Bankruptcy court finds no assets to repay customers belonging to John Crow CSA
A bankruptcy court official said she’s examining financial records of Robert Varisco, owner of a popular Community Supported Agriculture farm that closed and left hundreds of shareholders without deliveries they had paid for in advance. But trustee Anne White said that so far she’s found no money or assets consumers could tap.
White spoke at a court meeting Monday for Varisco’s creditors in Worcester. She advised shareholders not to file claims in Varisco’s bankruptcy case now because it would be futile, but asked them to provide her with contact information in case the situation changes. Only one shareholder came to the meeting; she later posted an account on a Facebook page set up by mystified and unhappy customers after they stopped getting food deliveries.
The three-year-old CSA, John Crow Farm in Groton, closed in late March. Varisco filed for personal bankruptcy April 14, saying he had no income, with property worth about $82,000 and debts of $537,700, including about $165,000 owed to about 350 CSA shareholders. Most of the shareholders live in Somerville, Cambridge and other towns west of Boston.
Farmers in court
Varisco, with a gray ponytail, appeared at the meeting with his attorney, Robert F. Casey, and answered White’s questions. Afterward, Casey advised him not to talk to a reporter. Another officer of the CSA farm, Aidan Davin, was also there but left before a reporter could speak to him. Both live in Fitchburg, according to bankruptcy papers.
Thirty-five CSA shareholders have complained to the attorney general, and Nicole Caprioli, an attorney with the Attorney General’s Office, attended the meeting but did not ask questions. A spokeswoman said last week that the office will monitor the bankruptcy case. On Friday Caprioli filed a request with the court to get filings.
White, who is supposed to represent the interest of creditors, said she has received six months of Varisco’s bank statements but not those for February, March and April, which she requested. She also asked for Paypal records and credit card statements. Another meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 16 in Worcester.
Meat, poultry and vegetables
CSAs have become increasingly popular in Cambridge and elsewhere as a way of getting local food and supporting small farmers. About 25 shareholders of John Crow Farm lived in Cambridge, according to court papers, and there was at least one pickup location here. The farm sold meat, poultry and vegetables.
Customers buy a “share” in advance, giving farmers money for supplies and equipment and ensuring a reliable income. In return, customers get a share of the harvest, usually in weekly or monthly deliveries.
The shareholder who attended, a woman from Bolton, declined to give her name. She said she started buying meat from the farm last year, splitting a share with a friend. “It was really good, the meat was great, deliveries were fine,” she said. Two months after renewing for another six months, in December, deliveries stopped, and no one could contact Varisco, she said.
“At first I was ready to cut everybody a lot of slack,” the woman said. “I’m still ready to cut everybody a lot of slack, because things happen, but I think some things [at the farm] may have been a little sketchy.”
She said she and her partner paid $600 for six monthly deliveries of 20 pounds of meat, and were not out as much money as others. “Some people lost a lot of money,” she said. “I would be more concerned if it were $2,000.”
The bankruptcy filings don’t explain why the CSA failed; White said the bank records she’s examined showed that there were “regular weekly expenses.” Under questioning, Varisco said the largest cost was for slaughtering. Slaughterhouse fees alone totaled about $250,000 to $300,000 a year, he said. There were also expenses for hay, grain, other feed and utilities, he said.
Varisco and Davin formed John Crow Farm Inc. in May 2011, corporate records show. The corporation borrowed $207,000 in January 2012 from the Farm Service Agency, a U.S. Agriculture Department unit that helps farmers, Varisco and Davin also signed the loan. In return, the company pledged all its assets. There was no information in court papers on loan payments.
The farm operated on leased land, for $2,000 a month. A representative of the landowner told White that the farm owes $4,000 in back rent.
Complicating the case is that Varisco filed for personal bankruptcy, but the corporation still exists. White said it’s not clear that Varisco personally owes anything to the CSA customers. Whether he does or the farm does, neither appears to have assets or money to repay them.