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Erik Fellenz and Jenny Frederick of Fellenz Family Farm joined host Maureen Ballatori on this episode of Spilled Salt. As stewards of the land, their story spans over two decades, highlighting the evolution of their family farm and the pivotal role played by Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

The Fellenz Family Farm provides fresh produce to the community via farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture.

The Fellenz Family Farm, established in approximately 2001 by Erik’s parents, started as a modest venture and has grown steadily each year. The farm spans seven acres on Luster Road, with an additional 50-acre property a mile away, cultivating a variety of vegetables.

Over the last five to ten years, Erik and Jenny became partners in the business, taking the reins, and formalizing their role in running the business. The change in management, the pandemic, reduced staffing, and other hurdles have challenged the pair throughout the years.

As the farm shifted its focus toward profitability, efficiency became a priority. Erik and Jenny implemented changes in operations, embracing a more relaxed approach to aesthetics without compromising functionality. Their emphasis on self-sufficiency is evident in Erik’s commitment to maintaining and repairing equipment, showcasing the farm’s ability to innovate and adapt.

The pair highlighted the importance of their tight-knit local farming community, where mutual support and knowledge exchange are the cornerstones of success. They also stressed the significance of other farmers in their network, utilizing social media and forums for knowledge-sharing. This collaborative approach has been instrumental in navigating the complexities of farming.

Erik and Jenny’s commitment to sustainable and community-centric farming is also reflected in their CSA program. Serving between 100 and 150 families annually, the CSA runs from June to early December. 

What makes their CSA unique is the free-choice model, allowing members to select their preferred vegetables each week. This approach fosters a sense of community, with members engaging in conversations about different produce, encouraging exploration and connection.

The transition from the traditional CSA model to a free-choice system was not without challenges. Erik and Jenny emphasized the importance of flexibility and adaptability in responding to the demands of their members. Participating in local farmers’ markets has also provided additional flexibility in reducing food waste.

The seasonal rhythm of farming, particularly the anticipation of spring, creates a palpable energy among CSA members and the community.

The Fellenz Family Farm journey is a testament to the transformative power of community-supported agriculture. By nurturing relationships with their members, embracing innovation, and fostering a collaborative spirit within the farming community, Erik and Jenny have become torchbearers for the future of agriculture. 

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt, a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food, beverage, and agriculture industries. Today’s guests, two guests for today’s episode, are farm partners, Jenny Frederick and Erik Fellenz of Fellenz Family Farm. It is a certified organic vegetable farm in the Finger Lakes region of New York. 

Today’s story that they tell about their farming operation is based on how they took their farm to a profitable business venture when they took over six or seven years ago. They also talk about how they’ve leveraged their CSA program to build really strong relationships with their primary customer in a way that works for the CSA members, as well as the farm itself from efficiency of operations, as well as profitability. Enjoy the conversation.

Maureen: Jenny and Erik, hi, how are you? Good, thanks for taking the time for the chat today. I’m excited to get your perspective. So this is my first time on the podcast with two guests. So I’ll leave it to you guys to decide who’s best to answer questions or you two can both chime in, whatever works for you. But let’s start with a little bit of the history of the farm.

Jenny: Okay, I will hand the mic to Erik because it’s his family. 

Erik: Okay, so we’ve been here a little over 20 years now. My parents started the farm in 2001, 2002. And we started off really small. We’ve been growing a little bit each year. And my parents really began to step away from the farm. You know.

Oh, geez, when would that have been? 

Jenny: 2017, I think. 

Erik: So within the last five to 10 years, they’ve been, you know, involved less and less, and I would say at this point, what are we five, six years into formally running the business? 

Jenny: Yeah.

Maureen: And how many acres is it, Erik?

Erik: So at this point, we are on Luster Road, the main farm, it’s a seven-acre property and we grow depending on the year, you know, one to two acres of vegetables right here. We have another field that we work about a mile down the road and that’s close to a 50-acre property. I believe about 40 acres are tillable and depending on the season we are typically growing anywhere from five to 10 acres in mixed vegetables.

Maureen: Gotcha. And are you operating all year round or because you’re primarily a vegetable farmer, it sounds like is it highly seasonal to the summer months?

Erik: It is definitely somewhat seasonal. We are doing something 12 months out of the year, but as far as the vegetables go, I would say February, March are relatively dead months. We usually, you know, keep running at the farmer’s market through at least the end of January with storage crops and fresh greens out of the high tunnels. That’s something that shifts a little bit each year. Eventually, we likely will be much closer to year-round.

