Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Uprising Organics Farm - Crystine Goldberg and Brian Campbell
This spring's Conversations from the Field features Crystine Goldberg and Brian Campbell, who run Uprising Organics Farm in Acme, Washington.
Uprising Organics is a 3-acre farm near the Nooksack River in Whatcom County. Owners Goldberg and Campbell specialize in producing local, open-pollinated and organic seed. The couple feels that seed is an often-overlooked link the movement toward local and sustainable food systems and works to get seed back in the hands of all people.
Crystine Goldberg and Brian Campbell, pictured with their son Rowan, run Uprising Organics Farm in Acme, Wash. The farm has an organic seed business and a food stamps-only CSA.
Goldberg and Campbell are also interested in the redistribution of food to underserved communities. In 2007, they started one of the country's first CSAs that accepts only food stamps.
Before the late 1990s, many farmers accepted paper food stamps at farmers markets and market stands. But the practice became uncommon after the U.S. Department of Agriculture switched to a debit card, or EBT card, system to provide food stamps. EBT cards require a machine to process benefits, which makes food stamps difficult for farmers to accept. The CSA is now in its third year, and Goldberg and Campbell have installed a swiping machine at their farm to make it easy for food stamp recipients to use EBT cards to pay for their CSA food shares.
Goldberg and Campbell's family business is the product of a love of growing and sharing seeds and the couple's believe that the future of food security is based on regional stewardship of locally adapted plant varieties. The couple believes strongly in creating new models of providing food to low-income people. NCAT's editor Holly Michels recently spoke with them about their work.
Q. How did Uprising Organics start? Where did the idea come from?
A. Brian: We started growing commercially five years ago. This is our sixth season. It's a culmination of both of us having worked on a number of other farms, both educational and work crew. Neither of us came from farming backgrounds. I grew up in Connecticut with no family farming experience.
Crystine: I grew up in Illinois. One set of my grandparents was farmers, but that was in a different country quite a long time ago. Since he was 14, Brian has been working on different farms — herb farms and vegetable farms. I grew up with my parents growing big gardens in the back yard and was close to that understanding of farming and growing. There was no immediate history of farming, though. We were drawn to it for a number of reasons. I think the biggest reason was a social justice sense of wanting to work on the land as well as be able to provide good food for everybody without digging ourselves into a hole.
Q. Can you describe how you became interested in organic farming?
A. Crystine: It was never really a question. We both finished our degrees in Oregon in environmental science and environmental studies, so it was already something that was an interest and a passion.
Brian: Chemical industrial farming was never really on the table or on the list of top 10 things we wanted to do with our lives.
Crystine: It was always more about a smaller, integrated system and less about huge monoculture, although I suppose there is a need for that. It was just never one of our interests.
Q. Your CSA accepts only food stamps. How did you make the decision to move in this direction on your farm?
A. Crystine: We had worked on farms that were CSAs before and liked the idea of getting to know who our members were and having more of an intimate relationship with them. It was a passion of ours that a lot of different people be able to afford good and organic food. We focused on how we could create a model that other farms could easily integrate into their CSA.
Q. Did you always plan to just accept food stamps?
A. Crystine: We did.
Brian: I feel like that's always been an underserved demographic. We've always been interested in working out models of affordable access to food. It seems like where we live has a pretty solid pocket of small-scale diversified organic growers and there's not a need for new farmers coming in with the same models for the traditional organic-buying demographic. What we really wanted to do was create models of access that can be replicated in other places. If you look at the market share of organic produce, it is so infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of what's happening with farming in the country. It seems like we have to look beyond the classic market that the majority of the small diversified growers are serving and pioneer new markets to create the possibility of expanding that percentage in new directions.
Q. Food Stamp subscribers are prohibited by federal law from paying for food in advance. This contradicts the traditional CSA model, which is funded by upfront subscription fees. How did you address this?
A. Crystine: In our first year we fundraised to have a revolving loan fund for ourselves. People donated to cover our initial start up and it paid for six or seven shares. That's initially how we did it.
Brian: It was the seed money for a revolving loan to ourselves that we pay ourselves out of at the beginning of the year. As our customers pay on a weekly level it replenishes.
Crystine: Now we've grown to more than six families, but it's still a very different model. We don't get the money up front, which is something a lot of farmers really need. But we also did OK because we have so many other markets, like our seed business and the farmers' market and other things. Of course it's always nice to be able to have as much money up front as possible. But we realized that even if this was a model other farms and CSAs could use, they would not be having an entire CSA of food stamps. So other farms could include six to 10 families on food stamps and it wouldn't be such a huge sum of money they would not be getting in the beginning because they would still have several paid subscriptions at the start.
Q. Did you have to conduct educational outreach to raise money, attract customers and explain how CSAs work and how they can function with food stamps?
A. Brian: We actually fundraised around friends and family. We wrote up a little bit about what we were doing, but we haven't done a huge amount of outreach or advertising.
Q. What was the initial interest level in your CSA?
A. Brian: We kept the number of subscriptions at the amount of money we fundraised, so I think we did seven shares the first year. We kept it really small. We ended up with 17 the next year and that was without any advertising. Since we wanted to keep it small we haven't pursued looking for new members. People are finding us and hearing about the work we're doing. There's potentially a lot more of a market if we were active about it, but since we don't want to be a huge CSA we're not seeking it out. We would rather other people integrate taking food stamps into their existing CSAs rather than us trying to do everything.
Q. What was the process to get approval for accepting food stamps? Was the process of setting up an EBT system difficult?
