Sunday, March 8, 2009

Stolen Chair visits the CSA capital of the world

Hi there you artsy entrepeneurs and entrepenurial artists out there,

Jon Stancato from Stolen Chair here. Our company's proposal for ERPA was to adapt the business model of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) to the world of experimental theatre, creating a membership community that would invest seed money in Stolen Chair's process and then reap a year's worth of theatrical harvest. You can read more about the proposal and some of our early thoughts about the project in an interview I did for Rochelle Denton and's NYtheatre Voices.

But now for some hot off the presses original content, exclusively for followers of this here ERPA blog:

Today Stolen Chair's company manager Aviva Meyer and I took a field trip to New Paltz, NY, the CSA capital of the world. Yes, believe or not, this adorable village and its surrounding township have more CSAs per capita than anywhere else in the world. One of Aviva's friends (and a friend of Stolen Chair), the incomparable Jonathan Wright, generously offered to take us around the community and introduce us to some farmers. Aviva daylights in the office of congressman John Hall and met Jonathan while the two coordinated the grass roots components of Hall's first election. Jonathan and I had a chance to chat briefly about Stolen Chair's plans to go CST over a noisy post-show (Stolen Chair's Theatre Is Dead and So Are You) meet-up back in January and he immediately offered roughly a dozen brilliant ideas which have guided our thinking on the project since then. As a four-year member of a CSA, I certainly understood that traditional market logic doesn't fully apply to this special experience. There are value-added benefits like the sense of community, the good feeling of supporting local business, and the ineffably improved taste of a simple carrot when you know the farmer who planted it. From the beginnings of our conversations, Jonathan was earnest and adamant that CSAs offer a vital emotional richness that goes beyond any sort of cost-benefit analysis and our success in the CST would depend entirely on our ability to adapt that to a theatrical model.

Our New Paltz adventures began in a packed restaurant on Main Street called Bistro, where two eggs, hash browns, toast, jam, and unlimited coffee runs you $1.95. You can upgrade both the eggs and the coffee to organic for a small fee and this is where New Paltz shows its colors as the truly special sort of town that could boast so very many CSAs.

After our delicious meal, we headed across to street to chat in an arts co-op that Jonathan helped found years ago, where we talked about the difficulties of creating a business that is dependent, at least in part, on community support (of course, all businesses need to be supported by the community, but most get this support through the sale of goods and services, not "shares"). It echoed many discussions the Chairs and our board have had about continuing to have multiple revenue streams besides the CST.

We took a short drive over to Taliaferro Farms where we met its sole proprietor, Pete Taliaferro, who generously offered an hour of his time (thanks, Pete!!!) to share his passion for the CSA models. Pete was one of the first large farmers in the region to get his farm certified organic and has operated a CSA since 1998 when his charter membership had about 28 people. Though it has sometimes hovered near 400 members, his membership has stabilized at just under 200. Pete estimates that the CSA comprises roughly 50% of his overall production, with the rest split between wholesale, retail markets, and relationships with local restaurants. He said it is possible to go 100% CSA, and a number of smaller farms in the area do just that.

Pete said a number of things that were directly applicable to our plans to adapt the CSA to theatre; chief among them were the importance of providing "choice" to members, what it really means to form a membership community, and his thoughts about how to use the income provided by CSA member dues. I'll tackle each of these points in order. Pete's CSA is unique in a number of ways; not only does he only offer on-site options (no drop-off points in NYC or anywhere off the farm for that matter), but members are essentially given an allowance to spend however they like on that week's produce offerings (in the common CSA model, members show up to a pick-up or drop-off location and are given instructions about precisely how much they are to take of each veggie). Pete credits his impressive retention rate with this particular innovation. As he continues to develop what this allowance/credit system means, it begins to look a lot like Pete has created his own microcurrency, fitting for a farm in which 60% of the propane is purchased through a barter arrangement. And if this starts to sound like a miniature government, I think the comparison is apt because Pete is definitely the mayor of Taliaferro Farms. He presides over each CSA day, fielding member suggestions, collecting recipes, and slipping a member some bok choy fresh from the field if they seem to be disappointed with the offerings in the box. While I'm sure his produce is incredible, Pete's charisma is clearly part of what drives members back year after year. He supports the community, going to birthday parties and subscribing to the local arts organizations, and they come out in droves to support him. He is a keen businessman who gets the most fundamental rule of business: it's an arrangement between real living breathing individuals. Pete has also very organically (no pun intended) figured out how to solicit the kind of feedback that helps him improve his program ("Get rid of the plastic bags!" and "Publish this recipe for Kale Chips in the newsletter!") while careful to limit his exposure to criticism that might become a nuisance. He responds to his members emails but you won't find a suggestion box at Taliaferro Farms. As for how the CSA income affects his business and bottom line, Pete has crafted a nifty soundbite: "I use it as a bank." He speculates with this money and uses it to fund growth opportunities for the farm's future. While this does pose some risks, it seems like Pete has hedged them well. I could have spent the whole day traipsing in the mud with Pete (even though I, like some parody of a city slicker, wore suede sneakers for my day at the farm!), but we had more to see. On the way out, though, Jonathan pointed to the rows of field that line the street. Come harvest time, those rows overflow with cut flowers that CSA members can pick to their heart's content, but, for Jonathan (and, I suspect, many others), it also provides the sort of rich sense-memory that sets Pete's farm apart from some competitors.

