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Kilt Farm in Niwot Looks to Innovate Itself Out of Mediocrity

January 8, 2019
Kilt Farm owner Michael Moss works to build a shelf to cure vegetables on in his greenhouse on Monday outside Niwot. Moss is borrowing some aspects of popular subscription box services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh for his farm's community supported agriculture program in the hopes of attracting more customers.

It’s no secret that the rising costs of labor and equipment make farming in Boulder County nearly impossible — in 2016, Boulder County reported an 80 percent failure rate for farms in the area. The growing popularity of subscription food boxes like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh , however, has given at least one farmer hope for the future.

Kilt Farm is looking to borrow some of the successful tactics of subscription boxes for its community supported agriculture shares.

According to Hitwise, a competitive analysis tool for comparing website traffic, since 2014 monthly hits for subscription box companies increased by 890 percent. For the month of April alone, Hello Fresh and Blue Apron amassed nearly 6.5 million views.

While local farms like Kilt Farm can never compete with multi-national producers that can offer essentially any produce year-round, local CSA programs that provide customers with a share of a farm’s harvest each week throughout the growing season not only may provide fresher products than subscription boxes, they also reduce a home’s carbon footprint by limiting the so-called food miles accumulated for each meal.

According to a 2008 study by Carnegie Mellon University, the average household’s climate impacts related to food results in 8.1 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere each year. A totally “localized” diet reduces emissions per household by the equivalent of 1,000 miles driven in a car each year.

Michael Moss, the owner of Kilt Farm in Niwot, hopes that environmentally friendly bonus will attract local customers to his CSA program.

“We live in a community that has a small, very vocal percentage of the population that are advocates for local food and the environment, but when you get down to brass tacks, the majority of people are still shopping at grocery stores where food is coming from far outside the community,” he said. “Having people buying directly from the farms would be hugely impactful to our sustainability, viability, and profitability as farmers.”

The problem with getting subscription box customers to switch to CSAs, Moss said, is that they require too high of up-front costs (usually between $600 and $800) and offer too few choices.

According to Ryan Galt, an associate professor of community and regional development at the University of California who conducted a study of 1,454 current and former farm share members, four of the top five reasons for leaving a CSA is due to a lack of choice in the contents of the share.

In reaction, Kilt Farm is transforming its CSA to mirror that of the larger subscription boxes. They’ve partnered with local businesses to provide additional items like mushrooms, eggs, bread, coffee, and fruit; created a payment system plan to break up the up-front costs; and expanded their delivery range.

In addition, Kilt Farm partnered with Harvie, an online farm share platform, that allows customers to set their preferences for a list of crops that are ready for harvest and create personalized boxes each week. Harvie will also provide cooking tips, recipes, and videos based on the contents of the box.

“What we’re doing is really trying to provide some of those conveniences that make it easier for people to support local farms,” Moss said. “As we make the CSAs more convenient and more viable, I think they could become a larger part of the overall revenue picture of the farm. It would be really exciting if when I start to plan out my year I knew all of my food was going to families in Boulder County.”

So far Kilt Farm’s customers have responded well. Despite being months away from the usual sign up date, Moss said half of the previous year’s members have already registered.

Should this model work and garner more buy-in from the community, it will allow farmers to reduce their risk by covering more of their costs up front so they can better plan out their year in terms of what and how much they plant, reducing waste and increasing profits.

“It’s critical,” said Wyatt Barnes of Red Wagon Farm in Longmont, which relies on their CSA for 80 percent of the revenue. “Selling to restaurants and going to market is good but the CSA is huge. What people don’t necessarily know is that the CSA is our operating loan. We need that money to pay for labor, seeds, and equipment.”

Without those funds, there’s almost no way a farm can start up, let alone remain in business, even with subsidies from Boulder County Parks and Open Space’s agriculture department.

“If you’re going to take on 1,000 acres of land you’ll need $1 million of equipment so you can’t get enough land up front to make a living off of or justify the equipment,” Barnes said. “Let’s just say I give you two 40-acre parcels to grow 80 acres of hay on. You go buy a tractor, a mower, a baler and a hay stacker for $200,000 somehow. On 80 acres you’ll maybe make $30,000 so it takes years just to pay for your equipment. Who’s going to do that?”

While Moss believes his “modernized” model will help round out his and possibly other farm’s revenues, other CSAs are also working to innovate their model by offering events where their customers can meet the person growing their food.

“There’s a lot of exciting things going on in this community,” Moss said. “We’ll see how it shakes out, but for the time being we’re simply focused on producing the highest quality food possible. When I retire or decide I want to do something else, I want to know my soil is better, my community’s better and I’m better for it. That’s a big part of the drive for why I got into this and am attempting to change everything.”

John Spina: 303-473-1389, jspina@times-call.com or twitter.com/jsspina24

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