MARKET SHARES: At Randle Farms, The Shareholders Are Calling The Shots
When Randle Farms’ shareholders meet each week, the dividends come in plastic bags. Corn, tomatoes, squash, lettuce, peppers, carrots — no matter what it is, if it’s in season, the shareholders have a claim on it. That’s because the 50 shareholders have already invested $500 each, and the just-picked produce is their weekly dividend. It’s called Community Supported Agriculture, a sort of farm-fresh, product-of-the-week club where you pay your money even before the seed goes into the ground.”If we have a ton of tomatoes, you get lots of tomatoes. If we don’t have any tomatoes, then you don’t have any tomatoes,” said Frank Randle who began his farm outside Auburn with 35 acres in 1975 but now has more than 200. “You share the same risk that we do, and you also reap the rewards. The whole idea behind that is we reconnect people to where food comes from, and we reconnect our shareholders with the risk that we take as a farmer.”It’s obviously a risk many feel worthwhile. There are exactly twice as many shareholders this year than last when Frank’s son, Zach, a horticulture major, first put the CSA idea to work at Randle Farms at the urging of Dr. Conner Bailey, professor of rural sociology at nearby Auburn University. Bailey is now one of those shareholders who can either visit the Randles’ farm each Wednesday to pick up their weekly harvest, or meet Zach in Auburn from 5:30 to 6 p.m. each Tuesday, and load up their shareholder tote bags with fruit, vegetables, eggs and cut flowers.”We try to make it convenient for everyone,” said Frank Randle. “Everything is pre-bagged, and Zach gets this little assembly line going.”One of the first shareholders in line is Bailey. “I’m a serious organic gardener myself so I do know the difference between store-bought and homegrown foods,” Bailey said. “The quality is good, and every week when I go out to pick up my stuff, I meet different people out there. So there’s a lot of positive benefit to it. I’m making a conscious choice that I’m going to eat better and healthier. The average food travels 1,400 miles before it gets to my plate, and if I can cut down that distance, I’ll have fresher food.”There are no membership cards, no contracts. Just a $500 signup fee, and a handshake agreement to be partners in agriculture, whether that means wondering what to do with 200 pounds of tomatoes or wondering how farmers survive during a drought. The agreement is for either 20 weeks of a spring program or 12 weeks of a fall program. Frank Randle calls this agreement between his farm, his family and the shareholders “relationship farming.””I’m farming for you. I work for you,” he said. “If there’s a problem, I want to know about it. The whole concept is about relationships, marketing, selling, and connecting those shareholders with this farm and my family.”The Randles — Frank, his wife Pat, sons Zach and Franklin and his wife, Christine — build on those relationships by providing a personal touch wherever possible, like topping off each week’s pickup with a dozen eggs from the farm’s free-range laying hens, and bouquet of homegrown, fresh cut flowers.Last year, they even held a canning class to teach young suburban housewives how to put up their surplus tomatoes for the winter just like their grandmothers did. This year, they plan to hold an old-fashioned watermelon cuttin’ for shareholder families. Shareholders also get to call the shots at planting time.
“Instead of us deciding that we’re going to grow this, this and this, we’re letting our shareholders help in that decision process,” said Randle. “We’re growing stuff that I haven’t grown before (kohlrabi, for example), and so it’s a challenge. It’s fun because we’re doing stuff that people said you couldn’t do. Yet, from a farming standpoint, we’re challenged to figure out how to do that. So we’re always learning something. And there are some things we can’t do — we can’t grow mangoes here. It just is not going to work.”To determine their planting schedule, Zach sent out a questionnaire to the shareholders, asking what they wanted. “Of course, everybody said tomatoes and peppers and okra and all the normal stuff,” said Zach. “But I also grow several lettuce mix types, and we’ve gotten into a lot of heirloom varieties of tomatoes instead of just the typical red slicing tomatoes.”Regardless of what they grow — squash, corn, okra, watermelon, beets, muscadines, blueberries, sweet potatoes, etc. — it’s all grown organically, where the only pest control is done by the pick-and-stomp method or by hanging adhesive sheets. “A lot of our CSA members have told me they are glad to occasionally see a small place where an insect had been because they knew that meant it was grown in an organic manner,” said Zach. “And I had a few members who were shocked and threw the whole thing out because they thought it was some poisonous insect. I’ve had all kinds of reactions. So it takes a lot of education to get people to realize that it’s no big deal and that it’s a whole lot better for them.”That education will have to continue, too — Zach says he’s got a long list of people waiting to buy into the program. “I didn’t want to try to grow too fast, and get myself into trouble by not having enough produce available for everyone,” Zach explained. Besides, Frank Randle says he’s not sure how many shareholders he can supply. “There is an upper limit, but I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I wouldn’t want 1,000 shareholders. I won’t say it couldn’t be done, but you’d have to have significantly more help because this is extremely labor intensive. Packing tomatoes, picking okra … all that takes time.”Despite all the work, Zach Randle says it’s worth it. “In the two years I’ve been doing this, the people that I’ve met I consider to be friends,” he said. “That’s why I do it. I don’t do it to get rich. I’m not in it for money, which is a good thing because you’re not going to get rich anyway.”Still, it may be just the boost some family farms need, says Brian Hardin, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Division.”Fortunately, fruit and vegetable production lends itself to several marketing channels for a farmer,” Hardin said. “CSAs are another option for producers in marketing their produce. As consumers become more familiar with CSAs, I think we will continue to see them increase in popularity, especially among consumers in urban areas. It’s a concept where both the consumer and producer know what to expect from one another since there is an arrangement for a certain period of time. “Since the emphasis is on supporting the local farmer, the message of ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ is a great fit with the CSA concept. CSAs help keep that connection between farmer and consumer and reminds consumers of the importance of agriculture to their lives, their community, and our state.” For more information on Randle Farms CSA, call (334) 749-1073, or email Randle Farms at email@example.com Consumers interested in being part of a CSA can visit www.BuyLocalAlabama.com and contact a farmer listed on the website. www.BuyLocalAlabama.com/.