by Jane Bollinger
Here in Starrucca, northern Wayne County, Brandon Flynn and his business partners are building a small network of farmers who supply farm-fresh produce, meat, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese and more, both to customers close to home and to others as far away as Philadelphia and – starting this year—also New York City.
A different business model
Their business, Green Pasture Farms, is part working farm, part online grocery store, part wholesale food operation, and part CSA program – short for Community Supported Agriculture. In a CSA, members purchase a flat-fee “subscription” to what a farm produces in a season, and in exchange, they regularly receive a box of farm-fresh food. Whereas most CSAs involve a single farmer selling directly to his or her own customers, this is a different business model. Besides selling what they can produce themselves, Brandon and his partners also buy from a growing network of local farms to help meet the increasing demand of their CSA customers.
On a freezing cold, sunny morning in late March, the Green Pasture’s office is buzzing with its business partners on their phones or working away at their computer screens. Just a few steps from the front door in a pleasantly warm greenhouse, a farmworker is picking tender lettuce. Before noon it will be boxed up with other items for CSA deliveries. “We grow or raise what we can ourselves,” Brandon explains, “but we might also buy 20 dozen eggs and ten pounds of spinach from one farmer, milk from another and cheese from a third. This way we can sell more of our own chickens because we have milk to offer, cheese to offer, additional produce to offer. Our goal is for everybody to be profitable.”
“Right now we’re working with about 20 farms. Seven or eight are producing on a larger scale,” Brandon explained, “but we also purchase from 12 to 15 on a more random basis, depending on what they have available. For example, we buy grass-fed beef from one primary farmer, but then also we buy on a small scale from a lot of other farmers. We have a local lady who raises almost all of our pork, but we raise our own lambs and goats.” Everything Green Pasture Farms sells is naturally raised – no chemicals, no hormones in the dairy products they sell, no GMOs (genetically modified organisms) – and the farms they work with practice sustainable agriculture.
Albeit on a small scale, this business model mimics several aspects of food hubs, which operate on a significantly larger-scale, regional basis, providing many more services than Green Pasture Farms is able to do. By combining local resources, Green Pasture Farms can enhance their revenue stream. “Our mission is to be profitable and to show people that you can make money farming, and have a good life. At the same time, we also want to follow a more community-minded model compared to the typical business model with layers of profit.” This is one reason the business accepts SNAP benefits, also called food stamps.
A business that grew out of saving farmland
Brandon grew up in the Pleasant Mount/Rileyville area. “I was a country boy, but I didn’t grow up on a farm,” he confessed. “You know, there’s some country song with a line in it – ‘You either lived a farm or wished you did.’” He grinned. “That’s me growing up – I wished I did.”
After college, where he studied horticulture, Brandon turned to construction work back home in Wayne County, but it was construction work with a mission. He started a business renovating farmhouses for people who wanted to purchase second homes in the country. “Basically we were setting up farmettes, but what we really were doing was trying to save farms instead of seeing them go to housing tracts.”
“We’d remodel the farmhouse and fix up the property, and then we’d lease the pastureland to someone to run as a farm. Today we have a number of young families running farms that we manage.” He smiled with satisfaction. “It’s great to see farmland in production!”
Soon, the idea for a new business was born. “I kept meeting farmers in the area who were doing local food,” Brandon explained, “and I felt there was an opportunity to create an outlet for what these farmers were growing by selling it out of the area. But I could see there still wasn’t enough local produce, not enough chickens or lambs being raised. So that’s when we decided to start farming ourselves. We saw a need for growing and raising some different items that others weren’t doing. We also wanted to produce on a larger scale, while still working with local farmers who might have extra product to sell to us. Packaged with the right items from various farms, we found we could move a lot of local food.”
“Last year our CSA grew eight to ten items and we had two or three other farmers adding on. This year we’ll continue to sell at a larger scale and tag on other people’s products. To meet the demands of our customers, we’ve developed the mindset of growing what we need, while keeping a second line of farm suppliers in mind, too.”
Green Pasture Farms raises enough food to employ six full-time farm workers, and reportedly is receiving calls and applications from up to 15 interns a day who want to work during the summer. The business operates CSAs from Starrucca to Stroudsburg and areas in between, as well as a CSA in Allentown and a number in Philadelphia. This year they’ll be getting into New York City through “Grow NYC,” a non-profit that among other things runs the city’s many neighborhood greenmarkets.
A need for more farmers
Looking at his own small network of farmers, Brandon observes, “We aren’t raising enough food yet for me to send a full truck to New York City.” Naturally, he sees a need for more local farmers in our region – “agripreneurs” as he calls them. The proximity to big cities is one reason he sees potential for a thriving local agri-economy here. But he also believes if we relocalize our food system that will improve our own food security here at home. “With energy and fuel prices and the environmental changes we’re seeing, feeding ourselves with food that’s shipped around the world is going to become nearly impossible in the future. Our present food system is not going to last forever, and those local economies that develop a local food system are going to end up in better shape. When we relocalize our economies, we all benefit.” Brandon takes hope that more people – from young farmers to couples with children to people in their 40s or older – will return to the land.
Farming is hard work, Brandon concedes, but there’s a lot of satisfaction, too. “It’s rewarding to see something that you love and are passionate about come to fruition — talking to other farmers, people buying your food. You have happy relationships with people who are on the same page. People in the food industry don’t always have happy, passionate customers. It’s satisfying working with your hands or seeing a new goat being born, seeing seedlings growing in the greenhouse. These are true, instant rewards.”
Farming sustainably for the future
“Farming sustainably, protecting soil, protecting water — these are important,” he continued. “If we don’t do something about these things today, there won’t be the same opportunities for our children. For me, what I’m doing is about the next generation; it’s about my daughter. There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, the best time to plant a tree was 100 years ago; the next best time is today. Fixing our unsustainable ways of doing things is not going to happen overnight, but it’s our duty to do something about it. At one time, my wife and I thought of just doing a homestead for our family – living off the land and taking care of ourselves, but we had the opportunity to start this business with some of the people we already did farm development with. Sometimes things aren’t just about you.”
Could there be a Food Hub in our region’s future?
According to the USDA, “ offer a variety of services that benefit small and midsize producers … (by) aggregating local produce from many small farmers into orders to satisfy the requirements of large buyers for … locally and regionally grown food. Food hubs are preparing and processing regional foods specifically for institutional buyers like schools and hospitals. Food hubs are increasing access to fresh healthy foods by widening the distribution opportunities for many small and midsize producers. Food hubs have developed group branding and certification schemes that are adding immediate value to the products being sold and providing a level of food integrity now expected from buyers and their customer base. Remarkably, many food hubs are providing not just one of these services, but some or even all of these services.”
“The bottom line is that food hubs play a critical role in developing stronger supply chains which strengthen regional food systems and are innovative business models to help small and midsize producers maximize their access to the marketplace.”
“The USDA is committed to food hubs because we believe that food hubs offer strong and sound infrastructure support to producers across the country which will also help build stronger regional food systems.”