After 10+ years, Keeseville vegetable farm is weighing its options
Like many small business owners, farmers need to find that “sweet spot” of growing/producing enough to make a profit, on a scale that’s manageable. And as Ian Ater of Fledging Crow, a vegetable farm in Keeseville, is finding out, bigger doesn’t always mean better.
Years of tremendous growth, followed by some inconsistent growing seasons and other setbacks recently have led Ater to hit the pause button, to give himself time to step back and re-evaluate his business and how he plans to restructure it going forward.
“We’re going through changes at the farm and sizing down, moving in a different direction,” he said in a recent phone conversation.
Part of those changes involves likely discontinuing Fledging Crow’s CSA program. Ater broke the news to his CSA members in early October, sharing with them that he had suffered an injury—a broken femur—that forced him out of active farm work for the rest of the season. Other setbacks beyond his control, such as a rough start to the summer that resulted in some crop failures in July, contributed to his decision. But overall, he said the main reason is the farm is underwater — financially speaking.
“We sustained a number of tough financial years and we’re losing our shirts,” he said.
The news can seem hard to believe, coming from a farm that appears to have had a meteoric rise to regional fame. According to Ater, the CSA started with 35 members in its first year, then hit 110 the second, and continued to double every year for the next four to five years. At the CSA’s peak, with the addition of a distribution point at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, Fledging Crow had 700 members and 12-14 staff farming close to 40 acres.
During that period, Fledging Crow owners invested in land and equipment to increase their operation, which brought additional expenses. “We noticed we weren’t charging enough for the CSA and we’ve been playing catch up ever since,” said Ater. In addition to the CSA, the farm was selling at area farmers markets and started taking on bigger wholesale accounts.
“Trying to keep up with it all became unsustainable, said Ater. “We did the best we could to navigate it, but didn’t know when to say ‘when,’” he said. Fledging Crow co-founder Lucas Christenson left the business last year, further shaking up the balance.
In an effort to not have to raise CSA prices, Fledging Crow staff started making weekly treks to New York City to sell produce at urban farmers markets, a move that garnered some negative feedback at home. “People accused us of bringing our best stuff to the city. That comment really bugs me. We bring our best stuff to all the markets,” said Ater.
Negative comments aside, he admits he’s heard from some of his members that they’d like to continue to support Fledging Crow. “We love our farm, we think it’s been a positive influence in the community. We appreciate everything the community has done for us.”
While there’s still a slim possibility of offering some sort of CSA next spring, Ater’s not sure how that will fit in at the moment. “We’re finding the way people buy food has really changed. People are buying food in a different way and having a harder time committing to showing up every week (for their CSA share).” He’ll use the winter months to figure out what the future holds for Fledging Crow. More than likely, it will look like a scaled-down return to roots: farming around 15 acres, with 4-5 employees. Instead of being locked into growing a large variety of veggies for the CSA, Ater will focus on growing high performers and sell those items at farmers markets and wholesale accounts.
In cultivating the next iteration of Fledging Crow, Ater can tap into the things he’s learned along the way. “Hopefully we can blow the socks off people next year. We’ve got some tricks left.”