CSA farming of meat by the numbers adds up to success
Kim Denney knows and works the numbers — crucial ones to Chestnut Farms. The former educator, who holds an MBA, successfully runs the community-supported agriculture livestock operation with her husband, Rich Jakshtis, in Hardwick, Mass.
“We farm by the numbers. It’s a business, and if it’s not working by the numbers, we stop doing it,” she adds.
Chestnut Farms markets meat and poultry to more than 400 shareholders committing to monthly meat distributions for six months — December through May, or June through November. Share purchases guarantee a combination of pork, beef, lamb and chicken. Thanksgiving turkeys are raised by special order. In 2009, the couple began raising meat goats, which retail at $14 to $16 a pound.
To even out cash flow and stimulate business, CSA members pay at pickup rather than at the start of the season. Price is based on how much a shareholder buys, starting at $7 a pound for 25 pounds, up to $8 a pound for 10 pounds.
Chestnut Farms also goes to four farmers markets to sell such cuts as ground beef and sausage. This helps balance out their CSA offerings between higher- and lower-end cuts.
After slaughter at a small USDA-certified slaughterhouse, their meat is flash-frozen. “It’s critical to us that the meat is USDA-compliant and family-owned,” Denney says. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, state and local agencies confirm that temperature, sanitation and animal welfare standards are met.
Once processed, meat is stored in 23 on-farm chest freezers. Denney drives the meat in a cold-plate diesel truck to locations in suburban Boston and Northampton, Mass., once a month. Shareholders take their meat home in individual red-and-white portable coolers.
While their animals receive hormone- and antibiotic-free feed, the farm isn’t certified organic. Certification proves nothing about how animals are raised, they contend. And, they stress to customers that their animals are pastured, and treated humanely.
• Chestnut Farms markets meat to 400 shareholders and four markets.
• The farm dream became a reality in 1997 with purchase of an abandoned dairy.
• Connecting communities through agriculture is CSA’s model.
Started from scratch
Denney was a single mother with two young daughters who taught school when she bought the abandoned dairy farm in 1997. The following spring, she and Jakshtis married.
“I’d always wanted to farm, but had no clue what I was getting into,” she recalls. After a 2006 bout with cancer, Denney decided to farm full time. Vegetable CSAs gave her an idea.
Denney and Jakshtis methodically developed their meat CSA, beginning with a course from the Small Farm Institute at Belchertown, Mass. Then they received a Farm Viability grant from their state, plus advice from consultants.
Next came an advanced business course called NxLvel, offered through the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture.
“Of all the people in the program, [Denney and Jakshtis] were the most prepared to expand their business,” says Rick Chandler, the department’s coordinator of ag business training.
Denney and Jakshtis wrote a 68-page business plan and designed a business structure to manage risk: one limited liability corporation for animals and machinery, another for their rental property, and a trust to hold the farmland.
Connecting with customers
Chestnut Farms’ mission statement is “Connecting people to agriculture.” It’s the linchpin to their success, the couple contend. And they communicate frequently via their Web site, e-mail newsletters and twice-annual open farm tours.
Denney’s chatty newsletter may tell how she delivered a breech piglet (“I had a new empathy for midwives in our membership ...”), how to cook pork cutlets, why they can’t offer tripe or chicken feet (required processing equipment is too expensive) or where the milk price is heading.
And it has added value — plus robust demand. They partner with neighboring farms. Because 150 acres isn’t enough to raise all the beef they need, they pasture calves at a nearby former dairy.
They co-own a Beefmaster bull with another farmer, and ram lambs from a sheep dairy and piglets from a hog farm.
Even in today’s economy, Chestnut Farms has a waiting list. This winter, Denney and Jakshtis plan to build a barn to serve as an educational center and farm store. And, they plan to sharpen the focus on their CSA.
“Our mission statement is the most valuable thing we did, although we had scoffed at it,” Denney acknowledges. “We’re connecting communities through agriculture, so a CSA model fits perfectly.”
Learn more about their personal and business strategies on their Web site, www.chestnutfarms.org.
Harlow is a Vermont freelance ag writer.
This article published in the February, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.