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Marketing & Management - The Family Feast - Stufflebeam Family Farm

The Stufflebeam family operates one of the largest CSA farms in Texas and thanks to their tireless efforts to promote the garden-to-table movement, they’re known as their members’ “personal” farmers.

Hobby Farms Magazine May/June 2008  By Jennifer Nice

 

When Brad Stufflebeam sits down for dinner every night, he’s surrounded by his family.

Seated at the modest farmhouse table is Jenny, his partner and wife of 14 years, and their daughters, Carina, 10, and Brooke, 8.

The table is laden with food that represents some of Brad’s extended family—his fellow local farmers.

This particular evening, the Stufflebeams’ dinner is comprised of grass-fed bison, artisan cheese and fresh butter from their neighbors up the road.

The homemade bread is just hours out of the oven. A neighboring farmer’s wife brought it by when she came to collect fresh eggs from the Stufflebeam girls.

The Stufflebeams’ Home Sweet Farm, in Brenham, Texas, is a family farm, but it’s also a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm and its 100 members comprise the rest of what the Stufflebeams’ consider their extended family.

This family farm is the center of a unique cooperative; it’s the result of the Stufflebeams’ tireless effort to provide for these families.

Their efforts represent the local food movement that’s gaining momentum across the nation. It’s spurred by people’s desire to be connected to their food source; farmers like the Stufflebeams are that source.

 
Call Him “Farmer Brad”
Brad Stufflebeam grew up in a Dallas, Texas, suburb.  He describes himself as a suburban kid obsessed with sustainable agriculture.

Always self-taught, always striving to learn by doing, Brad immersed himself in books and dirt, wanting to learn everything he could about what would become his life and livelihood.

He got his professional start as a landscape designer, and focused on dry-climate landscaping, native plants and wildlife habitat, and antique roses.

“The choices I’ve made and the things I’ve done have always been toward this objective,” says Brad. “When I got into horticulture, I knew we would have a small, family farm someday.”

The Stufflebeams then started a nursery business in McKinney, Texas. It was one of the first 100 percent organic nurseries in Texas.

One of the nursery’s popular draws was Brad’s demonstration garden, in which he grew herbs and vegetables using entirely organic methods.

This garden was a small-scale representation of what the Stufflebeams hoped to have someday—an organic farm that would provide food for their community.

Luck struck the Stufflebeams twice when an offer to buy their nursery came in at the same time Brad was offered the job of operations director for World Hunger Relief, Inc. (WHRI)
 
It was an opportunity that would take them south to Elm Mott, Texas, and give Brad tremendous experience, putting him and Jenny closer to their objective.

“I was with WHRI for two and a half years,” says Brad.

“During that time, I ran the CSA and a Grade-A raw goat dairy, and I raised lamb, rabbit and organic pecans. This gave me good insight into community development, as well as world hunger and economic problems.”

Armed with the experience they needed, Brad and Jenny began looking at property on which they could start their own CSA farm. They ultimately chose a 22-acre parcel in Brenham, in south-central Texas.

“Going south would give us a longer growing season and higher-than-average rainfall,” Brad says. “Plus, the proximity to Houston, Austin and San Antonio would be a good market for us. From a historical perspective, this is a great part of Texas to be in. A lot of the state’s history was made here.”

The Stufflebeams closed escrow on their family farm in December 2004. Three months later, they were selling their organic produce at local farmers’ markets.  They worked as hard and as quickly as they could to cultivate enough crops to be able to start their CSA and provide their members with an adequate allocation.

It didn’t take long, but initially the going was rough.

“The first two years we had a record-breaking drought and then the next year we had record-breaking floods,” recalls Brad. What saved them was the fact that they had planted a wide variety of crops for their CSA members.

“During the drought, some crops failed, but the dry-weather, heat-loving crops like peppers, tomatoes and okra did great,” Brad says. “The next year, we had 36 consecutive days of rain. We lost our tomato crop and our melons, but that was only a small percentage of what we grew. Our greatest insurance is the variety we grow. There are always going to be some crops that fail, but by growing many different things, [our members] get their produce.”


Personal Farmers
In extreme situations such as this, the fact that Home Sweet Farm is a CSA farm means that its members share the risk of growing the food. Being a CSA farm gives the farmer security in the form of a fixed income to carry him through the highs and lows of good and poor seasons.
 
The members are incredibly supportive of the Stufflebeams because they feel a sense of ownership in the farm.

Now in its third year, the Stufflebeams’ CSA program is currently at its cap of 100 members, having doubled in membership each year since its inception.

“We are one of the largest CSA farms in the state and we have a waiting list,” says Brad. “We decided to cap our membership for now so that we could grow our infrastructure. We don’t want to get so big that we can’t give our members personal attention.”

For members like Mandi Barnard of Brenham, Texas, and Angela Austin, of Chappell Hill, Texas, that personal attention is why they joined the Stufflebeams’ CSA.

“It’s important to me to feed my family as healthy as possible,” says Mandi. “I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find organic food here. [Finding the Stufflebeams] in Brenham was like a green light for me to move here.”

Angela also sought out the Stufflebeams because she wanted organic, field-ripened produce.

“Eating healthy is important, and eating locally is one of the best and most convenient ways to achieve that,” says Angela. “I like knowing where my food is coming from and who’s growing it. It’s nice to have a personal relationship with a farmer. It’s almost like having a personal farmer.”

To his customers, he’s “Farmer Brad,” the face behind the food. The CSA model actually originated in Japan, explains Brad, and “the Japanese word for CSA translates to ‘food with a face.’”

