Jul 18, 2007
Online Farmers’ Market and CSA Extend the Season Year Round

People who shop at farmers’ markets or join CSAs find it frustrating when the flow of local products dries up in the off-season, but so do the growers who sell those products.

Randy Treichler, who owns Star Hollow Farm in Three Springs, Pa., found a way to further the interests of both. He operates Star Hollow’s online farmers’ market and CSA and delivers produce every Saturday – year round.

It started four years ago, he said, when he was “flat broke in the middle of winter” – and his customers 100 miles south, at the Adams Morgan Farmers’ Market in Washington, D.C., were lamenting their loss of access to produce. Even though he had products like potatoes, onions and other root crops in storage and could grow greens in his greenhouse, it would be “very iffy” to drive to Washington in sub-freezing temperatures hoping customers would come to buy them. The outdoor market is open nine months of the year.

Treichler and his wife, Chris, developed an online shopping system aimed at his farmers’ market customers and recently added the option for members of their CSA. Customers can go to their Web site between Wednesday and Friday noon, place their orders and pick up their produce at one of four drop sites on Saturday mornings. On Friday afternoon and evening, Randy and his family pack boxes for delivery. The Web site is www.starhollowfarm.com.

Star Hollow’s CSA customers work on a “subscription” system that offers them a lot of choice and security. For $300, they get either a large or a small box of vegetables once a week and are guaranteed to get full value. The box contains whatever the farm has in season, but customers can choose not to take a box during weeks they are away on vacation. They can also order additional items like eggs or cheese.

The online farmers’ market customers get to fill a box with vegetables of their choosing from the weekly list of what’s available, and they pay by the item – no set amount, no minimum. For faster shopping, they can buy a “surprise box.”

It’s just like buying a book on Amazon.com. Customers go to the shopping list to see what’s available and how much it costs. They click on items, filling a shopping basket. They check out, naming one of four drop sites (three in Washington, D.C. and one in Pennsylvania) where they want to pick up their vegetables. There is a $2.50 handling charge for the service.

CSA customers pay by check whenever they come onboard, and they can join any time.

“There is really no season,” Randy said, “as we go year round. They just order until their $300 credit runs out.”

Other customers send a check after they pick up their produce. There’s an invoice and a pre-addressed envelope in the box. Or, they can send a check to establish a credit account from which charges are debited. They also can use PayPal online. In some 7,000 transactions since January 2004, Randy said, he has “never been stiffed once” by a customer.

The system provides a winter income. Gross sales now run about $2,000 a week.

Randy and Chris started Star Hollow in 1992 after colorful careers. Randy, raised near San Francisco, did not come from a farm but studied agriculture at Iowa State, Cornell and the University of California, Davis. He took a master’s degree in international agriculture development. He worked in Colombia, South America and traveled extensively to more than 30 countries. Chris studied international relations and Chinese and did studies in China on several occasions.

“Coming back to the states after two years abroad, we decided to try out my life’s dream of becoming a farmer and thought it would be good to test the water by interning at a successful organic small farm,” he said.

He and Chris and their young children went to Jim and Moie Crawford’s New Morning Farm in southern Pennsylvania. The Crawfords were operating an organic farm and serving as a model for others. They and several other growers had started the Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op. The co-op was looking for growers, and a few months later the Treichlers bought some land nearby and began growing produce.

Fifteen years later, “we’re still here,” Randy said. Their children, Jack, Anna and Sam, help on the farm. Randy’s mother, Mary, is 87 and lives there, too.

Their farm is 85 acres, but they only use about 5 acres to grow vegetables and another 15 to grow rotation and cover crops. They have a greenhouse and high tunnel as well, which they use to extend the season and grow the high-quality, baby leafy greens that sell well for them.

Star Hollow grows 30 different crops – greens and root crops of several kinds – some of which, like arugula, grow during a long winter season under plastic. Others extend the season by storage, like onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, garlic and rutabagas. They also grow specialty kales and specialty cucumbers, like striped Armenian, miniature white and lemon, and okra.

The Adams Morgan Farmers’ Market was started by New Morning Farm in 1973. It’s small. There are only three vendors who sell there nine months of the year. Randy extended the season for its buyers by offering the online ordering and Saturday drop-off of pre-packaged orders.

Star Hollow’s area is a hothouse for small, organic farms. It was not just the Treichlers who were influenced by the Crawfords and New Morning Farm. Today, the Tuscarora Organic Growers co-op has about 25 member farms. Some have been growing organically for many years, even before they began marketing cooperatively in 1988. Randy is a member of the co-op’s board of directors.

The co-op is a marketing service for the growers, who gain the benefit of having a wholesale distributor. By accumulating produce from several growers, it is able to offer a wide range to stores and restaurants. The growers commit some of their production to the co-op, on a schedule that specifies crop, quantity and timing. Some of the members, like the Triechlers, also are customers who buy produce to fill out their own retail or farmers’ markets.

On the Star Hollow Web site, Randy identifies the produce he offers as “local” and/or “organic.” His own produce is all local and organic, as is what he buys from the co-op to fill out his product offering. For example, he buys mushrooms, cheese and honey from the co-op.

Some fruit offerings are local but not organic, and winter citrus fruit and olive oil are organic but not local.

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