What is it like to be a CSA farmer in Iowa? (Part 1)

March 2, 2016
by Carrie Chennault, graduate research assistant

Today’s post features farmer Julia Slocum who operates Lacewing Acres. This is a certified organic vegetable farm located just north of Ames. She started Lacewing Acres in 2013, primarily as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation. By 2015, the farm had around 50 members. This year she plans to grow her CSA to 75 or 80 members. She is currently accepting new members for the 2016 season. Lacewing Acres’ CSA is featured in the Iowa CSA Directory, and you can check out the farm’s website and Facebook page.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Julia this past week. She shared with me some of her passions, inspirations, thoughts about food in Iowa, and what it’s like to be a CSA farmer. This is the first of two posts I’ll write on Julia and Lacewing Acres. I hope you’ll enjoy her story as much as I did.

Winter tasks

Right now it’s mid-February. And if you’re like me, you might be asking yourself what a vegetable farmer in Iowa does in the middle of winter. Julia said that aside from picking up odd jobs, she’s working on her taxes, reviewing yield and sales records, and managing QuickBooks records.

To get ready for the 2016 season, Julia is also placing orders for seeds and supplies. She’s making needed adjustments in her crop rotation plan, and laying out the seeding plan for the year so that she’s ready to till and plant.

I next asked Julia what changes we can expect from Lacewing Acres in the 2016 season. Beginning this season, she has made the business decision to transition away from the farmers market to focus on expanding the CSA. Over the winter, Julia has also been chewing on the bigger picture of the farm. Longer term, she is weighing two options. Should she offer a smaller CSA over an extended season, or a larger CSA concentrated in the peak season?

csa farmer 1 greenhouse
Julia working on her greenhouse.

Accomplishments

Julia undoubtedly has accomplished a lot in the first three years of Lacewing Acres. I asked her what accomplishment she is most proud of. She responded, “Getting to a point where I can ignore my insecurities and just do it.” As she looks back over the last years, Julia expresses how farming has given her confidence as a grower and as a human. She remembers back to a time four years ago when she felt intimidated by more experienced growers.

She said those other growers probably haven’t changed much in their interactions with her in the past four years. But her level of confidence in her knowledge and abilities has changed. And that confidence isn’t limited to farming. Julia says, “I feel that in other aspects of my life.” We talked about how farming, in that way, is unlike any other job she’s had before.

I also wanted to find out a little more about CSAs in general and her membership. I asked, “What is the most common question she gets from CSA members or the public?” She replied that it is, “How did you get into this?” She gets the question, she said, because it’s not a common profession or a common type of farming. Julia still runs into people weekly who have not heard of a CSA.  When she explains it, they all say to her, “Oh yeah, that’s really cool.” She has never had a negative reaction. She sees so much potential in those encounters.

What about CSA?

I asked Julia what else she would like readers to know about CSAs or Lacewing Acres. Julia thinks everyone should try joining a CSA at least once, unless they are certain it wouldn’t be a good fit. Julia admits that she would be a terrible CSA member, because she’s a self-described mediocre cook and doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking. But she cooks a lot more now than she ever has before, with access to an abundance of produce for so much of the year.

She used to not cook, in part, because she did not feel she had enough money to take risks on new foods and to experiment in the kitchen. We talked about other families and individuals struggling financially and the difficulty of experimenting with new foods. Julia said that she hopes for more school gardens, farmers markets, and other programs that offer cooking demonstrations and suggestions.

One of her goals is to find ways to make her CSA an option for people of all income levels. She has made strides at this goal by providing members the option to sponsor shares for lower income members. Or they can sponsor donations to social assistance organizations like Food at First and MICA. She also was encouraged by a company manager this year who approached her to buy shares for his employees. She hopes that this could be a model for other employers.

In the next post in this series, you can read the story of how Julia, who didn’t grow up farming, found her way back to her hometown of Ames, Iowa and started a CSA.  I’ll also share with you Julia’s thoughts and hopes for tackling urgent issues related to community, food, and agriculture in Iowa.


Read the second post in this series here.