The Stufflebeams currently farm 12 of their 22 acres. By dividing the cultivated land into four quadrants, they easily fill a 32-week growing season.

“Our season starts in late March and runs 22 weeks, including our spring and summer crops,” says Brad. “We take a break during the heat of August and September, and then, depending on the weather, start up in October and deliver for another 10 weeks in the fall. In one [quadrant] we have a new season’s crop coming in, in another the previous season’s crop is going out and the other two always have a cover crop in rotation. We put a lot of emphasis on building up organic material. We do a lot of green manures and cover crops to replenish the soil.”


Growing the Community
Growing the crops is just part of the Stufflebeams’ business. Another important element is getting their members’ allocations to them. They set up several drop sites in Houston, then organized driving groups from the various communities to go to the drop site.

“We create the community by promoting our CSA and the services we offer,” says Brad. “Our members don’t really know each other, other than they see each other when they pick up their food. Through our CSA, they developed a sense of community amongst themselves.”

Last year, the Jewish Community Center in Houston contacted the Stufflebeams about serving their members and the result has been an excellent model for a CSA.

“They have a coordinator who works for the community center and advertises the CSA to their membership,” Brad explains. “She collects all the membership fees and gives us one check. I make the delivery to the center and she coordinates with the members to pick up their deliveries. She’s helping me manage almost half of our CSA membership. As a result, those members are more actively involved in their community. It’s been great all the way around.”

Despite all the logistics that needed to be worked out, what the Stufflebeams are doing is not new.

Prior to mass transit and centralized distribution systems, people got their food from within their community. Brad laughs when he recalls what a new visitor to Home Sweet Farm said to him recently. The out-of-towner asked Brad if it was OK to eat his spinach.

“The reason spinach was in the news and was such a big deal is because three or four counties in California were supplying 80 percent of the spinach for the entire country,” says Brad. The visitor didn’t know any different. “Local food is food security. The sustainable agriculture movement is not a top-down movement,” says Brad. “This is happening at the grassroots level and I am proud that we, the small farmer, are part of the solution to the problem.”

In addition to operating the CSA program, the Stufflebeams hold monthly market days at the farm, and Brad uses the farm as an educational model to help promote community sustainable agriculture and to help new farmers get a start.

“Being a CSA farm requires the skills of a seasoned grower,” says Brad. “It’s not for the novice.”

The Stufflebeams are also expanding by bringing produce to several specialty restaurants, including renowned chef Monica Pope’s t’afia restaurant in Houston. At t’afia, every menu item features a Texas artisanal food product, which she calls a “community table”; the Stufflebeams are one of about 10 local farmers from whom Pope obtains food.

“Our mantra is ‘eat where your food lives,’ which means to eat where your food is grown and in-season, and eat food that is alive,” says Pope, who was a 2007 James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Southwest and who has been dubbed the Alice Waters of the Third Coast. “Alice Waters set the standard for American restaurants and chefs to connect with farmers, fishermen and artisans in their respective regions,” says Pope.

While most of the Stufflebeams’ CSA members are interested in common vegetables, the specialty restaurants are interested in unique crops such as dandelion greens and herbs.

“We get all the wonderful stuff that grows well here, like a huge assortment of greens, collards, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, sweet potatoes, green onions, leeks, beets, okra and herbs,” says Pope.

The varieties the Stufflebeams cultivate are astounding—the 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are just a sampling. “Our members get things they can’t get at the grocery store,” says Brad. “We try to add some excitement to the food to get children interested in eating vegetables.”
 


Hard Life, Good Life
When people visit Home Sweet Farm, they’re surprised by how humble it is. The house is a converted barn and, despite Brad’s background in landscape design, you won’t find any fancy flowerbeds or adornments. Home Sweet Farm is a growing and learning environment, not a setting, and the Stufflebeams wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We home school our children, and we wanted a place that was vibrant and a great learning experience,” says Jenny.

Jenny often hears people voice their assumptions that farming is a hard life. “A lot of people think we’re weird because they think we can’t make a living growing vegetables,” says Jenny. “They don’t understand what we’re doing.”

Because Brenham is fast becoming a hotbed for the sustainable agriculture movement, other young couples are doing it, too. Here, Jenny gets to watch firsthand as the farming community comes back to life around her.

“More and more young people are contacting us because they want to start farms, and many local landowners who aren’t cultivating want to see their land being used for organic farming.”

For the Stufflebeams, the beauty of their work is that it changes throughout the season.

“Every day is different. It’s fun,” says Brad. “We do this as a family, but the only way we can do this as a family is if we keep it enjoyable. I don’t want to do what past generations have done and run my kids off the farm because the work is so hard and it’s miserable. My children do what they want and we let them pursue what they’re interested in, but at the same time teach them to understand the value of the dollar."

Unlike too many families in America, every night the Stufflebeams sit down to dinner together and enjoy the fruits of their labor. And so do families like the Barnards. When the Barnards run low on food, her children don’t say, “Let’s go to the store,” they say, “Let’s go to the farm!”

Mandi loves the fact that her children know where their food comes from.

“The food that’s picked and eaten in the same day is the best for you in terms of nutrients, but being a ‘locavore’ is more than that,” she says. “I know the people who produce my food. I have a relationship with them and I trust them. The fact that my greens didn’t have to ride in a big, oil-burning truck for hundreds of miles means something to me. Also, I feel better about sometimes paying a little more because I know that the people who help me feed my family are able to feed their families as well.”

About the Author: Jennifer Nice is a writer and editor in the agriculture and equine industry. Based in San Francisco, she divides her time between the city and Napa Valley, where she enjoys her two favorite pastimes: wine and horses.

 

 

 

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