A. Crystine: It's the process that a store or farm stand would go through. It's actually through the USDA. The whole process and forms are online. We're listed as a farm stand because a CSA isn't recognized. That's because CSAs get money up front and that's not the way food stamps work. We are classified as a farm stand for this process and it makes sense. People are coming and they're buying food from us at that moment, so that's what we're doing. You should allow yourself at least a month to eight weeks to fill out the USDA forms and answer any questions people might have of you. Then you get the (EBT card) machine and set it up. I was worried about the process because we had raised all this money and put the word out, and we didn't know if it was going to work. But it was easy and I'm sorry that I stressed about it.
Brian: People were really helpful about it at the USDA and great about answering our questions. At first we weren't sure whether what we were doing was legitimate and we were hesitant to ask questions because we didn't want to raise any red flags, but people were really helpful and friendly and interested in what we were doing.
Q. What difficulties did you face in the process?
A. Crystine: There were a few rules that the USDA has regarding being able to pay with food stamps, even if you are a farm stand. You can't accept money before you receive a product, and there can also be no sort of contract between us and the members. But it's not a big deal. I think the contract might be an issue for some farmers because you do want some sort of security, but we just rephrased our language a bit and we have agreements with people. But it's not a problem because people really want the food.
Brian: The only thing that's come up is people forgetting to pick up their shares. In that case, there's no transaction that can happen that week so we double their share for the next week. What we're thinking about doing to solve that potential problem is to charge a deposit of maybe two weeks' worth of the share that would be refunded or go to pay the last two weeks of the season. That would be a cash deposit outside of the food stamp system, so if someone would miss a week we would have the security to pay ourselves out of that deposit.
Q. What have you learned as you've run the CSA?
A. Crystine: I think communication is key. I think the model that Brian mentioned — charging a deposit — is a good idea because it can be frustrating when people don't pick up. And we have to actually be there, which means leaving the farm, when people pick up. We've also learned that people are gracious and they're excited about the food we're providing and understanding about the work we put in. We've also learned that this really is a model that can work within a larger CSA.
Q. Do you hope to share your model with other farms and CSAs?
A. Crystine: At the end of the first season we had an article go out in several magazines and newsletters and we got so many e-mails and phone calls from people interested in either starting a CSA similar to this one or integrating it into their existing program. Stuff like that was really the reason that we did this and it was exciting to us. But we haven't been formally asked to share our model, probably because it's just not that difficult to do. People have called us and we've walked them through the steps of what they need to write down on the USDA form, but that's about it.
Brian: We have a friend who started a little CSA farm and is teaching a bunch of young farmers to start their own CSA. We'll probably go down and talk with that group of people. So there is a little bit of outreach happening, but people are mostly hearing about it through articles written about us.
Q. What are your plans for the CSA and farm this year?
A. Crystine: We are really busy and we have our hands in a lot of different areas with our farm and our business. We're going to keep the CSA most likely at 20 shares. It keeps it simple and doable at that rate.
Brian: Right now our focus is on our seed business, which we're really excited about.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish on your farm and with your CSA in the next five years?
A. Brian: A lot of our direction is focused on organic seed production. The production side of organic seed is on a 10-year curve behind organic produce. Organic produce exploded in the last 10 years and organic seed is just starting to get on people's radars as it becomes part of a functional and healthy local food system. A lot of what we're doing is working on improving varieties, improving breeding and improving organic production of good varieties of vegetables that work well in organic systems.
As far as the CSA goes, our plan to simplify our lives is to focus on the CSA for our fresh market vegetables. We'll probably cut out a lot of our small wholesale accounts to split our energy between seeds and the CSA.
Crystine: There's an enormous boom of people learning how to garden and digging up their lawns, so what's interesting to both of us is not only being able to provide the food to people but also to be a resource for people learning how to provide food for themselves. That's where the seeds come in. We've taught seed-saving workshops for the past couple of years. We plan on doing some more workshops and talks like that because it motivates people and gives them the information they didn't have before and helps them become active in their communities.
Q. What words of advice would you give to those who are considering a CSA that accepts food stamps?
A. Brian: Start small. I think the CSA can be a complicated approach to growing. There's a lot to juggle in terms of timing and having plenty of crops through the season, and it's a lot more manageable to start something like that on a small scale.
Crystine: As far as integrating food stamps into your existing CSA or beginning CSA, just to do the legwork, fill out the forms and don't stress so much because it really is doable. I think people shy away from things that have to do with government agencies, which I understand because it can be difficult and there's lots of red tape. But just understand that it's not as difficult as one might think it could be. Just give it a go and see how it works in the system that you have for yourself.
Brian: When you think about it, it's government subsidizing organic food for low-income families. Government subsidizes agri-business and industrial dairies and feed lots and all that stuff. But this is funneling government money to vital agriculture, and there's nowhere else I can think of this happening except this model. In terms of direct government support for local food systems, it doesn't get more direct than that.
Q. Any final comments?
A. Crystine: I think we're all really busy, but we all have a lot to share and we can all make a lot of change. All these little changes are great. When you put them all together, you've got this big box of all these great little changes people can choose from and integrate into their systems and improve upon. This is not a done process. It is constantly changing and getting more refined and better. Whether we're talking about seed business or a CSA that integrates all different income levels, it's a way to expand your understanding of those people as well. In terms of a CSA, it's a great way to learn about all different people in your community and educate yourselves as well as the people you are sharing your work with.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014