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Dog River Farm Dollars: A New Tech Twist on the Old CSA Concept Proves a Win-Win for Both Farmer and Consumer

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by Emily Kaminsky

On a cold and windy April morning in Berlin, Dog River Farm owner George Gross stands in one of his greenhouses amongst rows of organic onion starts destined for the shelves of City Market and Healthy Living Market in Burlington. Just outside, there’s a pool of water that accumulated overnight from melting snow sitting atop frozen ground, and it’s going nowhere fast. Gross had expected to be in the middle of construction right about now on his new market stand. “As soon as this snow is gone, we’re going to break ground,” he says. The market stand renovation is one of several projects Gross has in the works. “This year, we plan to extend our pick-your-own strawberry growing season by investing in a strawberry tunnel,” he says.

These investments in infrastructure are possible thanks to the usual resources that Gross and other farmers draw upon regularly: plenty of planning, a reserve of funds saved and borrowed, plus a whole lot of persistence, a bunch of grit and a dash of luck. There is also the pre-season influx of cash from community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares, a now ubiquitous form of consumer-to-farmer funding. For Gross, who has been selling CSA shares at his organic vegetable farm for ten years, this particular form of financing farm improvements and operations has come with a fair share of headaches and unanticipated costs.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” says Gross, observing that a lot of CSA members were burnt out on the idea; they found it just didn’t work or was wasteful. There was too much food, members didn’t want the food they got or didn’t know what to do with it, they had to be there at the pickup location on a designated day or they would lose the share, and then there was the occasional missing box. When it comes down to it, the traditional way of delivering on the CSA share agreement can be aggravating and unproductive for both the farmer and the consumer.

“People have lost track of the whole idea of the CSA, which is to fund the farmer,” says Gross. “It’s a concept that’s all about ‘buy local and help your farmer’ but it seems that we’ve forgotten the ‘help your farmer’ part,” he says. Noting that a CSA is meant to make the monies available to the farmer early on in the season, Gross shares that he spends 75 percent of his annual budget in the first couple of months. “I’ve had employees for a month now to get the farm ready. And, we have to buy all of our materials up front to get the better deal,” he says.

Knowing there had to be a better way to run his CSA, Gross started Dog River Farm Dollars (DRF Dollars for short). It’s a new twist on the CSA concept that uses debit card technology to provide greater flexibility, choice and savings for the consumer while boosting the financial benefit to the farmer. How does it work? CSA share members purchase a pre-loaded value card that also comes with bonus dollars if paid in full by a certain deadline early on in the season. The cardholder then swipes the card at Dog River Farm’s self-serve market stand to redeem the dollars in veggies, fruit or other bulk items.

The benefits? Unlike the traditional CSA model, DRF Dollars never expire; it’s self-serve on-site at the farm’s market stand, and there is full flexibility of choice. “You can use these dollars anytime for veggies, eggs, meat, honey and fruit options like pick-your-own strawberries, raspberries and blueberries,” says Gross. “Dollars are also good for bulk options like root bags toward the end of the season and even for products I sell here from neighboring farms in the Dog River Valley like oats and flours.” Plus, the savings in costs to the farmer is passed on to the consumer.

The cost of running a CSA this way is incredibly low according to Gross. “With the old box style, you had to buy boxes that didn’t last and then there were all of the other headaches that came with getting the food to the consumer,” he says. The only catch is that DRF Dollars cannot be redeemed at the farmers’ market, but for good reason: Gross can’t account for who is going to come and use their card at the market. In any case, Gross argues, there is more convenience and better selection at the farm. “Come to the farm to use the card; if I run out of chard, I have extra in the cooler,” he says. “Plus, there’s more variety here at the farm. I can sell things here that I don’t sell at the farmers’ market, like blueberries.”

Ultimately, DRF Dollars benefit Gross in the upfront cash it affords him to improve the farm. This means adding greenhouses and purchasing equipment like the strawberry tunnel. “I’m so close,” he says. “If I sold two more shares, I’d be there.” And, then there’s the improvements to the market stand. “We’re going to rip the market stand right off the barn and rebuild it old-style, with big tall walls and high ceilings,” he says. In the future, he envisions a patio on the side with seating for visitors to have breakfast before they go pick their strawberries. For now, he is expanding his local offerings with chicken and beef from neighboring farms, honey from Bee Boys Honey produced right on site, plus oats, flours, and other grains from a new farm down the road.

Two other farms in Vermont use the debit card model:  River Berry Farm in Fairfax and Wood’s Market Garden in Brandon.  “It’s a viable option for us,” says Gross.  Shares are still for sale. And, the market stand will be open sometime between late May and early June.  For more information on Dog River Farm and the DRF Dollars, visit www.dogriverfarm.com.

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