Maureen: Great. And so talk about your business model a little bit in terms of how you typically get those vegetables to your consumers.

Erik: So the business, the CSA program, community supported agriculture, depending on the year, but typically we supply anywhere between 100 and 150 families a year and have a CSA program that runs from the beginning of June until, depending on the year, either early December or around the end of the year. And we sell at one farmer’s market. And we had some disruptions with COVID. So the market has changed a fair bit, and they’re just getting to the point now where it’s expected to be a year-round market. And we are working to the point where we can be at the market every week of the year and have a nice selection of vegetables.

Maureen: That’s great. And tell me a little bit about how you two share rules and responsibilities, because you’re both partners on the farm, but it sounds like, Erik, you’re more in the planning of the farming operations based on you just taking those questions.

Erik: You know, I will debate that a little bit. I would say between the two of us, Jenny is definitely the primary farmer. I tend to do a lot more of the stuff in the background, the infrastructure, and making sure that we have what we need to do our job when we need it. But crop planning and you know, deciding what’s going to be grown, where it’s going to be grown, and how we’re going to grow it, Jenny takes care of most of that. 

Jenny: I think we balance each other really well because Erik has a knack for fixing things. Like, I don’t know how he does it. He’s a magician, but he does all of our maintenance. He maintains every piece of equipment that we have here. And he likes to, um, make things run more smoothly. He’s all about innovation.

He’s always creating what I like to call farm hacks. Was it last season or the season before? The seasons kind of blur together sometimes, but we converted a smaller high tunnel into a main greenhouse space and we built everything ourselves. We built all new greenhouse tables. We built a germination chamber. You know, a lot of things that most farms spend a lot of money on.

Maureen: I grew up on a dairy farm in central New York and it was, my dad was the same way, right? Bought a big tractor, and had to learn how to fix it because he couldn’t afford to bring in a mechanic to fix it for him. I think it’s part of that kind of, one of the things that I love about farmers is this innate ability to figure it out. Because you have to. In order to be able to continue your operations, you need these things to run.

Erik: Yeah, the way that I look at an awful lot of that is we could have the money to job a lot of that kind of stuff out and pay someone to be doing that work. And I decided a long time ago that I can spend say $5,000 to have someone fix a tractor or I can take that same money and I can spend that on tools. I can spend that in the shop and really just invest all that directly in the business. And that’s the direction we’ve gone. 

We have a shop on the farm with really anything you can imagine that you might need to fix anything, you know, just lots of specialty equipment. We have a welding shop and a machine shop on the farm and so much of that gets built up a little bit each year. The idea is we get to the point where, unless it is something incredibly specialized, we never have to call anyone to do anything.

Maureen: Yeah, that’s great. I love that self-sufficiency. Tell me a little bit about your background.

Erik: I’ll have Jenny start with that. 

Jenny: I don’t have a background in farming. I grew up with some family that had a small homestead, like my grandparents. I went to college for art and that’s where I discovered farming. I like to say that my good friend Petra Page-Mann, who owns Fruition Seeds, was my gateway to farming. We are college friends.

We’ve known each other for like 20 years. She encouraged me to pursue agriculture. I was working at a few garden centers, out of college, in high school. Being outdoors always was very relaxing and it was a passion of mine. So it just fits for me to do what I’m doing and I don’t think I could do anything else.

Maureen: So she saw in you that passion for agriculture and kind of pushed you to nurture that.

Jenny: Yeah, we were taking a seminar course called Sustainable Earth, and that’s actually how I got connected with Fellenz Family Farm. They did a presentation about their CSA program and Petra was part of it, and she actually gifted me a CSA shirt when I was pregnant with my firstborn. And part of the program at the time was you were required to volunteer on the farm. And I loved it. I loved it so much. I look forward to that.

And then when Andy, Erik’s father, was looking for help, I started working here.

Maureen: So was that your volunteer farm or you volunteered on a different farm and that just kind of brought you to agriculture and then you met Andy.

Jenny: I volunteered at Fellenz Family Farm as a CSA member, and then I became an employee for a few years. I started in 2010.

Maureen: Very cool. So, that’s how you met Erik? I love it. And how about you, your background, Erik?

Erik: So there’s not much to say there. You know, I’ve been here since day one. So I, uh, I grew up doing most of this. In school, I did some vocational training for fabrication, machining, and things like that. So a lot of those skills translate incredibly well to the kind of work we do on the farm. But no educational background in agriculture other than, you know, what you learn on hand, just doing it every day.

