Marcie Brewster is busy every day, but Thursdays are especially hectic. That's the day that she and her partner at Wildfire Farm, Diane Schumacher, clean and deliver vegetables they grow in their organic market garden on Dry Fork Creek to their CSA members and customers at St. John's Medical Center.
Marcie is a long time resident of Carroll County. After a stint in the Peace Corp where she volunteered with farmers in rural Rwanda, Marcie bought a small acreage in the southern part of the County just below Metalton and began growing organic vegetables for herself and the local market. It takes five years for an organic operation to become certified and that was exactly the time it took for Wildfire Farm to proudly hang their "Certified Organic" sign up at local venues.
One of those venues was the Berryville Farmers' Market, which Marcie founded with significant support from the local Merchants' Association, the City of Berryville, the First National Bank, and other local businesses. For several years following that beginning Marcie and Diane could be found on the town square in Berryville every Saturday morning, greeting customers and supplying them with vegetables and cut flowers.
For the past two years, though, Wildfire Farm has skipped vending at Farmer's Markets and has used other market channels for its production. "I loved the interaction with people at our farmers' markets," Marcie said, "But farmers' markets are really time-consuming and there was always the chance that we wouldn't sell out. Other methods of selling are much more profitable."
Marcie's experience is consistent with most that of most farmers throughout the United States, especially in smaller population areas. While farmers enjoy interacting with customers--and customers love the festival-like nature of farmers' markets--farmers are realizing much greater profits and far less waste by selling through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangements with customers, or by selling directly to a chefs' collaborative or to institutional buyers such as hospitals or schools.
That's why Marcie and Diane began the Wildfire Farm CSA a few years ago. Briefly, a CSA operates very like a magazine subscription: you prepay an annual fee and your magazine--or in the case of Wildfire Farm, your food--is delivered at a regular time. "Our customers really give us good feedback," Marcie reports. "Sometimes they get more of one kind of vegetable than they like, sometimes less of another type, but everyone understands that we basically get what the earth provides. It all works out."
Last year, CSA customers who also work at St. John's Hospital in Berryville asked Marcie and Diane if they would be willing to start a farmers market at the hospital so that all employees and visitors could access the fresh and local produce supplied by Wildfire Farm.
"Initially," Marcie said, "I was excited by the idea and almost jumped at it. Then, the reality of putting in the extra time required by farmers' markets, and the chance of having unsold product deterred me. I wondered if there was a better way to meet both St. John's and Wildfire farm's needs."
What that wondering led to has been a hybrid CSA and Farmers' Market where St John's employees go on-line to a Locally Grown internet link and order vegetables and other products like eggs and flowers off a menu for delivery on Thursdays. The Locally Grown site creates order forms and invoices for specific St. John's customers that Marcie uses to package their orders. This system assures that the customer never gets too little or too much of any product, which sometimes happens at a CSA, and Marcie and Diane never suffer losses from products that don't sell, a common problem for farmers' market vendors. Everyone wins.
St. John's Hospital feels like a winner too, according to Marcie. "St. John's loves being able to facilitate healthy choices for its employees and really likes role modeling smart food buying habits for our community."
St. John's willingness to facilitate a relationship between its employees and Wildfire Farm is actually realization of a trend among health care professionals and provider organizations that is occurring in nearly every state across the country. For example, Kaiser Permanente, a national network of hospitals and clinics, plans to have a farmers' market on the grounds of every hospital by 2015.
Preston Maring, a Kaiser Permanente OB-GYN physician, uses the hospital's farmers' market as a teaching tool for expectant mothers. "Getting moms on healthy diets make significant contributions to trouble free deliveries and healthy babies," he says. "It really helps showing them how fruits and vegetables at our farmer's market can help them proactively manage their weight and overall health before and after delivery."
"The best part of providing food to St. John's employees," says Marcie, "is getting to know their preferences, and hearing them delight over what we bring them. They keep me and Diane connected to the reasons why we wanted to be farmers in the first place."
To learn more about Wildfire Farm tune into The Ozark Harvest Radio Hour and hear an exclusive interview with Marcie about the farm and how CSAs work.