might be her maximum. “The problem with getting bigger is that the more you take on, the more you have to put out in labor and money. I live a quiet life. I don’t have a lot of expenses, so I don’t need a whole lot coming in,” Richter says. “Growth works for a lot of people, but for me, personally, a big company is not really where I want to go.”
Staying small and selling directly to customers through the market and the CSA means that Richter has a devoted group of supporters and regulars. They not only enjoy the fruits of her farming: they also offer help when needed. “Farming is really hard work. You can’t afford to pay much and you do need help,” she says. “I have a lot of volunteers that help. In my e-newsletter, I will advertise a flash mob weeding party. A lot of my CSA members feel like they are part of a community and they’ll come out and help.”
Richter originally started farming by way of gardening. Arriving on Cape Cod after college, she married a local and fell into the gardening business when she needed a job. “I always liked flowers,” she says. “I liked to grow stuff. I liked being outside all day. I like the physical labor of it.” For many years, she ran her own gardening business. Richter came across the Peachtree Circle property when she was looking for a location to do a gardening program for kids. “As soon as I saw it, I thought, I have to have this piece of property!” The kids program only lasted one season, but the farming idea stuck.
Richter has been running Peachtree Circle Farm for about nine years. The land, which is part of the Salt Pond Areas Bird Sanctuary, contained a caveat when it was donated that it had to be farmed. She has about five acres in active production, which includes an orchard and two to three beds. For a few years, she tried to maintain both businesses but found that the work was too much. “I did the gardening business and my full-time/part-time job was the farm. It was seven days a week.” Two years ago, she was able to make the jump to full-time farming. “So far so good! The farm is a viable business. The turning point was scrapping the gardening and focusing on the farm. Otherwise, I could never make it viable.”
The addition of the CSA program was the last boost Richter needed to make the farm her sole source of income. “I needed an influx of money in the spring and the CSA model fits perfectly into that. I make all my money in the summer and I save as much as I can. don’t have to worry about making it until June, I only have to make it until March. That is what has made this a viable full-time living for me.”
Amanda Wastrom is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life Publications.