Maureen: Yep. And so tell me a little bit more about what that was like. You know, I grew up on a farm too. But I wasn’t I really wasn’t hands-on. I was allergic to hay. So I didn’t spend a lot of time, you know, in the barns because I would come out sneezing. But tell me about that experience for you.

Erik: I was 12 or 13 when we moved here and started the farm. From that point up until I was in my early 20s, it was just kind of the life I lived. 

When I was in school, I would spend the summers part-time working on the farm, part-time just doing whatever I wanted to do. And I got to the point where my parents were definitely looking to not continue the business a whole lot further into the future.

I looked at it and decided that it was definitely something that I could see myself continuing to do for a long time. And I guess the rest is history at this point.

Maureen: Yeah, you’re skipping the good parts though, because I wanna talk about that transition and what it was like for you to step in and take over for, you know, as the next generation of farmers.

Erik: I think as you would see an awful lot in like generational farm transition when you look back on that, a lot of that isn’t the good part. I like to say that the best thing about working with family is that you have the opportunity to work with family. And the worst part of working with family is that you have to work with your family.

So it was definitely a stressful time. We had an awful lot of butting heads. We had some real differences of opinion between myself and my father. 

At this point, Jenny and I are a few years into running the business and things have gotten so much better because now we’re at the point where we still have all the benefits of being able to work with family without really any of the need to work with family. And I think overall it worked out really well. 

There were quite a few pretty stressful situations in the transition. And so much of that, just comes down to the fact that I can be incredibly strong-willed. I know how I want to do things. I know which path I want to go down. 

And my father is much the same way. He had his opinions. He had his right way to do things and his right way and my right way, in some cases, didn’t really have any common ground. It was a Venn diagram but the two circles had a few inches between them.

Maureen: I would imagine that comes from a place of wanting to help, right? Your dad wanted to make sure that he was setting you up for success and was probably worried that you were if you wanted to do something different, there was uncertainty there. 

So, Jenny, you mentioned in our initial call that one of the things that you two were passionate about when you took over the farm operations was finding a path to profitability. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Jenny: The farm originally had way more crew and the focus was maintaining the crops and things like that. 

Erik: I would say, yes, there used to be a much stronger focus on making sure that things looked nice. And in the transition when we started running it.

All of a sudden, you know, we moved into a situation where the farm business absolutely had to make money. And from a sustainability standpoint, financial sustainability was so much more important than anything else. 

So in the first few years, and some of this continues to this day, we are making great strides and getting things cleaned up and making things nice in our own way, but for a while, there were definitely things that previously had looked much nicer and it looked like things were just absolutely falling apart for a little bit because we were no longer in a situation where we could spend the dollars to make things look nice. If those things were not making money by themselves.

Maureen: Can you elaborate on that? Like, can you give me an example of what you’re talking about there?

Erik: Let me think on that for a moment. What an awful lot of it comes down to is, say, when my father was running the business, you know, at the end of the day, out in the field, everything would be nice and clean and orderly. 

And when Jenny and myself began running the farm, you know, we might have the same field. We might have stacks of bins, and stacks of packaging that live at the edge of the field. We might have row covers that live next to the bed, live rolled up at the end of the fields. 

So a lot of it is just, we have things that in cleaner, more put together looking farm would be in their proper place where we have an awful lot of things that beginning of the season, it goes out to the field, it lives in the field the entire season, end of the year, ideally everything goes away.

Maureen: Right, and I would imagine that comes from what your goal was, was efficiency, right? And profitability, and so if you’re thinking, if I can save some steps every day, right? That this stuff is gonna sit on the edge of the farm, but I’m gonna save X amount of time dragging it out there every time I need to use it. Now you’ve saved efficiency, maybe you’ve saved people, time, and operations, right? That is gonna make a huge difference in the day-to-day.

Erik: Yeah, and the other thing, and this is, this was not really intentional at all, but other things would just kind of fall out of the wayside. Before when the entire farm was this seven-acre property here, and most years there would be a crew of three to six people between part-time and almost full-time helping out on the farm.

Someone could be spending an entire day a week just mowing between greenhouses and high tunnels and keeping all of that nice. And when we started running the farm, all of a sudden, we have this property here, we have 50 acres down the road, and we would run into situations. And we were doing all of that with a best-case scenario of about half of the people hours on the farm and employees and ourselves. 

We would easily run into times where I could look at something and I would say, I would like to have those pathways mowed down and cleaned up, you know, five times a season, and we’d get to the end of the year and we’d realize we did that once. 

