Urban Farming is Spreading across America.
There may be a potential for Kobe to succeed in this as well, since both producers and consumers are located in close proximity to each other.
Portland, Oregon, is known to be advanced in the field of urban farming. There are farms near the urbanized areas, and this connects producers and consumers directly. The best example is called “CSA”, which stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” It is a system where consumers agree to pay in advance to a particular farmer (mainly organic farmers) to produce healthy vegetables for an entire season. With this finance, farmers can produce vegetables and deliver fresh, seasonal produce to those who have prepaid.
In 2016 and 2017, over a period of two years, a few farmers from Portland who are engaged in this CSA system visited Kobe. One participant mentioned, “In my farm’s case, a third of our total sales is from CSA, another third is from various farmers markets, and the remainder is made up of direct sales to restaurants.” It means that CSA is a key source of this farmer’s livelihood. Most of Portland residents know what CSA stands for, and 1 out of every 3 to 4 locals use it. There is a huge CSA fair once or twice a year where CSA farmers exhibit their produce. Potential supporters and consumers visit and look for a CSA farmer from whom they might want to buy vegetables for the whole year. There are a wide range of participants, so one is able to choose a farmer by their produce and farming philosophy.
A New CSA Challenge Started in Nishi Ward, Kobe (Western Kobe)
Kobe has similar environmental characteristics which make it suitable for urban farming. Some like-minded farmers in western Kobe formed a group called “Bio Creators” and started a CSA business there one and a half years ago.
We had a chance to talk to the representatives: Junko and Kazutoshi Ohsara from Naturalism Farm.
--- What was the basis for starting?
When we started as an organic farm 8 years ago, we knew from the very beginning we would need to develop a new way of doing business that was different from the conventional way. We always had an idea to seek consumers who would agree with our farming philosophy and sell our vegetables to them. Our participation in the farmers market organized by Eat Local Kobe accelerated this and enabled us to make our idea into reality. We could connect with consumers directly and sell to them. Then we learned from our fellow farmers at the market about a system called CSA in other countries, which was very similar to what we had been thinking about.
--- What are some of the advantages for farmers to be involved in CSA?
The important point is that one can receive money from consumers in advance to produce vegetables. It takes months to grow vegetables, and so this is a breakthrough compared to the conventional way of business where vegetable growers receive payments the following month after sales, or even sometimes later than that. We also feel a stronger sense of responsibility in that we should deliver the best produce possible to those who have committed to support us through paying in advance.
--- Please tell us the number of members you have as of today, and your target number of members.
Right now, we have 24 families. So far, we have not really advertised for the membership except at farmers markets. This is because it is a new challenge, and we have been doing a lot with a trial-and-error approach. If we suddenly have many members, then we might become panicked at not be able to complete our tasks. With the present membership, we feel that we can confidently handle the current workload, and at the same time we can develop the system and management tools that will enable us to accommodate increased volume. Our future target is 100 families, but for now we are looking at gradually increasing to around 50 families.
Working as a Team
--- You formed a team called “Bio Creators” to do CSA with several farmers in the same district, right?
Yes, six organic farms including ours are working together as a team: Naturalism Farm, Tanishita Farm, Kanan Farm, Natural State Farm, fresco fresco, and Agricia. The primary reason is, as I mentioned previously in regard to the number of the families, in terms of production capacity, one farm cannot cover everything. Through several farms joining hands, we can achieve two things: stabilizing the supply of produce and growing more varied items. Another important reason is that this can support new farmers who have just started. Among our fellow farmers, one farm along with ours has several years of experience. The other four farms are producing quality vegetables but have a shorter career of about a year or so. For those new farmers, building a sales network from scratch is tough, not to mention juggling farming, sales and delivery on their own. I remember the first years. The CSA system enables these new farmers to secure a sales network, and it also helps their cashflow since the payment term is short. Of course developing their own sales channel is very important, but at the start they can focus on farming.
Fundamentally, there is a spirit of “encouragement and mutual support” at the core of the CSA system. Members do not choose us just because of the healthy fresh vegetables. They have their minds set on supporting local farmers, just like in the name. Therefore, they would also like to foster the growth of young farmers with future potential.
Last year, when the farmers from Portland visited Kobe, they said they had never heard of CSA team sales as we are doing here. It is an effective way for small farmers here in Japan. Moreover, we feel the involvement of new farmers has a key role in the system.
Current Membership and Consistency
--- A consumer who has signed up to join CSA will receive a vegetable delivery weekly or biweekly for one season (which is 10 weeks). So what kind of vegetables do they receive?
One thing we can say for sure is that each and every delivery consists of vegetables of that season. For example, carrots are available at a supermarket all year round, but we only put carrots in a delivery box when they come into season. In other words, consumers learn about seasons and the vegetables associated with them. Traditionally, foods that were in season were only consumed in that particular season.
We also include some exotic vegetables that each farmer produces, and we attach a recipe so that consumers can try a new dish and learn some new ways to prepare food. We hope they enjoy the experience.
Organic farmers tend to grow unfamiliar vegetables to differentiate themselves. However, our fellow farmers are aware that standard vegetables are also important for CSA. We hold a meeting regularly to discuss and adjust various planting decisions: whether we should increase potatoes and onions, whether we should collaborate and plant more variety, or different types of potatoes, etc.
--- Is the pricing of CSA expensive or inexpensive?
It is a seasonal package to be paid in advance, and a vegetable box has 10 items and is about the same price range compared to those at a supermarket. Sometimes vegetable prices soar because of weather conditions, but on those occasions, members really appreciate that CSA prices stay consistent and do not reflect these increases. (laugh)
--- What kind of people usually sign up for CSA? What is the cancellation rate?
In most of the cases, women are the ones signing up. Household category varies: families with small children, couples without children, single people and so on. Almost all current members continue their membership, and the cancellation rate is very low.
How is This Different from Traditional Direct Sales?
--- What are the differences between the CSA system and conventional direct sales/mail-orders?
The biggest difference is that consumers and farmers both are directly connected, and so the commitment is stronger. Through the members’ commitment, we receive an advance payment which gives us peace of mind while we grow vegetables. In return, consumers receive vegetables on a regular basis from farmers they know and trust. We sell through various channels, and each and every customer is very valuable to us. However, we have special feelings for CSA members, who are our direct supporters and are more closely connected to us. We care about them first and foremost.
CSA members can receive vegetables either by picking them up from the farmer, or at a shop that we trust in the downtown area. Either way, we like to communicate with our members face to face as much as possible.
We are planning to hold a “Farm Tour” soon for our CSA members. By seeing the farms and talking to the farmers on our team, members will feel even closer to them, and it would be nice for the various members to mingle with each other. It is also wonderful for the farmers. We farmers get even more motivated when we hear great feedback from our members in person, such as “The vegetables we got from you were delicious!” and we get to know what kind of people our customers are.
--- How do you see the CSA system further developing in the community and society?
CSA does not make up a big portion of our entire sales yet; however, we see great potential for CSA. As CSA gets more recognition by the general public and the CSA sales ratio becomes greater, farmers will be able to hedge risk, and management will become more stable.
On a broader level, CSA could effectively become a “safety net” where both farmers and consumers support each other to secure quality food for the next generations. We hope to join hands together and become connected in this spirit of cooperation.