Northern Nevada's cadre of small farmers - those with just a few acres - are finding that subscription farming provides a valuable stream of revenue when they need it most.
And the deals in which customers often pay an upfront deposit and payments throughout the winter and spring for boxes of produce delivered on a regular schedule give small farmers a solid way of gauging demand for their crops.
Some Northern Nevada farmers with subscription plans have as few as 15 customers, while others have more than 300 subscriptions. One of the biggest benefits of subscription farming, says Ray Johnson of Custom Gardens Organic Farm, is the vital income provided by winter and springtime subscription sales.
"From April through the first of July, everything is an expense," says Johnson, who has worked his 2.5-acre plot of land in Silver Springs for 22 years. "Everything is money going out on products, seed, equipment, labor - every conceivable expense is during those months."
In conventional farming models, Johnson says, farmers often are forced to turn to agricultural lenders in lean months to get short-term loans to purchase supplies and pay labor. Subscription farming, also known as community-supported agriculture, provides farmers with a means to avoid taking on any additional debt while they're nurturing a crop to harvest.
Membership sales also allow farmers to gauge revenues.
"It tells us how many people we are growing for, and it gives us an idea how much seed, equipment and labor are needed to fulfill the number of boxes or subscriptions we have taken on," Johnson says. "It gives you those planning tools, which are very important."
Customers typically pay about $30 to $40 for a pre-made box of produce each week for about 12 to 16 weeks. Boxes contain a variety of in-season vegetables and fruits. Subscriptions are sold with some customer input so farmers can determine what crops people want and how much to plant.
Rachel McClure, co-owner of Sierra Edibles with her husband Daniel, is in her first year of subscription farming on her 10-acre spread in Wellington in the Smith Valley. Sierra Edibles has grown hiratake mushrooms, specialty herbs and vegetables for local restaurants for four years.
Sierra Edibles took on 48 subscriptions in the Smith and Mason Valleys and plans to expand its reach into Carson City and Lake Tahoe next year. McClure says that although it is more difficult to manage a subscription service versus running a farmer's market stand, the extra administrative duties are outweighed by predictable sales.
"In farming that is so important - it is so hard to put so much into a crop and not have it sell," she says. "Community-supported agriculture takes a lot of planning, and you are making a financial commitment that you have to meet. You may have a difficult spring that really puts your crops very far back, but you still have obligations to meet."
Johnson also sells his crops at farmer's markets and a roadside stand, but sales at those outlets can be impacted by poor weather and other factors, such as the smoke from California wildfires that blanketed much of northern Nevada two summers ago and kept shoppers indoors.
Farmers welcome the stability of subscription sales, says Ann Louhela, who coordinates 300 members for the Great Basin Basket CSA.
"That farmer knows every week he has got baskets that are pre-sold and paid for," Louhela says.
Subscription farming not only takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation for farmers, but it also allows them to focus on growing a specialty crop- some farmers are experts at raising fruits and berries, while others prefer to grow greens and other vegetables.
"Instead of having to grow 70 different things, they can grow a dozen different crops and then thrown them all in the pot," Louhela says. "It gives members a better variety too."
Salisha Odum, owner of Salisha's Delicious, a one-acre organic farm in Fallon, says subscription farming has been the best thing that's happened in her 15-year farming career. Odum currently has 15 subscriptions, but she's been growing for other subscriptions farms in Churchill County and Washoe Valley for the past three years.
Profits are largely determined by how many hours she works, Odum says. She shares tedious chores with her boyfriend and sometimes hires labor for weeding and replanting. Odum harvests all crops herself to maintain tight quality control.
"I want to see everything that goes out," she says.
Subscription farming is not without risk to farmers. It can be much more labor-intensive than traditional farming, says Louhela. Because customers already have paid for their produce, farmers must purchase crops from other farms in the area if they have crop failures or a late start to the growing season.
Johnson of Custom Gardens Organic Farm says the start of the growing season has shifted to 30 days later in the year during the past five years. Soil temperatures have to be around 55 degrees for planting, he says. Oftentimes, farmers purchase crops from neighboring farms or even from California farms to meet their subscription obligations.
Negative economic cycles also can adversely affect subscription sales, which can plummet 25 to 30 percent during a down economy.