Maureen: Mm-hmm, right, but that wasn’t necessary for the operation of the farm.

Erik: Exactly. And stuff like that where, you know, the downside is, well, it doesn’t look nice, but functionally it did not make any difference. 

Jenny: Well, at the end of the day, we were looking at where we were spending the most time with our labor. 

When Erik’s father was running everything, a lot of it went into cultivation, weeding, making things look really nice. We did plantings, like custom flower plantings around the high tunnels, things that we didn’t have like the time and the money to do when we needed to focus on making sure that we were doing everything more efficiently or making sure that we were harvesting and planting. 

We had more space that we had to deal with. We had to also scale up with equipment as well, so that we could work smarter, not harder, because the original farm plan was like a French intensive, paper pot transplanted, BCS tilling, small Kubota operation. And that’s not sustainable with all of the ground that we have to work. We needed larger pieces of equipment.

Maureen: Makes sense. What were some of the resources that were most helpful to you as you were on that path to profitability and trying to make sure that you were paying attention to efficiency and that journey that you were on? Were there any resources or organizations that were particularly helpful?

Erik: I can’t think of any real organizations that we leaned on for resources in that way. An awful lot of it that made a huge difference and helped out an awful lot was social media and fellow farmers. And I think honestly, that’s probably the best resource that we have available.

With so many different things, we either did projects for those that we are still looking at doing or we crowdsourced an incredible amount of good information. To the point where I can be looking at a completely new way of doing something, you know, a new line of equipment, just making a massive change and I can put a question out there [on social media] and I can get 200 opinions and 10 of those opinions are going to be really top quality and useful.

Jenny: There are some great forums on Facebook and what was that one that you like to use a lot? There’s a grad journal. 

Erik: This doesn’t terribly apply to the type and scale of farming that we do, but there’s an online forum called Ag Talk. And it’s primarily a collection of larger scale farms and farmers, but just a completely ridiculous resource, the sort of place where you can post the most obscure question on how this piece of equipment that three people in the country are still using that was made 60 years ago? How does this work? Where do you get this? And one of those three people is going to see the question and tell you exactly how you can do what you need to do, where you can find the parts you need, and get it back together. 

Really the best resource is other farmers and we’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of that. We’ve had other farmers in the area who are looking for something relatively obscure. And I look out in the shop and I say, I have one of those on the shelf. If you need that, come and get it.

Maureen: That’s great. and folks also look to you for your CSA, right? you have a very strong CSA so don’t other farmers come to you to say, hey, how’d you establish this? How do you create such demand? Talk a little bit about that CSA.

Erik: Yes. I would say with the CSA, there’s definitely a fair amount of both farmers asking us and we just go out and talk to other farmers. The way we run our CSA is a little bit different than the traditional CSA. 

The traditional CSA is each week CSA members get a box of vegetables.

And the way we run ours, CSA members each week, they get vegetables and they choose whatever they like each week. We don’t restrict that. We don’t restrict it at all. We don’t tell people what they have to take. 

From a marketing perspective, it works exceptionally well for us. I suppose as far as other local CSA farms go, we know most of the other local CSA farmers. We have a pretty tight-knit local group of other farms that we cooperate with. And it’s really a wonderful community around here. 

Jenny: Yeah, we’re really fortunate.

Maureen: Isn’t that difficult? You mentioned it’s beneficial from a marketing standpoint that you let people kind of choose whatever they wanna put in their box for the CSA, but isn’t that difficult operationally for you then?

Jenny: We find it easier, honestly, because our market-style CSA, like the table, everything we have every week is based on what is in the field. So if we have a crop loss, we can adjust. 

Before we would have to do really kind of honed-in crop planning. Every week we’d have to go through and be like, okay, we’re expecting to have this many units of lettuce or this many units of, you know, celeriac or something. It’s a little more relaxed for us.

And it gives people more of a choice, which people really enjoy. That was another issue we were having with the old model. People would want to trade out items that they didn’t like, or they didn’t want to try. 

This also gives people a chance to kind of be in the community because I have CSA members who really like one thing that’s kind of obscure, like say like a kohlrabi or something. And another CSA member is like, Oh, I’ve never tried that. And then they have a conversation.

And they talk about the good things about it. And it encourages someone to try something new and not be forced.

Erik: I think most importantly, what really makes our CSA model work well, the CSA members respond to it. They love the fact that they can get whatever they like each week. And we can make it work because we are not only a CSA farm.

