In cash crisis, Whippoorwill wilts
Fresh vegetable lovers, advocates of local agriculture, and conservationists alike breathed a sigh of relief last November at the news that Eric Grubman would purchase the 43-acre Thimble Farm property in Tisbury, allowing Andrew Woodruff to maintain his Whippoorwill Farm operations there. But now, less than one year later, the farm is again facing a financial crisis. With an $81,000 deficit, Whippoorwill is appealing to its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members to help get finances back on track and allow the farm to continue operating.
The 2007 purchase by Mr. Grubman, a National Football League executive and Edgartown summer resident, was a welcome 11th-hour reprieve for Mr. Woodruff, who had been leasing the property for three years from Lawrence Benson. But he and supporters had feared they would have to give the farm up when it went on the market despite determined negotiations and fundraising.
The letters signed by the five advisory committee members went out Monday by surface and email to some 700 CSA members, spelling out in detail the farm's financial burdens and what led to them. The letter asks members to make a one-time contribution above and beyond their yearly membership fees to offset the deficit. Suggested donations are based on the level of membership: $250 for a full share member and $125 for those with partial shares. The CSA system, used by farmers in many locations, allows members to sign on for a full or partial growing season. A flat-rate total season payment is made in advance, giving the farmer necessary funds to pay for springtime start-up costs. Mr. Woodruff has run the CSA operation for approximately 10 years, four of them at the current location.
"I'm feeling relieved that we told the members the truth and let them know how difficult it's been financially to make this all work," said Mr. Woodruff in a brief interview yesterday.
Both Mr. Woodruff and advisory committee members said they had agonized about whether to reveal the financial problems to the membership, but were glad they did so.
"I'm optimistic," said Mr. Woodruff. "I've been through rough years trying to save the farm and then start up a new business in a new location. I'm hoping we can get through his difficult couple of months so we can reorganize and improve the financial structure and bottom line for the farm and keep it going."
"We've had a lot of support over the last four years, members and volunteers have worked very hard," he said. "None of us want to shut the farm down. We feel we stil have an opportunity to make it work."
"We felt very strongly we had to tell it as it is, as difficult as that is," said Tad Crawford, an advisory committee member from West Tisbury. "We couldn't just roll the problem over from one year to the next."
"We're very encouraged," said advisory committee member Alice Early of Chilmark yesterday. "The first days' reaction has been incredibly supportive. We're very grateful."
Ms. Early said that only hours after the letter was sent, members began sending money and emailing messages of support. Those picking up their weekly produce orders at the farm expressed concern and support.
Ms. Early said revenue from the appeal will go to meet immediate operating expenses, primarily paying the field workers. The goal is to keep the farm operating through this CSA season, which usually ends with a Thanksgiving pick-up including traditional vegetables for the holiday meal. But she said if funds run out before that they will need to shut down early rather than borrow money to keep operating. "We'll go as long as we can - we just hope we can get all the crops harvested and delivered," she said.
Factors impacted budget
According to Ms. Early, Mr. Woodruff and the advisory group were so caught up in efforts to save the farm last fall, they were unable to fully analyze the costs of CSA shares and make needed adjustments. Ms. Early said that since then careful assessment of food production costs and the value of produce delivered in the weekly shares indicates that prices or amounts delivered will need to be adjusted. "We've really done the homework," she said.
This year's full share cost, including produce from early spring to late fall, was $700. Members could also purchase a 10-week share for $430 or five weeks for $210. In addition, some members made private arrangements with one or two others to divide up a single share. Figures in the letter show that the value of the produce delivered outstrips the price paid with a full seasonal share worth more than $1,200. Members received $580 worth of food for a 10-week share, and a value of $290 for a five-week share. Ms. Early said that store and Farmer's Market prices were used to calculate the produce's value.
Throwing the budget even further off balance this season was the fact that an extensive wholesale tomato enterprise planned for this summer did not meet the expected productivity. The greenhouse tomato crop, which would have been sold to markets, caterers, and restaurants, was far less than predicted in peak season when it was in demand.
To the casual observer, Whippoorwill Farm gives every sign of being successful. But, in fact, Mr. Woodruff has been battling to keep the farm on an even financial keel. According to advisory committee members, employee salaries, fuel charge increases, and other rising costs forced Mr. Woodruff to borrow several times to make ends meet, resulting in a build-up of debt. As the season winds down there is no cash flow to cover wages and other operating expenses.
"Farming on the Vineyard is really tough," commented Mr. Crawford, citing the high cost of living and scarcity of affordable housing and services for employees as factors in the problem. "We hope people who are devoted to this concept and to Andrew will accept the message and pitch in."
Ms. Early said that the goal is to continue with the program next year with a revised price structure. "We're going to have another CSA." Ms. Early pledged, "It's just going to have to be a more realistic CSA."
For more information or to contribute, call 508-693-9559 or visit whippoorwillfarmcsa.com.