by Heather Mundt – Ever wanted to add garden-fresh produce to your diet but lack enough time or a green thumb to tend your own? Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) might be the answer.
Offering the bountiful varieties of produce readily available at farmer’s markets, CSAs take gardening a step further by allowing consumers to invest in a farm for a regular share of its harvest.
“The main benefit for farmers is that they have people who are steady supporters of their farm,” says Elizabeth Henderson, a farmer at Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, N.Y., and co-author of two books, “Whole-Farm Planning” and “Sharing the Harvest.”
Since the 1940s, she says, there’s been a tremendous loss of U.S. farms. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture statistics, the number of farms nationwide has been on a downward trend since World War II. From the 1935 high of nearly 7 million farms to roughly 2 million in the most recent 2012 census, the number of U.S. farms has decreased about 70 percent in the last 80 years.
“(The trend) is not because people don’t like farming; it’s because it’s very hard to keep a family-scale farm in business,” Henderson says. “Doing a Community Supported Agriculture program is a way of getting your own “club” of people who want you to be there.”
In essence, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Web site, “CSA members accept part of the financial risks associated with farming and enjoy access to “their” farms for educational events and volunteer opportunities.”
CSAs “allow people to buy shares in the harvest of a farm before the crops are planted,” the site states. “In exchange for their investment, “shareholders” receive fresh fruits and vegetables (and sometimes products such as cheese, flowers, eggs and meat) weekly throughout the season.”
The terms of CSAs vary slightly. But in general, shareholders pay an upfront or weekly fee to receive products each week during the spring and/or fall harvest (roughly 8-10 weeks twice yearly). Consumers like Lora Salfi, for example, joined the Tara Firma Farms CSA in Petaluma, Calif., paying a weekly fee of $20 for veggies plus $10 for fruit.
“I wanted organic, local produce,” says the mom of two and native Californian, who participated in a Community Supported Agriculture program for two years before relocating in 2014 to Texas. “The price was close to organic at the supermarket, and I got items I could never purchase there like heirloom radishes and carrots, purple potatoes, all kinds of kale varieties and leafy greens. Plus I could add eggs, honey and meat if I wanted.”
Delivery terms can also vary by CSA, from members picking up produce from the farm or a central location to receiving home delivery.
“At first (Tara Firma Farms) had a central location for pick up, a yoga studio,” says Salfi, catering sales manager for an event center in Corpus Christi, Texas. “And when the farm got more clients, I volunteered my work location as a second pick-up spot. I helped manage the pickups for about 6 months, and then they started home delivery.”
In Ponchatoula, La., farmer Eric Morrow’s Community Supported Agriculture program is in its second year of “Farm to Work,” delivering approximately 600 boxes of produce to a handful of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center locations throughout Baton Rouge, La. Participants sign up through their employer, paying $25 per week (or every other) via payroll deduction.
The program not only helps keep Morrow Farm running, says the 8th-generation Louisiana farmer, but it also gives the medical center employees easy access to healthy food they might not have selected at a grocery store.
“The end result is we’re able to sign up a lot of people. And we are adding value to community because there’s more connection to the farm, and we’re promoting healthier eating lifestyles,” Morrow says. “It puts it in (employees) minds that: ‘I need to do a bit better in my eating.’ A lot of people like that.”
His farm grows about 90 percent of the produce included in the CSA deliveries, including strawberries (his specialty), corns, beans, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and blueberries, to name a few. (He supplements citrus and peaches from area farmers.) Morrow also includes recipes for the box’s contents, about 10 to 14 items per delivery, as well as a newsletter to keep participants updated on Morrow Farms.
“Those little touches help connect his clients to the farm and the food he grows,” he says, “a key benefit to CSAs.”
“I love to be in that many households every night,” Morrow says. “I’m contributing to health and wellness of each family. What other job could you do that’s more fulfilling?”
Henderson recommends consumers interested in joining a Community Supported Agriculture program should choose one that parents can visit with their children.
“At our farm, kids get to do meaningful work with adults. And when children get a chance to help grow food, they eat it,” Henderson says. “People joining a CSA is a way to learn much more about how food is grown and its real value in our lives. When you buy in a plastic bag in the supermarket, people forget.”
Heather Mundt is contributing editor to Outdoor Families Magazine, and publishes the blog Momfari. She lives in Longmont, Colo., with her husband and two sons.