Every week, Katie Zukof loads her car with sourdoughs, ryes, baguettes and focaccia before crowds of people line up at her booth at the farmer’s market.
But as the days grow colder and October ends, Zukof, co-owner of Muddy Fork Farm and Bakery, said the crowds at the market dwindle.
“So we can’t just rely on the customers the farmer’s market brings in anymore,” she said.
That’s where the bakery’s subscription service comes in. Muddy Fork customers can pay $21 for a monthly subscription to one loaf of bread a week. They can then pick the bread up at the Farmer’s Market or at the bakery.
Alex Crowley, director of economic and sustainable development for Bloomington, said the subscription model is part of a larger trend toward community-supported agriculture, or CSAs, which is when farmers have customers subscribe to products.
They are then delivered to homes or shipped to nearby markets and stores like Bloomingfoods in Bloomington.
“It’s turning the farmer’s market virtual,” he said. “With just a click, you can have milk, fruits, bread, vegetables from farms to your doorstep every week.”
But still less than 1 percent of U.S. farms use subscription programs, according to a 2015 study by Ecotrust and the Economics for Equity and Environment Network.
Crowley said he wants this number to grow because of the benefit CSA’s have on both customers and producers.
“It connects people to locally-grown food and also gives farmers a regular customer base that can give them stability,” he said.
Zukof said having subscribers lets them know that they can consistently sell a certain amount of bread each week. She said this steady customer base as a cushion is vital, especially between November and March, when sales drop.
A 2014 USDA study indicated that CSA farmers earn 377.5 percent more than the national average for farms.
Zukof said part of the reason farms with subscription programs earn more is because they get money up front they can use to initially buy ingredients and equipment needed to make more product and profit.
With the increased profit and steady customer base created by CSA’s, Crowley said producers can bring prices down.
“It’s no secret a price of an apple here at the farmer’s market may be more than an apple at a grocery store,” Crowley said. “But this will help farmers be able to bring their prices down.”
Zukof said her subscription program gets customers their bread for 10 percent less than usual. She even throws in a free croissant with each loaf for people who sign up by November.
Crowley said price drops will even the playing field between local producers and big grocery store chains. He said they will also make healthier, fresher and more sustainable food more accessible.
“It seems like it’s so easy to buy an apple from Washington but so hard to buy an apple from a little farm just outside town,” he said. “People who come to the farmer’s market can buy food that was picked this morning or baked fresh just across town. Everyone should be able to have that.”
Zukof said Muddy Fork is located in a secluded area on the northside of Bloomington. By setting up a subscription system and bringing her bread to the farmer’s market, she said fresher, more sustainable food becomes accessible in location.
“We’re providing a fresh, local option that isn’t available anywhere else in Bloomington, and now we’re trying to make it easier for people to take advantage of that option,” she said.
Crowley said this accessibility is especially important to students who do not have cars or the time to drive down to a farm for milk every week. He said it also helps students afford locally-produced food with their limited budgets.
In addition to delivering to the farmer's market, Crowley said it is important for farms to make the next step and deliver food to drop-off locations or stores elsewhere, so that people who can’t go the market have the same access.
Zukof said she tried delivering to drop-off locations around Bloomington in the first few years of the subscription program. But she said they did not have the manpower to continue deliveries soon after 2015.
Zukof said shifting from grocery stores to subscriptions programs and CSA's can also benefit the environment.
Muddy Fork bakes its bread by burning wood strips that are scrapped from flooring, Zukof said. They do not use fossil fuels like many factories that make bread, she said.
She said they also use organic, local ingredients straight from farms and burn less fossil fuels transporting ingredients and products from place to place.
“The bread in the supermarket has passed through so many hands, gone through so many chains,” she said. “It’s been shipped all over the country. But we just get the wheat, mill it, bake it, bring it to market.”
While Zukof said CSA's are a great option, the problem is not a lot of people know about them. After almost eight years, she said there are only 11 people currently on their subscription list.
While she has sent out an email newsletter and a Facebook post about the program, she said she has not done much to advertise because she is so busy running her business.
Crowley said difficulties advertising, especially among students, are why CSA’s and subscription programs in Bloomington are still relatively small.
“These farmers aren’t marketers,” he said. “They’re great at producing food but maybe they need some help getting people excited about it.”
Crowley said the City of Bloomington is hoping to start social media campaigns and possibly plant events to help local food-producers get the word out about their subscription programs.
Zukof said some of her subscribers have bought bread from her every week for five to eight years. She said she hopes getting more people to subscribe will help her create lasting relationships with her customers.
“It helps me get to know everyone and their names and favorite breads,” she said. “It builds a relationship.”
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