In a recent post I pointed out the growing popularity of CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) programs where consumers sign up with a farmer to receive a weekly "subscription" of food, usually a box of seasonal vegetables and fruits. They have grown in popularity because they are a boon to farmers, for whom cash flow is king, and they help consumers simplify the process of acquiring healthy, local, and in some cases, organic food. Go here to the LocalHarvest site for a more detailed rundown of how the programs typically work.
The rise in popularity has led to growing pains, with farmers and customers sorting out expectations and relationships (see previous post), but there is another notable development - the rise of the mega CSA. As the Spokesman Review pointed out in yesterday's food section, Full Circle Farm in Carnation, WA, is expanding their delivery footprint beyond their current Seattle and Alaska markets to include Spokane.
I spoke with Frank Pagonelli, the Chief Operating Officer of Full Circle Farm, to get a better understanding of the business. The fact that they have a C.O.O. is the first clue that Full Circle is not a traditional CSA. In fact, as Frank explained, while they started as a traditional program, bound by the limits of the seasons and a single farm location, the business now delivers year-round, and no longer limits the food to local sources. So in the winter months boxes are filled with organic items from Mexico and California. Pagonelli explained that when summer rolls around, up to 90% of the food items are sourced from the Pacific Northwest region, but bananas and other non-local items are still in the mix.
The owners of the farm started moving in this direction because the traditional mode was a limited business model. They hated to send away workers and customers during the off season when local vegetables and fruits were in short-supply. Pagonelli said, "Customers want purpose all year round," when it comes to their food choices, so Full Circle has sought to bring that purpose to customers, one box at a time, 52 weeks a year. This has meant straining the definition of "purpose" usually attached to a CSA. In fact Full Circle has moved away from using the term "CSA" to define what they are doing.
The page on their web site that still comes up under the heading "CSA" on a Google search explains the shifting language:
Over time what was called the Full Circle Farm CSA program has evolved in response to the call from members new and old alike: more good food to your table. Our farm fresh produce delivery program networks with organic growers to provide members with a robust year-round offering to balance the crops from our own fields.
This changing language is also evident in the Spokesman article from yesterday describing their Spokane presence. It is described as a "farm-to-table delivery service" instead of a CSA. They are "Farm-to-Table boxes" instead of CSA boxes. They openly state that the boxes "include produce grown at Full Circle Farm as well as fruits and vegetables from an international network of other organic growers." Full Circle has shifted the definition of "purpose" to emphasize certified organic as the thread that holds it all together, and while they still seek to interpret the farmer relationships through printed materials that accompany the box, the connection to a local farm and farmers is no longer the defining center of what they are doing.
Pagonelli explained that they don't see themselves competing with traditional CSA programs that keep a laser focus on the direct farmer relationship. He said, "We're competing with the QFC's and Albertsons." In Spokane that would include Huckleberries.
There has been some backlash to this shifting business model at Full Circle. A quick tour through theirYelp! page shows a steady stream of customers who were under the impression it was a more traditional CSA program sourcing exclusively from local farms. One commenter wrote, "Surprisingly little in the boxes is actually local. Strawberries from Mexico, fruits from California....We're not interested in supporting big farms from far away, even if they are organic." Another reviewer commented, " Everything delivered was stuff you'd find in a grocery store." From what Pagonelli said, the company is working intentionally to move away from the CSA label, and more clearly set expectations, especially during the winter months when local supplies are limited. They still have a page at LocalHarvest listing their services as a CSA.
Despite the growing pains, business seems to be booming. Spokane already has 14 sites to pick up boxes. They are well staffed and appear to have some serious capital funding supporting their expansion efforts. And there are plenty of customers delighted with their service. One reviewer from Seattle on Yelp! wrote,
I have been a happy, satisfied customer of Full Circle for over two years. I love that I can customize my box when I am inclined (special recipes in mind, etc), and when I do not have time to go online and select each item, I still know that a beautiful box will arrive each week...I LOVE FULL CIRCLE!
I will admit that Full Circle Farm (FCF) does not conform to the "strictest" definition of a CSA. I will also admit that produce from Central America, even produce certified as organic, makes me nervous. But in defense of FCF, I recognize that they strive to provide the very best produce delivery service they can. Their customer service is bar-none and they have always been very helpful over the phone....I happily give my $35 to FCF, even if they're delivering produce from California, rather than to the grocery store where sourcing information is not as transparent.
Full Circle is a new breed of food marketing and delivery, somewhere between a CSA and a grocery delivery service. They are stretching the brand of farm-to-table, and I'll be interested to see how their emerging business model plays out in the coming years. Here are some words of advice to Full Circle that I think will be key for the success of their expansion efforts in Spokane:
- Do your best to integrate your offerings with unique items from farms near Spokane. I was told they are looking to do this in the future, but for now they are just working to get their delivery systems in place. There is a unique and growing local food movement in the Spokane area and efforts to enter the market should be aimed at not just luring customer dollars and establishing market share. In order to have credibility as something more than a grocery-delivery business in this community there needs to be investment in farmers and farms in this region. There needs to be capital investment to accompany market share.
- You say that you are not competing with existing CSA's but there is one CSA in Spokane that already follows a hybrid model very similar to yours. The CSA program through Fresh Abundance has a year-round vegetable box program that sources items locally when possible, and when not possible they include organic items. Both programs are around $35 per week. Fresh Abundance has been investing in the local food scene in Spokane for many years, so I hope that Full Circle won't undercut their efforts. I also think the marketing materials need to be as clear as possible that Full Circle is different from what someone like Gary Angell at Rocky Ridge Ranch offers. If you use the word local, make sure that you define that clearly. Most folks who use the phrase, "local food" around here have Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho in mind.
- Most farmers in Eastern Washington do not have the resources to get officially certified as organic, but they do follow organic practices. Given this reality I think you should be willing to flex on the "certified organic" label in order to embrace our local food system. For example, I don't see any reason why your boxes couldn't include lettuce from C&S Hydro Huts. Stewart is not certified organic, but is meticulous in the way he follows organic practices. I think this makes good marketing sense even if it does force you to compromise on your commitment to "certified organic" in some cases.
What Full Circle offers is not my cup of tea. I like direct relationships with local farmers. I like eating seasonally. The "certified organic" label is much less meaningful to me than having the food sourced from local farms and farmers. But I don't doubt that there is a market for them in Spokane and that there is room for their offerings in the Spokane food scene. I just hope that what's good for their western Washington business is good for local Spokane businesses and farmers.