Manawa farm couple chases the CSA dream
Brian and Anne Nischke dropped everything in 2011 to pursue their dream of owning a farm. The dream came true, but then came the work.
“When we met, Brian was working on a grazing dairy farm, and he was considering going that route, and then the milk prices really dropped,” Anne said.
So the young couple reconsidered, deciding that a dairy farm venture so dependant on flucuating milk prices was too risky. Instead, they chose to venture into the business of community supported agriculture, or CSAs.
The Nischkes established East Slope Farm on 40 acres of land on a gentle slope of a hill along W. River Road — about 25 miles northeast of Waupaca between Manawa and Marion — and set out to grow crops and cultivate a base of customers looking to purchase food directly from the farm.
The CSA model allows customers to purchase shares of a farmer's crop, like fruits and vegetables, before the growing season even begins. The food is distributed weekly and the advance payment helps farmers plan ahead.
The Nischkes — Brian is 43, Anne 37 — are now five growing seasons in and the lessons, some financial, some crop related, are piling up.
They invested $140,000 in the land and property and tapped into their savings and some additional loans for the needed equipment, but the planning has proved difficult and breaking even, let alone making a profit, looked for a long time like a pipe dream. That first year, they lost money. It was much the same the next year, and the year after that.
But they forged on.
“You can’t buy all of this stuff and invest in it and then quit the next year,” Brian said. "You can’t give up."
It took three years before they began to recoup their investment. Anne still has to work part-time to supplement their income.
At the outset, the Nischkes figured they would give the farm five years to prove successful, but they've since revised that plan to 10 years.
“I feel like we’re still not in a rhythm yet,” Brian said. “We’re still making mistakes. We’re still correcting mistakes.
But as they gain more experience, business is getting better. They now have 110 loyal customers.
The rising popularity of CSAs could be helping business, too.
More consumers are buying into the farm-to-table movement and the desire for locally sourced food, creating a demand for operations like East Slope Farm. The number of CSAs across the country have increased to more than 12,600 farms, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The number was in the hundreds two decades ago when CSA farms were still a novelty.
Brian, who has a background in environmental sciences, said knowing which vegetables are worth planting and which ones aren't is still a work in progress. They've banked heavily on the likes of cabbage, lettuces, kale, carrots, peppers, cucumbers and broccoli.
“In some situations, it’s like you only have one chance to try something new for the season,” he said. “If it fails, well then that’s it. You have to wait until next season to try something new."
Sometimes it's just not popular at all, and sometimes it's too popular ... with nearby animals. Sweet corn is a crop that can become a headache for farmers.
“We were losing huge plantings to the deer and raccoon,” Anne said. “The night before we're ready to harvest it, they’re in there wiping it out.”
On the positive side, East Slope Farm's customers have been enthusiastic.
“They actually sell the best carrots ever,” said Sarah Niebergall, who is in her second season with the farm. “I was raving about them and I kept going back.”
Getting the word out about the farm has been a challenge for the Nischkes, but their customers have been helping market the business.
"So much of growing vegetables, and people buying it, is you provide a high quality product consistently, and eventually you would think that people who buy your stuff like it and will buy it again and they will tell their friends and family that you have a good product," Brian said.
The plan is working. Slowly.
“I’ve told everybody that I know that I do it, or I share the information,” Niebergall said.
The Nischkes also write a newsletter to send to their customers, which includes background on the vegetables, directions on how to best store them and assorted recipes. If a crop is damaged, Anne makes sure to let the customers know that as well.
"They’re conversational about it, and it’s a joy to get that box (of food) because (of) not only what’s in it, but you feel like it’s kind of a nice visit with a nice family and you know where it’s coming from," said Mary Flanagan, now in her third season as a customer.
The Nischkes, who now have a 1-year-old daughter, Marit, are still trying to figure out what works and what doesn't, but they say they remain committed to the journey.
“It really is important to revisit those goals that you put in your business plan because it’s so easy for the farm to consume you, and then before you know it 10 years are up and you haven’t met any of your goals,” Brian said.
Despite the last four semi-rough years, there is no regret.
“Every day I’m like, really, how did this all happen?” Anne said. “But it’s great. It’s been a neat experience.”