Shareholders support Wyoming produce operationWritten by Christy Hemken
On their farm near Yoder, the Ridenours produce over 30 different kinds of vegetables – individual varieties not included – as well as grass-fed beef. Before the CSA they sold vegetables at the farmers’ market in Cheyenne, but now the cooperative program adds a guarantee to their summer produce.
“A lot of CSA’s deliver to farmers’ markets, so we decided that would work better,” says Cindy of their farm’s remote location several miles west of Yoder. The farmers’ market to which she delivers is the Wyoming Fresh market on Tuesdays in Cheyenne.
“We’ve made a strong commitment to Wyoming Fresh market and that’s where we’ve put our focus,” says Mike. The Ridenours used to also deliver to the Torrington market but Mike says beef sales in Cheyenne were the clincher for that location.
“The cattle are separate from the CSA, although the two work well together,” says Mike. “We’ve had a lot more vegetable customers start buying beef from us than the other way around. By selling beef at the farmers’ market they can try it out in small quantities.”
Selling beef at the farmers’ market requires a little extra care. “We keep everything frozen in long-hold coolers filled with dry ice,” says Cindy. “We operate under the approval of the health department and they say to keep it frozen, so if we see any signs of thawing on anything we have to pitch it.”
“Sometimes we probably don’t need to go to all that trouble,” she adds, “But when you’re standing on 95 degree asphalt it’s good to know there’s dry ice on the meat.”
“When we first started I did a little marketing, but not much,” she says of the CSA’s beginning. “We had a few shares signed up when we started to deliver to the farmers’ market, where other people would see me giving vegetables that weren’t on our table to shareholders.”
She says that was their primary advertisement, along with a few brochures explaining the process. “By the middle of July I had all the shares sold and since then we’ve had a waiting list.”
At the end of January renewal notices are sent out to current shareholders, and on April 1 any remaining shares are opened to new members.
Members of the CSA receive a discount on their vegetables, but Cindy says she thinks they deserve it. “All the shares are paid for up front – sometimes two or three months before we start delivery,” she notes. The Ridenours charge $340 per year for 19 weeks of vegetables.
“For the grower that’s nice because then you get the money up-front when you’re buying seed and preparing for the season,” adds Mike.
“I target about half of our vegetable production for the CSA,” says Cindy. “By planting more than what I need, when I first start to harvest I have enough to supply the share.”
“Between the amount of vegetables we grow and everything else on the farm, it’s pretty busy in the summer, especially in August when everything peaks the garden is a full time job,” she says. “We keep the vegetable operation small. If we were going to expand we’d need to buy a trailer or large truck in which to haul everything, hire labor and look at implements for the tractor so it’d be a big investment.”
Mike says there are two ways to organize a CSA by setting an amount to deliver for each share and selling the extra at farmers’ market or by picking everything grown and dividing whatever the yield is amongst the shareholders.
“We chose to deliver the set amount because with the other option a shareholder might receive a huge amount of tomatoes and have way more than they can eat,” he says.
“In a bountiful year there’s just more that we take and put on the farmers’ market table, and in a lean year we hope to have enough to still satisfy our CSA,” says Cindy.
Although they’ve never had to pro-rate or refund shareholders for lack of produce, that is an option. “So far I’ve made adjustments to make sure they get the value they’re supposed to,” she says.
In addition to their allotment of vegetables for the week, shareholders are given “Veggie Bucks” to purchase additional produce.
Only one other CSA currently exists on Wyoming’s western border. The Ridenours are hopeful other vegetable growers will consider the program. “It’s such a nice way to make sure that, when you got to market, you have a successful day,” says Cindy.
Before founding a CSA operation, the Ridenours’ advice is to make sure you know how to grow a variety of vegetables successfully and to ensure you can keep up with the garden’s maintenance.
“It’s great for both the farmer and the consumer, because the consumer knows their tomatoes and cantaloupe are waiting for them and don’t have to worry about getting to market at the beginning,” says Mike. “It’s a great win for both sides.”