Community supported ag: Robinson family offers local produce, ag education
Bedford – Over the last century, Americans have become increasingly re-moved from the production of their food. But one Lincoln County producer is working to change that through community supported agriculture, offering local, seasonal produce directly from their farm to the consumer.
Marion and DeeAnne Robinson run Robinson Family Farm and Ranch in Bedford. The fourth generation agriculture operation is housed on 110 acres.
The Robinsons work with their members to produce like kale, collard greens, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, onions, summer squash and herbs, among other products. They also offer meat and egg shares.
This concept of marketing directly from the farm to customers is known as community supported agriculture, or CSA.
The Robinsons are among a growing number of agriculture producers foregoing traditional markets in favor of participating in community supported agriculture.
Essentially, CSA is a partnership between farmers and customers. Customers buy shares in a season’s produce, sharing the risk and rewards of harvest with the farmer. Offerings can include everything from vegetables and fruit to eggs, milk, beef or pork.
Marion Robinson started the operation after participating in the Wyoming agricultural leadership program, L.E.A.D. (Leadership, Education and Development). He had returned to Star Valley after working in the corporate sector out of state and was searching for a way to establish sustainability on a small acreage.
“I didn’t think I could earn a living in agriculture. There aren’t many truly large corporate businesses in Star Valley that needed my business skills. I believed in the traditional model of get big or get out and didn’t know how I could make a go of it as a small farmer,” says Marion. “The L.E.A.D. program helped open my eyes to the many different opportunities there are in agriculture if you’re willing to work hard and be creative.”
The Robinsons started their CSA program in 2006 with help from another producer with three acres of vegetables. That year, the farm provided produce for 14 members, with some excess vegetables sold at the Jackson farmer’s market.
Today, Robinson Family Farm and Ranch has 40 members, about half of which are work share. Work share members pay for their shares by putting in three to five hours of work on the farm each week.
Marion says the work share option is win-win for the farm and his customers.
“I’m as motivated by affordability as by sustainability. The work share option provides the member with healthy fresh produce and our farm with some much-needed labor. Other folks choose a work share just to learn more about gardening and vegetable production.”
Gardening at 6,000 feet in elevation provides some challenges, but Marion says that fact alone hasn’t deterred him. He uses greenhouses and a little ingenuity to operate almost year-round.
Marion starts some seeds indoors shortly after the first of the year, and then transfers the seedlings outdoors in the later months. He says he overlaps his younger, hot crops with larger, more established cold crops to get a jumpstart on growth and to maximize space.
As a result, Robinson Family Farm and Ranch is able to offer its customers five months worth of vegetables – from June through October.
The final offering is a bulk pickup of crops that store well, such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage.
“We often refer to what we do as ‘extreme gardening,’” Marion explains. “I’ve come to embrace the harsh climate. We don’t have as many pest issues, and our season is never too hot for cold crops like peas or lettuce like it can be in Utah or Idaho. It’s certainly labor intensive in summer, but we enjoy our slower months.”
In addition to distributing products directly to members, Marion sells produce at both the Star Valley and Jackson farmers’ markets. When the harvest allows, he also sells to Jackson grocery stores and area restaurants. Robinson Family Farm and Ranch has also worked with area schools to provide healthy snacks to school kids.
Robinson Family Farm and Ranch sells chemical-free produce, grass-fed beef and eggs from pastured poultry. Marion can’t market his products as organic, because he hasn’t completed all the steps to be certified organic officially, which is a lengthy and intensive process. Instead, he offers what he calls customer certification.
“My niche market is a health motivated market. The next best thing to growing the produce yourself is a community supported agriculture operation,” Marion says. “We are customer certified. We open our doors to our customers to examine our processes, equipment and methods. The best guarantee we can give to someone is to let them participate in the growing process side-by-side with us.”
Marion says he really enjoys the community aspect of community supported agriculture.
“It’s been rewarding to meet and get to know our members and teach farming to our work shares. We get to rub shoulders with some really neat people through our business. We’ve gotten to know people in our area, and even people from Poland, Israel and Germany,” he explains.
“I really like how community supported agriculture puts the farm back in the community and puts the community back in the farm,” Marion continues.
What started as a dream more than six years ago is now a thriving, sustainable business for Marion.
“My whole value system has changed through agriculture. I feel more secure financially than I ever have, even working in corporate America,” he says. “Our farming model lets us control the inputs to our farm and helps make us self-reliant and sustainable, and gives me a sense of security and pride I hadn’t known before.”