Sunday, April 3, 2011

Community Supported Agriculture: A Win/Win Situation

This fall our family signed up with a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. I am thrilled as this is something I have longed to do for some time.

In the last 20 years CSA's have become very popular. CSA's provide an excellent way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Participating in CSA farming is simple: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the general public. Generally, a "share" consists of a medium size box of vegetables but other products may be included as well such as fruits, eggs, milk, cheese, honey and/or maple syrup. Consumers who want to partake simply purchase a share (sometimes referred to as a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box, bag or basket of seasonal produce. While this practice itself is simple, the impact has been monument us. Thousands of families have CSAs throughout the country. In many areas, there is a more of a demand than there are CSAs to fill it. Some CSAs are finding themselves resorting to waiting lists. It has been estimated that currently the United States alone is home to over 4,000 CSA farms.

Advantages for Consumers
The advantages for consumers are numerous!

* Uber-fresh fruit and veggies packed full of rich vitamins and nutrients
* Exposure to new vegetables, new products and new recipes
* Farm visits
* Children and adults alike suddenly preferring "their" farms products, even veggies previously undiscovered
* Developing a relationship with your local farmer
* Educational aspects regarding food, growing and a working farm just to name a few points.
* No need to have the space for a garden in order to enjoy fresh produce
* No experience necessary
* Knowing exactly where your food comes from
* Teaching he kids were your food comes from and how to help produce it
* Lower prices
* A wide variety of produce
* The ability to request something extra or not to receive something else
* Extra produce to freeze and can, thereby redoing the grocery bill even after the season.
* Advantages for Farmers
* The advantages for farmers who choose to offer CSA shares are abundant.
* Allowed to focus on marketing the food early in the year long before the long days in the field begin
* Receive payment early in the season which allows for better planning and cash flow
* Supporting local economies
* Shared risk regarding each crop's yield
* An opportunity to get to know the people who they feed
* The joy of participating in sustainable farming/harvesting while still making a living
* The ability to teach others about where their food comes from.


It is important to note that each farm is slightly different. Some farms utilize a "mix and match" or "market-style" CSA. Here, consumers would not simply be picking up a standard box each week; they instead load their own boxes with a certain amount of personal discretion. The farmer lays out baskets of each week's ripened vegetables. On some farms, the consumers are asked to take a prescribed amount and leave behaving what their families do not care for. Many times this extra produce is sold at farmers markets, roadside stands, or donated to local food banks. At other farms the members have a wider choice to opt for what pleases their family, often within specific limitations (I.e. "one basket of raspberries per share, please"). Furthermore, while some farmers sell shares for a whole year at a time, other's offers 10 week, or 25 week intervals. Some farmers require members to complete a certain number of "work" hours while others do not require this at all. Nearly all farmers offer farm pick up (which in my opinion is the fun part of the CSA experience), some also offer drop off/pick up locations and/or home delivery.

Remember that CSAs are not solely about vegetables. Many have options for shareholders to buy eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers, honey, maple syrup and other farm products as well as their vegetables. In some areas farmers are coming together to offer their products together. For example one CSA vegetable and honey farm may allow another chicken farmer to use their CSA as a drop off point thereby allowing CSA members to purchase chickens when they come to pick up their share. Other farms are streamlining their farm into one specific area only. Still other non-farming third parties are setting up CSA-like businesses, where they sell boxes of local food to their members only and are essentially middle men.

Shared Risk
One of the most important concepts of the CSA arraignment is the premise of shared risk. When CSAs first began this notion of "we're all in it together" was critical. If the season allowed for apples to be rampant, then the families began not only using the apples as fresh produce but also putting some up for winter; freezing for pies and crisps, juicing, and making homemade apple sauce. If a hail storm depleted all the tomatoes, well, those families could expect very little spaghetti that year. This concept remains. While farmers often have other avenues of marketing their produce through farmers markets, wholesale, and industrial accounts, many still require CSA members to sign a policy indicating that they agree to accept without complaint whatever the farm is able to produce.

This feeling of shared risk interestingly creates a sense of community among members and between members and the farmer. Together, all the members and the hardworking farmers cheer on the green peppers and watch the onions anxiously. They are excited together, concerned together and triumphant together. Most CSA farmers report feeling a significant responsibility to their members. When specific crops are scant, they ensure that the CSA members have first dibs.

At times however, things do wrong. Hideously, horribly wrong. Sometimes it is understandable; a wretched divorce, sudden death or family tragedy. Othertimes, it may be a renegade, irresponsible farmer or a newbie over his head. With that said there are hundreds of farmers who take pride in their land and farm, you find joy in feeding the member families and who have a grand reputation. There are a few noteworthy tips to avoid any issues. When searching for your new CSA remember:

* Ask around for recommendations.
* Find an established, reputable CSA
* Ensure that all produce being offered is actually from that farm. (Occasionally, new farmers get odd, desperate ideas and bring in produce and "resell").
* Check contract for hidden fees and to ensure you are comfortable with all fees.
* Visit the farm and see for yourself how the produce is grown, how the animals are kept and the land is treated. Nothing else can be as rewarding or affirming.

Other critical tips for potential CSA members:

* Do not expect all your produce to come from your CSA. While your share will be plenty of produce, it will not be enough. Most CSAs do not provide fruit, and those that do, do so in specific quantities. Furthermore, stables will still need to be bought. Inquire with your farmer before running out the market. Again.
* If you are unfamiliar with eating seasonally, do some research! It will be shocking that the grocery store has tomatoes but yet they don't ripen until August! Who knew?
* Always inquire about types of produce expected as well as quantities.
* If you are planning on freezing and/or canning for winter, inquire with your farmer. Many times he/she will have a list of individuals seeking extra produce on top of their CSA order.
* Always, always, always remember, refer to and obey all policies.
* Always ask the farmer for references. If they have plenty of good reports, you are in safe hands.

Joining a CSA can be a rewarding, healthy choice for your family but also for the Earth as well. If you are concerned with Environmental issues, are a proponent for "going local", are interested in becoming a "localvoire" or just don't have a green thumb yourself, check into joining a CSA- fresh, local, healthy produce without all the work!

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