Jonathan took us on a quick tour of the Brooks Farm Project, a non-profit organization that is 100% CSA and offers quite a bevy of educational outreach programs to complement the rest of its community involvement. It, too, offers a striking vista as you make your way to the pick-up site: a bubbling stream and mountains in the distance. Apparently, CSA members are asked to park so that they have to walk past the stream en route to the CSA. This reminded me instantly of time I spent working and training with Thomas Richards at the Grotowski Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy. Their enigmatic work explores the boundaries between theatrical performance and religious ritual, among other things, and they will not let visitors "witness" the piece during daylight hours. They say it's because the studio is too warm for the work during the day, but after a few weeks there I can testify that this really isn't the case: I think they realize that part of the work's provocative mystery originates with the long dark drive through craggly trees and sunflower fields. By choreographing the participant's approach to the "product," both Brooks Farm and the Workcenter can foster the type of emotional connection that pushes both beyond the realm of transaction. We didn't chat with anyone at the Brook Farm project, but we will definitely return to find out more since they are one of the few CSAs operating under the same not-for-profit laws that govern Stolen Chair.

We closed the day out with Billiam van Roestenburg over at Liberty View Farm. Billiam's approach proved just how much variation is possible within the general umbrella of a CSA. Billiam's trisected his orchard into three revenue streams: whole sale, u-pick, and lease a tree. Of course, it's the latter program that was immediately exciting to Aviva and me. People from the surrounding area, NYC, and even Vermont lease one or more trees from Billiam. They then own all the fruit that comes off the tree that season and can pick it as frequently as they want. Members get their own slice of farm life and a good deal on certified naturally grown apples and Billiam ends up with a higher profit margin on the fruit since he doesn't need to put in the labor for picking and processing. Billiam's farm, which also offers heirloom egg varietals and an assortment of goat's milk products, is built on quite a niche demographic. It's gay owned and operated and Billiam (according to his own accounts) intentionally tries to scare Republicans out of the membership through some healthy Bush-bashing in the weekly newsletter. He holds sculpture nights and benefits, and tells stories of weekend nights when the orchard is filled with 200 strumming acoustic guitars. He is, to put it simply, a marketing genius, and understands how to give something simple (Cortland apples growing on a tree) the energy of a backstage pass at a rock-and-roll concert. For Stolen Chair's purposes, I really like the sociopolitical cohesion of this particular membership community and the microcommisioning principles behind the lease-a-tree concept, not to mention the formidable media-savvy at work here.

I'm (clearly) still processing this thrilling and inspirational day. I leave wondering more about how we can use space to help foster emotional richness, how to use marketing to make CSA members feel like they are part of a sub-culture, and how to foster collaboration without endangering our own firmly established mission. I also wonder if it's possible to "reverse-commute" the CSA principles and, just like Billiam has NYC foodies trekking to his upstate orchard, develop relationships to bring upstate residents to our work in NYC. Finally, I wonder how the blue and spotted heirloom eggs that Billiam gave me are going to taste!

I plan on bringing all the Chairs up to New Paltz for another field trip (and maybe a creative retreat for our next project!) sometime this spring. Until then, if you're interested in helping us navigate this exciting new terrain, please email me at jon[at] or fill out survey (and join our mailing list) at


The Field said...

I love the "upgrade the $1.95 breakfast to organic"!! Thanks John and SC for a super thorough, smart and ambitious post.

cookie! said...

Stolen Chair! I applaud your thorough examination of the CSA model and how you can appropriate its best practices for the theater! If only more of us did that before we dove into becoming a non-profit, or fiscally sponsored or LLC or anything!!

Questions and thoughts:
1) love your thorough analysis of your time with Jonathan and how to adapt to CST.

2) love the "traditional market logic" doesn't fully apply. As you note: what are the value adds and how to expand them for theater?

3) importance of multiple revenue streams as you note. True true (whether a CST or just a regular non-profit. The Field has numerous revenue streams.)

4) importance of providing "choice" to Pete Taliaferro. His innovation of an "allowance" and one site only for pickup

5) microcurrency and barter!!!

6) charisma, charisma, charisma

7) feedback solicitation (great points! I may steal those for The Field! when people are members they often feel extra entitled to telling you how to run your business)

8) USE OF INCOME: question: if Pete uses his CSA income for risk investment: where does the rest of his income come from? is he 50% CSA and 50% _______? the general idea in the non-profit sector is usually: use any gen op/unrestricted funds you have to pay for the "unfundable" line items (rent, health insurance, paperclips, paper, etc). This seems to be, potentially, the opposite idea. ??

9) rich sense-memory!! crucial to long-term engagement

10) choreograph the approach to the product!! non-profit CSAs: education and product (do they fundraise? write grants?)

11) Diverse revenue streams! at Liberty View. Niche demographics, marketing savvy, microcommissioning! I LOVE IT ALL!

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