If the CSA were our sole outlet, we would have an incredibly hard time making the free choice model function because we would always end up with shortages of the crops that people really like and surpluses of things that no one likes.

But with the CSA and the farmers market as a sales outlet, it works ridiculously well. Because it kind of splits it into two tiers. The CSA member is, in a way, the VIP, they’re the most important customer. 

They get first choice when strawberries show up, they get strawberries and they don’t show up on the farmer’s market table. The first week of tomatoes, they all go to CSA. Then things go to the farmer’s market and having the market there gives us a secondary outlet to move crops that the CSA isn’t super excited about. 

And with the free choice CSA model, we also built some flexibility in. So we might say the first week of strawberry season, as a CSA member, you can have strawberries, but you can only have one basket this week. 

And the other side of that is if we’re in peak tomato season, peak summer squash season, cucumber season, we let all the CSA members know that this week you can have one tomato or you can have 20 tomatoes, and either way it’s going to count the same for your CSA share.

Maureen: That’s great. I love the relationship that happens between the farmer and the CSA member in the scenario that you’re explaining. Everybody understands or at least is in the same kind of work, the farm is going to give us a little bit more as a CSA member when we can when they can. And we need to be respectful of the bounty to be shared with everybody, right? It’s a balance.

Erik: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a conversation that I’ve had quite a few times with different CSA members and you know, we have an awful lot of CSA members that really have a good understanding of the way the farm works, the way the CSA works. And they try to be, you know, really respectful of what we’re doing and really go out of their way to make sure that they aren’t doing something that could be taken as them taking advantage. 

And with some of those CSA members, you know, I will let them know late summer that there’s a pint of tomatoes, there’s a quart of tomatoes, and there’s an eight-quart basket of tomatoes, and they can have whatever they need that week. 

And some people, they won’t want to take the eight-quart basket because they feel that’s unfair to us as the farmers. And, you know, we just have a conversation where I say, this is the way we build it. This is the way it works. Some weeks I’m going to win, some weeks you are going to win. And that’s fine. 

That’s the way we designed it. We designed it so that sometimes you do get a great bonus in the CSA. And we want you to have that.

Maureen: I love it. And I mean, the beauty of that model too is that the least amount of food goes to waste, right? That you let somebody take more tomatoes. If you can use them, take them.

Erik: That’s exactly the conversation I had with a few CSA members at the Canandaigua pick up this year. I had people showing up and I have some CSA members where I know they do an awful lot of their own processing. 

They’re canning a bunch, they’re freezing a bunch. And I had a night where I think I had 400 pounds of extra tomatoes on the truck that absolutely had to get used within the next couple of days. And I think I had three people that night who each took at least 30 pounds of tomatoes. And it’s really wonderful when we can do that because, in my mind, I have a surplus. I don’t have a second market for this stuff.

This stuff is either going to the CSA members, it’s going to the food bank, or it’s going to end up in my compost bin. And, you know, when I’m looking at something like that, I’m happiest if it goes to the CSA members because they always appreciate it. 

It’s kind of our way of trying to give back a little bit and really recognize that. They are part of what makes the farm possible and it’s really just wonderful to be able to do that.

Maureen: That relationship between your primary customer and yourself as the farmers is a beautiful thing. And I would imagine that a lot of your journey on your path to profitability was benefited by the emphasis that you put on the strength of that relationship. Yeah, yeah. I’m going to ask you one final question to wrap us up. Tell me about one of your favorite moments from your recent years operating the farm.

Erik: Oh, absolutely.

Maureen: Alright Jenny, what do you like?

Jenny: I love the springtime when everything is first coming into its green. I’ve had some time in the winter to hibernate. And then people are just so excited. We’ll see people at the market, or I’m in Geneva a lot and people are like, when’s the CSA starting? And just that energy, that energy is what I look forward to.

Maureen: Love it. How about you, Erik?

Erik: I’m going to share in an awful lot of that and agree with Jenny that – that really is the best time of the year when we open up the greenhouses in February, things start to really green up in March and usually at some point in April, we are back at the farmers market. We’re getting ready for CSA and to just see so many of our customers that in some cases we haven’t seen for a few months and just the level of excitement that a lot of people have early in the season, it’s really hard to match.

Maureen: Beautiful. I love it. Thank you so much for taking some time today to share your story with the Spilled Salt audience. We aim to help support growing and scaling businesses in food, beverage, and agriculture, and also tell stories along the way. And so the nuggets that you shared today hit both of those points, and I’m incredibly grateful for your time.