PROVO, Utah (AP) - Standing at the foot of La Nay Ferme’s tiered plot of land on the bench above Provo, nearly every corner of Utah Valley is visible.
Behind the roughly two-dozen hoophouses where the farm’s produce is grown, the land slopes upward into grassy foothills, backed by the steep faces of Cascade Mountain and Mount Timpanogos.
In June 2011, Clinton Felsted decided to turn his attention away from his career in the software industry and start an organic farm. Days later he found this picturesque plot of land and signed a 20-year lease. His vision was clear: start a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA. He would grow the best organic produce available in Utah Valley, find people to buy a share of what the farm produced and feed his neighbors. If he could get 200 people out of this valley of half-a-million to buy into his program, the farm would be a success.
Four years later, the farm is struggling to break even. Unable to find support for something he truly believes in, Felsted’s vision seems deflated, even while his passion for what he is trying to do burns intensely.
“To be honest, it’s been a complete failure,” said Felsted, 43. “I had no idea it would be such a failure.”
When he started out, Felsted wanted to keep things simple and local.
“What defines us is that we’re very focused on high-quality produce,” Felsted said. “We’re not a cheap product; we’re the best food that you can possibly get in Utah.”
Felsted said he was motivated to try to break out of the pattern of cheapness that is becoming ubiquitous in our country, not just in the realm of food. People today are more interested in buying something cheap than they are in buying something of quality, Felsted said. They’d rather keep replacing things that break than buy something quality that lasts.
“We don’t want to be a part of the cheap culture,” he said. “I personally think it’s awful. It’s destroyed the economy of America. … I don’t think we can afford to be so cheap.”
Felsted saw a lack of local, high-quality food being grown in Utah Valley and felt it was a role he could fill. He thought if people were given the chance, they’d stop buying cheap produce grown on mega-farms in California, sprayed with pesticides and preservatives and shipped in trucks to be left sitting in grocery stores for weeks.
Instead, they would choose to buy something grown by their neighbor, harvested that morning, devoid of chemical adulteration.
“Being a member of the CSA means buying your produce in season without a middle man. I think there’s something special there,” Felsted said. “It’s more neighborly; it’s more of a community.”
The CSA would allow him to do something productive that added value to his community. He would grow the best food possible, and those who bought into it would be supporting the farm and, in turn, each other.
“We want to connect with people,” Felsted said. “Being big is not what I care about at all; having a quality product is what I care about.”
LACK OF SUPPORT
Unfortunately, Felsted hasn’t found the support he thought he would, and he is still pouring his own money in to keep the farm afloat. In order to keep things going he has had to change his strategy and move away from a strictly CSA model.
La Nay Ferme now sells its produce at several Days Market locations, Meier’s Fine Foods in Highland and Real Foods Market in Orem. Customers can have it delivered by Winder Farms, and the farm now offers direct home delivery to its CSA customers. Still, the farm struggles to find enough customers to make a profit.
To complicate matters, Felsted now lives out of the country due to family issues. He still works on farm business six days a week, he said, and keeps in touch with his farm workers and customers every day. He handles all of the marketing and customer service for his farm, writing weekly newsletters and coordinating professional photography of the food being grown to entice new customers.
“I had no idea I would be facing such a situation when I started my farm, and the easiest decision for me was to build a beautiful family rather than work my heart out for a farm that is not supported by the community,” he wrote in an email.
Felsted said there are few things that could keep him away from the farm, and that he’s spent an overwhelming amount of time, money and stress trying to return to Utah.
He knows his absence has hurt the farm, but it also allowed him to develop a software program for the farm that helps with planning and efficiency.
What it comes down to, Felsted said, is people in the area don’t seem inclined to support local agriculture. They care more about price than food integrity. He said he routinely emails restaurants that market that they serve organic, local produce to see if they would offer a local salad and he almost never gets a response.
Recently, Provo Mayor John Curtis wrote a blog post about La Nay Ferme, sharing it with thousands of followers. Felsted said it generated $100 in sales.
Before he left, Felsted visited the Provo and Happy Valley farmers markets and found very little interest in produce. He said if he was here and took the food to Salt Lake City or Park City markets he could probably do well, but his goal was to do something for the people of Utah Valley.
La Nay Ferme recently got an injection of passion in the form of a new worker — Nakita Nez.
Felsted said he was on the verge of shuttering the farm last month when several workers quit all at once, until he received an email from Nez, who was looking for a job that she could feel good about. She had seen produce marked La Nay Ferme in a Days Market, looked it up online and was immediately interested.
“We both have the same passions and visions about healthy lifestyle, eating healthy and supporting the community,” Nez said.
Nez, 27, now spends her mornings harvesting produce for the CSA members who are scheduled to pick up that day and making deliveries to the grocery stores and restaurants that serve La Nay Ferme’s food. Nez said although she goes home every day dirty and sweaty, working for something she believes in makes this the best job she’s ever had.
Nez, like Felsted, is a firm believer that local, organic food is something important for a community to have access to. She said some people may think organic food is a luxury, but that the price is really reasonable for the average consumer. Nez also said she thinks people need to change the way they think about organics.
“I think it’s kind of funny though, that people think that something that is organic and natural is something special,” Nez said. “It is special, but this is normal.
“Eating plants and fruit from the earth that haven’t been genetically modified or have pesticides on them — that’s natural. That’s normal to humankind.”
Knowing she is eating something that is good for her body and good for the environment is a bonus, but Nez said it really comes down to taste. She feels nothing can compare to going out in the farm, harvesting a tomato or cucumber or some spinach, and eating it right there.
“It looks better, it feels better, it tastes better,” Nez said. “It’s all over amazing.”
CLOSE TO SUCCESS
Felsted said La Nay Ferme is very close to being successful. If he can at least break even he will continue with the farm, as he feels it is a positive element in the community. He knows he will never make a living off the farm, but if he can at least break even and keep it going he will consider it a success.
He knows there are people out there he hasn’t reached yet, but the percentage of people who voice their support compared to those who actually buy food from the farm is a continuing frustration.
The farm’s Facebook page has more than 1,100 likes, yet only 36 people are members of the CSA. Felsted said if half his online followers bought a $4 bag of greens each week, the farm would be a success.
“I don’t need many customers to be successful,” Felsted wrote in an email. “All the farm needs is about 100 customers to break even. Breaking even is all I really care about.”
Selling to the local grocery stores is the only reason La Nay Ferme is still in business, Felsted said. He plans to continue to develop that business, but it’s not the person-to-person intimacy he wanted when he started this venture.
Felsted stressed his main goal is to have a positive influence on our food culture and to provide something beneficial for the community. While he will do whatever he can to make sure the farm survives, he still hopes that survival can center around a CSA model that allows him to put food directly onto the tables of the people who live here.
“I really want the families,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping will change eventually.”
Information from: The Daily Herald, https://www.heraldextra.com
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