Last spring, Michael Halstead used $860 of his tax refund to invest in an increasingly popular way of buying vegetables: community-supported agriculture.
He and his wife, Angela Carpenter, gave their money to Singer Hill Gardens LLC of Milwaukie, their first experience with a CSA, as these enterprises are called. Subscribers pay up front to help nearby small farmers with the cash they need for the growing season. In return, Singer Hill promised them a bounty of organic vegetables and sustainably raised meat and eggs in a weekly bucket.
The couple who ran the CSA, Jessica and Jacob Dean, also promised subscribers they were part of something bigger. As they wrote in one email, "Your Urban Farmers/On the Front Lines of the War for Food!"
"We're like most starry-eyed Portland people looking for a new, interesting way to help local businesses and feel like we're a part of something important," says Halstead, a 42-year-old stay-at-home dad from Northeast Portland.
But Singer Hill Gardens didn't deliver on its promises. The supply of produce stopped, Halstead and other subscribers never saw a refund, and the owners cut off communication with dozens of people who are out their money.
The popularity of CSAs has exploded across the country, but they're especially celebrated in Portland as a way to keep food-buying local, local, local. And they've developed a good reputation, since the majority of farmers fulfill their promises.
But as the CSA business grows quickly—there are more than 60 in the Portland area, up from 15 in 2000—investors face greater risk when they pay for a season's worth of food up front.
The Oregon Department of Justice is pursuing complaints against Singer Hill, but there's little recourse for people who pay in advance for produce and end up with paltry weekly baskets—or see the delivery of vegetables and meat halt altogether.
The Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, a group of CSA farmers, says Singer Hill is only the second local CSA failure since 2004. But other operations have faced complaints that their bounty was sparse and buyers didn't get everything that was promised.
"We do need to be careful when we're investing our money in a startup business," says Steve Cohen, who heads up food policy and programs for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. "When we see more young people getting into farming—which we need—who are untested, there are probably going to be individuals who aren't going to make it."
But a good track record isn't enough, as the Singer Hill case shows.
Singer Hill first sold shares in its produce in 2009, led by Maureen "Mo" McKenna, who started the enterprise with the Deans and others. McKenna had significant experience, including a degree in sustainable agriculture from Warren Wilson College near Asheville, N.C., and as a crew leader for a 1,400-subscriber CSA operation outside Madison, Wis. The CSA didn't own its own land but farmed a number of backyards whose owners were paid in produce.
McKenna says she was clocking 80 to 90 hours a week between the CSA and a second job. Singer Hill had become financially untenable for her. "I have a master's degree and student loans," she says. "I'd been trying to make this work for so long."
The Deans took over for the 2011 season and signed up about 120 subscribers. One was Cindy Anderson, a satisfied 2010 subscriber who renewed for $1,000 to get vegetables and shares of a new offering—eggs and cheese. "I had a certain expectation about how things were going to turn out," says Anderson, a 45-year-old real-estate investor who lives in Colonial Heights.
Anderson picked up her bucket at the Seven Corners New Seasons. The quantity of produce was small at first, but real signs of trouble appeared when Singer Hill gave vouchers for eggs, explaining that the hens were molting and half a flock had ended up as dinner for wild animals.
Michael Halstead was also happy at first. "Things went south a few weeks into it," he says. "If we hassled them, we got our eggs."
On July 11, Singer Hill sent an email explaining that Jessica Dean had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and asthma complications. The CSA also wrote that, after it dropped off food in weekly buckets, subscribers were taking eggs, meat and cheese that didn't belong to them.
In August, Singer Hill emailed members to say the CSA wouldn't deliver produce that week—members had to drive to Milwaukie and pick up their shares. On Sept. 5, the Deans abruptly shut down Singer Hill, telling its members they should have known the risks when they bought into the CSA at the beginning of the season.
"You, as a member, investing in CSA, are sharing the risk of producing food on a relatively micro, ecologically-friendly scale," the email read. "If our crops are lost due to a wind storm or a failed water pump/hose, fungal disease etc. well, that's it."
But the Deans' email also acknowledged Singer Hill had simply run out of money, in part because members who hadn't paid in full in advance quit paying after they became dissatisfied with the results.
"Undoubtedly, we made amateurish errors in budgeting so tightly," the Deans wrote. "We are so deeply sorry and regretful to be ending the season early, it is truly heartbreaking to us and has been one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make."
No subscriber WW contacted has received a refund, but WW identified the farm that was to provide subscribers meat: Inspiration Plantation in Ridgefield, Wash.
Co-owner Matt Schwab still has about $1,000 the Deans paid as a deposit on chicken, lamb and pig they had planned to have butchered. Inspiration Plantation didn't see its full payments, he says, and the relationship with Singer Hill "almost brought us under."
"I don't think they were trying to be malicious," Schwab says of the Deans. "I think they got in over their heads and made a series of bad decisions."
(Schwab says he's willing to provide some food to Singer Hill investors who bought shares of meat. He says they should write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Strengthening the local food economy involves encouraging and supporting young new farmers. But running a CSA is an advanced level of farming that isn't for beginners, says Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org, a website that helps promote CSAs, farmers markets and small family farms throughout the country.
"To create a plan that you are going to plant in succession the right amount of food in the right variety to be harvestable on a schedule that provides a weekly basket that's not too little or too much requires a high level of skill," she says.
Barnett estimates the country has about 6,000 CSA farms, up from an estimated 600 in 1996. Her organization hears from two to 10 CSAs a year that have run into trouble, although she says there are clearly more.
She encourages people to understand the risks before they sign up with a CSA—and to weigh why they're motivated to invest. If it's largely to help support local agriculture, she says, consider investing in a new CSA. If you're investing the family food budget, research the local options and go with a farm that's tried and true.
Barnett says CSAs are seeing higher rates of turnover among their members compared with a few years ago. "There's only so many people who are going to want the 'I'll take what you give me' model of eating," she says. "When CSAs offer more choice, I suspect retention rates will be higher."
Halstead isn't going that route again.
"I'm completely soured on the idea of CSAs," he says. "We experienced the dark side of the equation."