Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a great way to have a steady supply of fresh local produce all summer. Customers pay farmers up front for a season’s worth of farm products and farmers receive necessary capital before the season starts. There are many variations of CSAs. Some farms offer vegetables, some include eggs, cheese, meat, or fruit. There are sheep farms that offer fiber CSAs and there are CSKs (community-supported kitchens), which make shares of prepared foods and meals for members to take home each week.
Joining a typical CSA will provide you with a steady, varied supply of vegetables for as many weeks as the farm can continue harvesting, depending on your location and growing season. The upfront price you pay will be less expensive than what you would pay for the same amount of food in a store or at a farmer’s market. Aside from what you receive and what you save, there is more to the CSA system that sometimes gets overlooked.
Chris James believes strongly in the CSA model that supports Fresh Earth Farms, where he grows a wide variety of vegetables on 20 acres in Denmark Township, Minnesota. Chris runs a pure CSA where the whole operation is devoted to growing food for members, and therefore the members’ investment makes up the farm’s entire income. He’ll have produce ready for members in about a month, but right now he still has shares he hasn’t sold. In the area where he grows, many farms have added a CSA component to their already established farms. These farms draw customers by offering a good price for their shares, but, unlike Fresh Earth Farms, they are not completely reliant on the investment of community members to keep their farms going.
When you join a CSA you are more than just a customer, you are part of the community that supports the farm. As a member, you are also an investor. The return on your investment goes far beyond the gastronomic and nutritional component of your weekly share. Your financial backing allows the farmer to purchase seeds, equipment, and perhaps hire employees for the season. By investing in the farm, you are contributing to the long-term survival of the farm, keeping the land from being developed, supporting sustainable agriculture, and protecting habitat for wildlife.
Laura Neale owns Black Kettle farm in Lyman, Maine. She is in her second year as a CSA and her first on the farm she recently bought. In her first season as a CSA, she found it was a “way cool cooperative relationship” and an educational tool for members. “They totally, whether they intend to or not, learn about local agriculture, weather, cooking, bug, lots of other things.”
Laura also sells at a farmer’s market and to restaurants in the area. This provides her with a balance that can sometimes be lacking when you have just one way of selling. When there is more food than she can sell at the market, her members will gladly take it. Still, the CSA system can make her anxious. “It is a bit hard, just by the nature of the agreement, that people pay you up front and then you, as the farmer, have to deliver. Essentially I am in debt to my members.”
The CSA gives farmers a customer base and money to cover their expenses, but the idea that members have made an investment and must take the bad with the good is sometimes forgotten. If the season is wet and cold, you might have to wait longer to get your first box of produce. If a crop is destroyed by disease, pests, or weather, you might not get to eat your favorite vegetable this season. When you join a CSA, you are reaping the benefits of the harvest, but you are also sharing in the risk and supporting the farm no matter how things turn out. It is all too easy to for members to simply act as customers and forget that they are as much a part of the farm as the sun, rain, soil and the people doing the labor.
Investing in a CSA is not only a way to keep your kitchen well stocked, it is also a great way to be part of a farm without having to get your hands dirty. If you do want to get dirt under your nails, some farms offer shares in exchange for work. To find out more about CSAs in your area visit Local Harvest.
Denmark Township, Minnesota