Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) is a great way to get farm-fresh organic food, cheap, while supporting a genuine farm engaged in sustainable agricultural. So, what is the catch?
How CSA works is that the members each pay the farm up front in winter or early spring for a share of the summer and fall harvest. If the harvest is poor, the members get less. The farm gets the money needed to finance the crop, the farm isn’t devoting massive amounts of time to selling the product, and even petroleum is saved by limiting deliveries to once a week. CSA lets the farmers concentrate on farming and spreads the risk of the harvest between all of the farm’s CSA members. The CSA members get to eat healthy, cheap food and feel good about what they are doing.
Getting started: I’ve wanted to be a member of a CSA member for some time, but there were no groups near me, until this year. We now have a successful start-up group. Some things that were tried worked; other didn’t. I’m hoping this story might inspire you to join a CSA group or start your own.
I learned about the new CSA group-to-be from an email forwarded by a neighbor who was a friend of a friend of Nancy, the person who started our CSA. Nancy had been a CSA group member in another city, so knew the basics. Her former CSA farm with was willing to take on a new group in our town, so there was no question about the farm’s reliability or quality.
The deal being offered was 24 weeks of vegetables for 4 (or 2 to 3 vegetarians) for $400, starting in June, and/or 20 weeks of fruit for $175, starting in July. Very reasonable.
To get started, we set up a (free) Yahoo! Group, to make data generally available and have easy email communications. Over the winter, emails were sent out and brochures hung up around town but we weren’t getting close to our initial goal of 20+ families – enough customers to pay for the farm to send the truck to our town once a week.
Then, in early spring, two things went very right. First, Nancy was driving around looking for a place near the interstate where the farm truck could conveniently make its weekly drop off. She stopped at a local church to look over their parking lot. She started talking with some parishioners and, two weeks later, our CSA group had a church sponsor! About the same time, the local newspaper did a short article about the new group. (I don’t know how this happened but it was a big help).
So between the church members and the newspaper article, we had our minimum group of 20+. Then, Nancy did one more very smart thing by limiting new applications after we hit the 30+ mark. She correctly pointed out that we needed a small group the first year while we were getting organized.
In May, we had our organizational meeting and pot luck lunch at the church, complete with recipe swapping and kids running around.
How it works: June came and so did our first vegetables. The delivery logistics took a couple of weeks to work out. Now it goes like this: early each week, we get a letter from the farm through the Yahoo! Group, telling us how things are going and what our share for the week will be. It’s actually exciting as there’s always something new on the menu. (Excerpt from a weekly letter: “Bright Lights Swiss Chard-1 bunch; Boothby Blonde or National Pickling Cucumbers-15, General Lee Slicing Cucumber-6, Summer Squash-mix of varieties-10, Green Spring Onions-1 bunch, Oriental Eggplant-2, Oregano-1 bunch….”)
On our delivery day, Wednesday, the truck stops by the church around mid day. Our crates go into a storeroom set aside for us, with a door leading to the parking lot. At 3:45 PM, the week’s “opening volunteers” sort and label the crates. The members pick up their shares between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM, lingering to chat for a while, and perhaps to buy some organic eggs from the small stock brought weekly by one of our members from her backyard chickens. At 6:00 PM the day’s “closing volunteers” sweep up and stack the empty crates, to be picked up the following week.
Excess produce, and a share bought by the church for this purpose, are donated to a local care-giving group.
The food is wonderful. Enormous heads of crisp, dark green lettuce; tiny, pale green, thin-skinned cucumbers by the handful; pints of tart, tangy currants; elegant bunches of chard with bright colored stems; and piles of baby squash shaped like fat yellow stars. Each week, some familiar stand-bys and some new and different things, all carrying a hint of warm sun, fresh breeze, and moist, fertile soil.
It is a change to eat each week what’s harvested that week rather than what you chose to buy. I, for one, tend to buy the many of same things over and over at the grocery store. Now, it’s learning new foods and new ways of cooking, aided by our group members who have generously posted recipes and how-to’s on the group site.
For example, did you know that you can cook a cucumber anyway that you can cook zucchini, and that green onions freeze well? I still won’t eat beet roots, but I’ve learned several delicious ways to cook the beet greens.
Diet-wise, I lost 10 LB in a month by having large portions of lo-cal but delicious vegetables every day.
The people are great, too. CSA groups attract nice people. I’ve met several very interesting people that I like a whole lot. Also, those of us who didn’t need a whole share are able to split a share with someone else interested in the project. I hadn’t met my share partner before, and she’s wonderful. We not only help each other by jointly owning the share, if one of us can’t pick up on Wednesday, the other one covers it. My wonderful share partner even likes beets, so she’s willing to take the roots and let me have the greens. (grin).
The farmers are worth supporting. I had wondered what would happen if the crop wasn’t good. Well, this year was pretty bad. The spring broccoli bolted and several other tragedies were occasioned by the too cold and too wet, then too hot and too dry, then too hot and too wet weather.
Here are the words of our farmers, Deb and Pete, taken from their June letters:
“This has been one of the most challenging springs we remember. A 100 Year Flood, a flood of a magnitude that only happens every 100 years, started April. The fields were covered, the barns flooded and all we could do is watch….
“May was dreary, gray, cold and dry. We thought we would never see the sun and then June rolled around with 90 degree temperatures and still no rain. The irrigation has been going every night for weeks ….
“Some of the vegetables that we count on each spring-the bok choi, broccoli and possibly the spinach-are just not going to be harvestable this year. They are all very sensitive to the heat and bolted before they grew to harvestable size….
“We were broiling just about a half hour ago and then the heavens opened and rained over 1/2 inch. The temperature dropped almost 20 degrees.“
In July, growing conditions finally improved. Despite all this, somehow our farm has come through anyway every week, with plenty to eat. Thank you, Deb and Pete.
Start your own: I walk to pick up my share but several of our members are coming from other towns – a waste of petroleum. What we were discussing the other night is how they can start their own in-town CSA groups. Next year our group should grow much larger, since the product sells itself. I hope that several of our members also start their own groups in other towns as well. And perhaps those new CSA groups will lead to even more new groups through out our county.
If you look on the web, you can find a list of CSA farms in your area. The farm doesn’t have to be very close as long as it can get to you on the highways in a couple of hours.
As you can see from our experience, you can get a CSA group going once you have a farm, a dedicated organizer or two, and a sponsoring organization. Nancy, I can’t thank you enough, for being our dedicated organizer.