Community Shared Agriculture: Achieving Food Sovereignty In Crisis Times With Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger
It is the people in the food supply chain that are really the unsung heroes who keep us going as we wait out the COVID-19 crisis in isolation. With community shared agriculture, people can assure themselves of food sovereignty by relying on locally-farmed produce as border closures make it hard to secure food from big, cross-country suppliers. Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger joins Melanie Parish to talk about how Plan B Organic Farms manages to support its community of 750 families as the current crisis makes it hard for consumers to procure food conventionally. Alvaro’s story is a touching narrative of a person who genuinely cares for his community and uses his abilities and resources to be proactive in the midst of crisis. Make sure to stick to the end and hear about Alvaro’s favorite vegetable!
Listen to the podcast here:
Community Shared Agriculture: Achieving Food Sovereignty In Crisis Times With Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger
I'm here with Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger. He's one of the principals at Plan B Organic Farm, which was established in 1997 with three partners: Rodrigo Venturelli, Alvaro and Melanie Golba. They are growing fresh organic produce at their 50-acre farm in Flamborough. Their farm is certified organic and they offer both a weekly food box as a consumer supported agriculture, and they offer wholesale produce to all sorts of places, as well as participating in local farmer's markets. I'm happy to be here with Alvaro talking about food supply chains and food delivery, scaling up in times of COVID-19 and hearing all that he has to share with us about running a business in a crazy time
Alvaro, I am so excited to have you on. Welcome.
Thanks, Melanie. I'm super excited to be on.
I've been so excited thinking about this conversation because I don't think farmers get to chat much, but I'm excited to hear about your business and all sorts of things. Tell me a little bit about your farm and about your business.
We might be a little different than many farmers. We’re a community farm. We don't suffer from farm isolation syndrome. We're farming on the edge of the cities here in the 905 area code outside of Hamilton. We’ve been doing this for many years. We started with a small garden. I thought I was retiring and moving out to the countryside a little bit. The more people we started meeting, the more our concept of community started to grow beyond the community we grew up in. We realized that there are these localized communities all over the place who are looking for healthy food and for a community farm and a connection to their food as well.
You’re an organic farm, is that right?
Yes, we've been farming organically certified since 2001. We were never conventional farmers. We started farming on purpose because we felt that organics were under-serviced in our area. There was one organic farmer that I knew of and I met him as part of my search to see what was going on in the area.
Tell me about the products that you offer to your customers. What do you offer?
We grow about 22 acres yearly of certified organic vegetables, about 30,000 square feet of greenhouse, which is big for a small farm, but not really a big greenhouse. A number of years ago, we decided to start offering other farmers products as well. Looking at it more than a strict CSA community shared or community-supported food box program of our products, to a greater diversity of what we could offer people from our whole region and from the outlying areas. What we did was a Dependable Strengths analysis on who was growing what, where are the best. We looked at our own production and what we could realistically come through with every year without losing money at it. For example, watermelons to produce them every other year, I would get a good crop, whereas 100 kilometers south of us, it's five degrees warmer every night. All of May, all of June, all September and October, they get timelines of watermelons there. We decided to invest our money and time as well, and our customers in some of the stronger family farms in the area.
How are you experimenting? I know these are some unusual times, but I'd love to hear how this crisis has affected your business and how you're experimenting. What are you trying in these times?
I'm trying to stay busy and get more work done isolated. It's pretty tricky.
What are the specific challenges?
The specific challenges have been getting people to help with the work. It's been hard to intake new people over the last while and to maintain isolation. We've decided to bring in the teenage kids, for example, who are on the farm. They're now all working on the farm in the warehouse and we've managed to keep everybody who is isolating here working together and created a bit of a biosecurity zone in our warehouses. We're trying to limit contact in there. We continue having more people come to the farm and help a bit more. We have many more orders that's gone up three times in the last month alone. What we've done is we've tried to do that work ourselves and bring extra people in who can help us out in the fields because it is springtime, there's a lot to do out in the greenhouses. There's a lot to do out in the fields as well.
In order to keep those things going and not get behind on our production, we have had to integrate extra people. We've brought in extra drivers so that we don't have to do the driving anymore. We created simple systems where all their products come out right to the back door of their vehicle. Everything is sanitized and has been cleaned before they get there. It’s simple things like that. We've decided to stop leaving our boxes at most homes, whereas now we pack into bags and people leave empty boxes at their own home. They don't have to touch our box. We don't have to touch their box. We can place things there and walk away.
I heard you say that you've grown to be three times the size you were before this happened.
