Over the last 15 years, Sweetwater Organic Community Farm has provided local, seasonal vegetables direct from the farmer to our community. Sweetwater grew from humble beginnings in 1993, where one of the six CSA members recalls, “back then if you didn’t show up to harvest the veggies, then you didn’t get any!” Those were simple times in Sweetwater’s history; relatively few members, 2 acres of farmland, small shares, and a farmer looking to grow a community from the ground up.
Last season Sweetwater’s membership grew to 280 members and the Sweetwater community continued to expand our reach through the St Pete Market and our own popular Sunday Market. With many members “sharing” their share, Sweetwater was able to supply more than 500 families with our certified organic vegetables.
In addition to growing healthy food for our members, Sweetwater made it part of our Mission to educate school-age children and our community about the importance of “knowing where your food comes from” and the benefits of sustainable farming practices. Since 1995 we have partnered with local pubic and private schools, local organizations, and home-school groups to bring more than 10,000 children to our field trip program. In addition, we have hosted hundreds of workshops and special community events. And thousands of CSA members and non-members have volunteered their time with us.
But with rapid growth and success, often comes growing pains. Sweetwater faces difficult years ahead as the economy continues to take its toll on us all. Mutually beneficial farming relationships that were created to meet growing demand and expand membership are changing this season.
One of our biggest changes this year will be our transition from our long-time relationship with the Bern’s Steakhouse farm, to our new location at the Children’s Home. For those of you who are unaware, Bern Laxer started his farm in the late ’60’s. The farm supplied vegetables for their restaurant operations. All of these years, Bern nurtured this farm creating wonderfully fertile soils. About six years ago Sweetwater began growing a portion of our produce at the Bern’s farm. We have also been managing vegetable production for Bern’s Steakhouse and Sidebern’s for several years. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to operate at such a wonderful location. It has allowed Sweetwater to grow in every way. During our time at Bern’s, our membership has tripled. We have produced incredible crops for all of us. But now we must take that tenuous step, like moving away from the security of our beloved childhood home of many years to a new home of our own.
It is both timely and fortunate that we have secured 7 acres of land to farm through a partnership with The Children’s Home in Tampa. Our farmers and supporters have been working hard clearing the land, digging ponds, spreading compost, installing irrigation, and now – planting cover crops – so that we can prepare to grow vegetable crops this fall. This new piece of earth and the costs associated with starting a new farm are unpredictable. However we are confident that the Sweetwater community will rise to the challenges that face us.
There is an important concept woven into the CSA model that the Sweetwater community will need to remember as together we face these challenges. Inherent in the CSA model is a “shared risk and reward” agreement where CSA members do not pay by the pound for their produce (like a grocery store), but rather support Community Shared Agriculture by paying a specific price for a “share” of what the farmers grow. The concept of shared risk and reward is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and farmers.
Our Children’s Home farm project has kicked into high gear so that we may begin crop production this season to make up for some of the production we will lose due to the sooner-than-expected end to our agreements with partner farms. The risk we face as farmers and as a community is that we cannot guarantee what this new land will yield in its first year. With your support, we will work hard and hope for a productive season, but we must also be prepared for a somewhat less bountiful harvest.
The Sweetwater Board of Directors and staff plan to take the following steps for the upcoming 2011-2012 season to ensure a smoother transition to our new farm, reduce the risk to existing members, and provide an opportunity for the most committed Sweetwater members to help us through this challenging (and exciting) year:
1. Sweetwater will limit the number of memberships to 200 total, effectively closing off new applications as of today and until further notice.
2. We will no longer have a St. Pete Market pick-up location. The many costs associated with this option are not feasible for our organization this year. We will reconsider the option again for next season. Any St Pete members interested in carpooling or sharing pick-up responsibilities in Tampa should get in touch with us and we will try to connect you with other St Pete members. (Please see contact info at end of this letter.)
3. We will offer a Refund Period from now until the end of August 2011 whereby any 2011-12 member applicant not willing to accept the additional risk this season may ask for a full refund of their membership. St. Pete pick-up members who do not wish to travel to Tampa for their share may also ask for a refund.
4. We will begin a Waiting List for people interested in joining Sweetwater should memberships become available during the refund period. Members will be added from our Waiting List with priority given to previous season (2010-11) members, and then “new” members on a first-come, first-serve basis.
If you have signed up to be a Member for the 2011-12 Season and have received a confirmation by email that your application and payment were accepted AND you wish to remain a member – there is no need to do anything.
The Sweetwater Board feels that making these immediate changes will provide us time to adjust to our new farm and use the land with respect, producing within its limits. We will continue to search for new partnerships that might supplement the produce grown by our Sweetwater farmers.
Committing to a CSA is more than just access to local produce; it involves the deliberate support of sustainable, healthy agriculture and the farmers that work so passionately to bring it to us.
We look forward to working with each and every one of you and hope that you will consider a renewed commitment to this community. Your volunteer help, donations, and kind words of support are deeply valued, appreciated, and critical to our future.
Please contact us using the contact form if you have any questions or need our assistance in any way.
Founder and Director
Sweetwater Organic Community Farm