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The Future of Community Supported Agriculture in Denver

Vegetables grown at Farm Yard CSA.

Farm Yard CSA is in its sixth year.

The gardens of Farm Yard CSA.

After the bankruptcy of Grant Family Farms in late 2012, it has been unclear how the closure of largest CSAs in the country would affect its members and the reputation of CSAs. In the face of the big bust, Denver-based Farm Yard CSA takes a much different tact: go small.
It should not have come as a total shock when Grant Family Farms filed for bankruptcy and closed in December, leaving hundreds of their members without a reliable source for their locally-grown produce and farm fresh eggs. Despite tremendous growth in recent years, the business had been troubled and filed for bankruptcy before. 
It is still not completely clear what led to the multi-million dollar bankruptcy (calls and emails to Grant Family Farms seeking comment for this article were not returned), though there is a great deal of finger pointing from everything to financial mismanagement and problems getting crop insurance to a spinach recall and drought. 
Whatever the cause of Grant Family Farms' spectacular rise and fall, local experts and CSA owners don't believe it will have lasting negative impact on CSAs.
"Grant Family Farms was a member of the Mile High Business Alliance for a long time and the relationship was very positive," says Sarah Wells, development director at the Mile High Business Alliance. "It's pretty sad to see if it's dividing some of the local food communities. There are some bad feelings around the way it was handled." 
Get fresh
Wells looks at both the small and big picture with Grant Family Farms. She was a CSA member of Grant Family Farms and is now waitlisted to join another CSA to fill the void. Grant Family Farms was based in Wellington, Colorado, but since they had a drop-off point in Denver they had a large subscriber base here. 
"Overall the loss of Grant Family Farms is incredibly sad," she says. "They were trying to implement a way for people to connect directly with farmers, which is difficult to do with the standard grocery store system we have, and it will be difficult to fill that gap because they were so big." At one point, Grant Family Farms had over 5,000 members. 
That said, Wells does not think other CSAs will face the same problems as Grant Family Farms because its immense size led it to face bigger challenges. "I don't think the problems they face are problems that any CSA will face," she says. 
She also questions if "the end goal of a business" should be growth for the sake of growth. "What if your goal wasn't to have a giant farm?" Wells says. 
Wells believes that the gap left by Grant Family Farms will be filled in by existing and new CSAs in the Denver area and beyond, but that there is a need for more available land.
Farm Yard risingFarmYard CSA is in its 6th year.
Debbie Dalrymple, Owner of Farm Yard CSA, actually has more land available to her to grow her crops than she can handle here in Denver -- and she has halted expansion of her business.
"We could just grow as much as we wanted because there is no shortage of people who want to offer their land," Dalyrmple says. "Every year we sell out and we could grow just as much as we want."
Instead, she has capped her membership at 70 people and at 25,000 square feet of space that is made up in urban churchyards and residential yards that she says would otherwise grow grassy lawns. Each backyard is devoted to a single crop so she might be growing only winter squash at a house in Washington Park and only cucumbers at a church in the Highlands. 
Farm Yard CSA seems to be the antithesis of Grant Family Farms with its slow growth philosophy. "I'm not a fan of Grant Family Farms," Dalyrmple admits. "I worried about what they were going to do to the reputation of CSAs. It's not as sudden as it feels [that they went bankrupt]."
Farm Yard CSA is in its sixth year and Dalrymple is hiring her first employee to help manage the crops (Dalrymple has a full-time job in IT technology). "The number of offers I get every year is amazing," she says of the number of people who want her to use their land for cultivating food crops. 
Sign me up
Both Wells and Dalyrmple agree that the news about Grant Family Farms might attract even more people to CSAs who had never heard of the concept before.
Ultimately, people who buy into a CSA are learning more about the true cost of food, and that's a good thing, Wells says. "Grant Family Farms did a lot of the legwork to start that conversation, but it was too much for one company," she says. 
Before cueing up, Wells suggests doing research. "I think it's a matter of deciding what is important to you personally," she says. "Some CSAs are tied into mission-based work, maybe leftover food goes to a women's shelter. Ask yourself how motivated you are to pick up the food on a regular basis, or if you want to go to a farm to pick up the food."
Learn more about Denver-area CSAs and find one with a pick-up near you here and here.

Read more articles by Mindy Sink.

Mindy is a freelance writer and author of Walking DenverMoon Handbooks Guide to Denver and co-author of Colorado Organic: Cooking Seasonally, Eating Locally
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