We were closer to 250 families that we were doing weekly. The good thing is before the last economic meltdown, some people like to call it an economic heist, I would say we were doing about 1,000 shares and that went down. We weren't ready back then to make the most out of it, to bring people in to manage a business. We didn't do very well with it. We lost a lot of those customers once the economic meltdown came in. We dropped to eventually 250 families. Unlike the previous meltdown, this one right now is based around health. It's the isolation has been rather key. As a business that can offer home delivery, it's made a big difference for us being set up to do that. Fortunately, our supply chains are strong. What we produce, we always can produce a little bit extra here. It's not that difficult for us. The numbers are still relatively small. We're not jumping to being a giant farm in no time. It's from 250 to maybe 750 now. It looks like that's going to be a little bit more in the future.
You actually put yourselves on a waitlist when you stopped taking new customers. How did you make that decision?
I don't feel that it's appropriate to take people's money or give them the hopes of receiving food if I can't come through on that. We decided weekly that we would only offer through our database and allows us to control what we offer. As soon as those numbers filled up, then it would send everybody to a waitlist. We did that weekly so we could come through on our commitments and not mislead people. A lot of people are concerned about their food source right now and having a hard time getting things. I hear that the freshness is not that great right now in the stores. They're struggling with their processes.
For us, we're a little ahead in the food chain in that sense and that we have a very strong, dedicated organic supply chain, both strong local farmers and distributors that are importing food as well. For us, it's been a good opportunity to be able to do things for people who are isolated. It feels great to be able to help in a time of need. Also, it's been good for us and then we can continue making a living and not be dependent on the state.
What are the principles? I heard a couple as you were talking. One was making sure that you kept your quality up as you brought on new customers. What other principles do you think informed your decision-making as you've moved ahead through this?
First and foremost, we're a community farm. We've kept our original customers who seem to like us even more now. There have been a shortage on eggs, so we've been making sure that we don't short our original customers. As we move forward, we're doing our best to make sure that they continue getting served and only take on new people when we know we can. Other principles, I've been fortunate that my dad was a chief medical officer and a professor of Pediatrics, so he's helped us a lot as far as understanding a little better with the environment right now. Another friend, he's a master medical science researcher who has helped me to understand a little better epidemiology and simple things like that. You have to take these things seriously within your supply chain. The good thing is that the agriculture supply chains, thanks to phytosanitary law, thanks to public health law are generally very well-prepared for COVID. No handling. There are already all kinds of public health processes in place to make sure we don't have serious issues.
As you're scaling up, Alvaro, what do you think about as you bring new people on? You've brought on several people, you might usually hire one person or two people, but you're bringing on all these people. You have volunteers who are coming to work in the fields. What do you think about as a leader having all these new people joining the business?
First and foremost, I recognize that people are doing what they do out of need. They're all quite genuinely concerned right now for their financial well-being, for their health. We try and make an environment here that is to treat people kindly. We've been lucky enough being a community farm that we're well-connected to people in our community as well already. We haven't had a hard time bringing extra people in yet. We also aren't predicating our business on perennial growth forever. We think that if our shares go up right now, the likeliness is that they may go up and up, but they're also likely to go down. I've been clear with everybody coming in that we’re keeping all our primary staff. As we move forwards and it does get bigger, then I try and make sure that I'm not making promises that I can't keep to my workers as well. I don't want people coming in and hoping that this is going to do it for them. It may be a stop-gap measure and we may go back to everybody buying everything in the stores again shortly.
I'm curious to shift into your family. You have lots of families that live on the farm. What are you experimenting with your kids being home, with your family being together there? What are some of the experiments that you were trying as a family?
We're having a lot more meals together. There's a lot more music going on. The schooling is a bit of a challenge with the kids because we're busy. Moving to this online schooling, it's a bit of a new thing for them. We've done our best to integrate the kids into our work. We've explained to them, we've asked our children to look at how they can actually help at this time and let them realize that they can be part of the solution. That they don't simply have to sit back and wait for people to do things for them, but they can be proactive by helping us in the fields, in the warehouse and helping to get food to their friends’ families and things like that.
How important in the end it actually is to be able to feed our community locally. We avoid a lot of greater problems. For me, it's almost the lessons of food sovereignty coming to play where we look at first, we feed our family and then maybe their friends and then the community at large. This type of organic growth and development needs to focus on the home first and equity and equality at home. Between man and woman, we do everything by consensus here that supports us. Moving forward from there, it's more how we can try and improve our community and maintain these things in place once we build them.
I'm so struck by how clear your vision is of food sovereignty and feeding people as you go into this. I love how that has informed your decision-making as you've tried to scale up. It’s interesting
It's not new for us. Farms and civil society have been working at these issues, I'd say forever, but I don't know. These are constants in our societies. The stronger that we get and having our own physical reserves here, we become less dependent on food that's trucked 3,000 miles. We become less dependent on food where you close the border, we have in time engineered a food system, which has three days of food here at any one time. It's been quite important to have some of the stronger farms in the province working with us to allow our growth. The first thing I did was I went out, and fortunately it was five days before the big stores bought all the food pretty much from all the growers in the province. I went out and I bought many thousands of pounds of onions and sweet potatoes and lots of storage products that we could then dole out over weeks.
We see it as a real opportunity. For example, in sweet potatoes, we used to have a sweet potato grower and we would get sweet potatoes for three weeks, and then they would all be sold to some big distributor or to a processor. He was getting about $0.35 on the dollar, which was difficult for him. We said, “We'll give you $0.90 on the dollar, but all we need is for you to store the food and keep it for our community. Hang onto it and dole it out to us every week over time.” For me, it's more about creating relationships like that with people who are here to do things for our community. Be it Paul Watson down doing sweet potatoes down in Toquerville, or the Amish producers who are working down in Aylmer, Ontario as well who have been super strong in supporting our work here at Plan B. In the end, it's more about creating relationships of people who are willing to commit to a process and to seeing it through with us.
That's interesting hearing about how you're using relationships to make the supply chain more resilient in this time, looking internally in Canada looking cross border. I am fascinated by your digging in on how you can experiment within the supply chain. That's amazing.
It comes out of my need to know that I'm going to have food for people. Great responsibility comes with great stress a little bit.
Can we talk about that stress a little bit? What keeps you up at night, Alvaro?
Nothing keeps me up at night. No way, not this guy. I'm tired by the end of the day. We get up early usually on the farm and a lot of it is physical work. Nothing much keeps me up at night. The idea that we know that we can't do it for everybody as well helps with the stress. I personally am pretty easygoing. I don't feel stress. I say that with the responsibility comes stress, but for me, it makes me proactive about making sure. I've moved to now knowing that I have the food for my customers 10 or 14 days ahead. We're also producing the food and getting other producers to put crops in for the season. I've already committed to sweet potato crops for the year. I've committed to leaf crops for the year from a couple of other growers. We've committed to our egg suppliers for the whole year ahead of time. We try and make relationships where if there will be change, we tell each other a year ahead because it's hard enough to plan.
It's fantastic to get to spend a minute with you in the busyness and the crazy of running a farm that feeds over 750 families. It's amazing to think about the scale of that. I have a fun question for you. What's your favorite vegetable?
I can't even grow it here. Probably globe artichokes are my favorite. I have grown them successfully as annuals. My mom was pretty much addicted to globe artichokes when I was in the womb and my whole life, I have loved them so much. They’re full of iron and they grew on the farm we were living on when we were little kids, and chili as well. I would say something like that. I love all food. There's not much I don't enjoy.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day. I know you have food to get to people. I appreciate you coming on, Alvaro.
Thanks so much for having me. We've always appreciated your open-minded perspective, helping us to look at what we're doing a little better.
Thanks. I've enjoyed it too.
I'm inspired by Alvaro and how he always knows his true north. I love when he talks about the sovereignty of food. It's this huge vision for what he wants to create in the world. Every decision that he makes in his business is predicated on that foundation. He also wants to make sure that he doesn't over-promise as he's scaling up. He makes relationships so important. I was fascinated by the experiments that he's tried with suppliers to solidify the supply chain by paying a little more in order to have them store and ship the food over time, as opposed to always trying to get the best deal. It's such an interesting mindset that he sees himself as partners in getting food to families. I also love that he thinks about how to involve his family and asking them to help. That same foundation of food sovereignty informs how he brings his children into the business when they're the safest option because they're all sheltering in place. This was a fascinating interview with Alvaro. I loved hearing how he thinks about his leadership around the food supply in this time. Go experiment.
About Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger
While working on an urban gardening project in 1996 Alvaro Venturelli Luchsinger & Melanie Golba came up with the wild idea of starting their own organic CSA farm! They convinced Alvaro’s brother Rodrigo to join in and and in the spring of 1997 Plan B Organic Farms was born! The name “Plan B” really conveyed their intention of providing the community with an “alternative” food source to foods produced through “conventional agriculture” aka plan Af. In 1998 they moved to a beautiful 50 acre sandy and rocky piece of land in Flamborough Ontario. The first 5 years they worked the land by hand, and learned that there was a lot to learn about growing vegetables. But with the support of family and the local community they made it work and for over 20 years they’ve continued to grow certified organic food for their community.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.