Farmers and Consumers Connect Through Community Supported Agriculture
When asked the secret to a particularly savory stew or a mouth-watering salad, celebrity chefs often credit fresh ingredients grown in their own gardens or hand-delivered by a nearby farm. Home chefs who don't have the time or space to grow their own produce might feel at a disadvantage in the kitchen: Considering that most of the fruits and vegetables you eat have traveled more than a thousand miles before reaching you, the food you buy at the local grocery hardly can be described as farm-fresh. But an old idea gaining attention from U.S. consumers is putting just-picked greens on tables across the country--and generating much-needed support for small farms at the same time.
CSA connects growers and consumers
Community supported agriculture, referred to as CSA, has been a successful farming approach in Europe and Japan for decades. It's taken awhile for the concept to catch on here in the U.S., but CSA is an idea whose time has come. With many small farms struggling to stay afloat, and consumers becoming increasingly concerned about such things as pesticides and genetically modified organisms, a cooperative relationship between grower and consumer serves both parties' best interests. Since its East Coast beginnings in the mid-eighties, the movement has spread across the country, with around 1,700 CSA farms today feeding local communities in every state.
The concept of community supported agriculture is simple but powerful: It's about creating a relationship between farmers and the community, where consumers agree to buy what the farmer produces during the course of the growing season and the farmer provides a reliable source of fresh, locally grown, nearly always organic produce.
Participants purchase a "share" in advance, which entitles them to a portion of the harvest each week of the growing season.
The weekly box (it could be a bag, but it's commonly referred to as a box) typically includes seven to 12 items. For example, one farm's recent box contents were made up of cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, organic navel oranges, salad mix, onions, celery root, and Joi Choi (a type of cabbage). Another farm's box for the same week included spinach, carrots, cauliflower, leeks, butternut squash, navel oranges, melogold (a type of grapefruit), turnips, cabbage, broccoli, and chard.
Most of the fruits and vegetables you eat have traveled more than a thousand miles.
This arrangement gives the farmer a steady income; funds to buy seed, fertilizer, equipment, and other supplies; and the information he needs to plan the growing season to maximize production and reduce waste. In turn, consumers get fresh, seasonal produce, often at a total cost lower than what they would pay at a grocery store.
While CSA helps keep small farming operations viable and may save consumers a few dollars, it's not just about economics. Participating growers and consumers talk about social responsibility, a greater sense of community, and stewardship of the land.
"Fabulous people who play an integral part in the farm ... that's the real reward of CSA farming," according to Nigel Walker, owner of Eatwell Farm in Northern California. See the sidebar below for a list of CSAs. His own CSA has grown from 48 members in 1995 to 265 in 2005, many of whom contribute their expertise in areas such as accounting, law, and database design for the benefit of the CSA.
"It's a community, and we do our utmost to foster that," he says. A survey of Eatwell Farm members a few years ago confirmed that community is important to them. Of course, there is another, more tangible payoff. Ask participants, and they'll tell you that the produce from CSA farming is head and shoulders above typical grocery store fruits and vegetables.
What to expect as a CSA participant
Juliet Cox of Oakland, Calif., has been supporting CSA since the early '90s as a customer of Full Belly Farm, a 200-acre certified organic farm not far from Eatwell Farm. When she first started, a weekly box cost her about $10. Today, she pays $13.50 and says it's still a bargain.
A cooperative relationship between grower and consumer serves both parties' best interests.
"The relationship of value to price is excellent," says Cox. "I pay less money than I would spend for the same amount of nonorganic, lower quality food at the grocery store." Cox believes that even at $25 a box, she'd feel like she probably was getting more for her money than she could otherwise.
Another CSA supporter, concerned that her participation might be a luxury, decided to conduct her own comparison between the weekly CSA fee and the cost of the same produce at her local grocery outlet. Results of the four-week study, posted online at the Eatwell Farm Web site, show that the CSA organic produce cost less than the same quantity of chain-store nonorganic fruits and vegetables.
A bigger challenge to prospective CSA participants than justifying the expense may be the transition to a seasonal diet that requires most home chefs to expand their culinary repertoire. The upside of a menu that includes such diverse produce as kale (a type of cabbage) and daikon (a type of radish) may be a healthier, more varied diet. The downside is that, at least in the beginning, incorporating the CSA produce into your meals may require more creativity and effort in the kitchen.
"[CSA customers] have to have time to work with the produce and enjoy the process," says Cox. "For some it will be a pleasure--for others it may be a chore." While participants have to give up some control, Cox says that CSA has allowed her to enjoy things she otherwise wouldn't have ventured to try. One of her newfound favorites is Red Russian kale, which she describes as "wonderful." Cox warns that participants have to be willing to change their expectations when they go seasonal. "You're not going to get salad and tomatoes in your box year-round," she adds. Consumers who already shop at the farmers' market, eat a wide variety of vegetables, and tend to choose foods that are in season won't have as abrupt a transition.
CSA organic produce cost less than the same quantity of chain-store nonorganic fruits and vegetables.
And to make things as easy as possible for new supporters, many farms include with each order recipes that incorporate that week's produce. Some, such as Seabreeze Organic Farm, offer an extensive online library of recipes organized by produce type. Who knew you could do so much with turnips?
Choosing your farmWhile CSA farms may be similar in philosophy, each farm is individual and unique, from its produce to its prices and procedures. To find the best fit, research the CSA farms in your state; go to "Locate a U.S. CSA farm" (near bottom of page) and choose the one that best fits your needs in these areas:
* Pick-up locations and timing: Walker believes convenience belongs at the top of the list. If you have to go too far out of your way to get your box, or at a time or day that's not convenient, participation will become more work than fun. Farms typically deliver to multiple cities, with a number of pick-up locations and days/times in each community. Some offer home delivery for an extra charge. Before signing up, check the schedule to be sure that there is a convenient way for you to get your box.
* Box contents: While it's possible that the farms in your region grow many of the same fruits and vegetables, there can be some significant differences in what you receive each week. For example, some farms include items such as cut flowers, honey, eggs, and herbs. In other cases, one farm will partner with another to provide a wider variety of produce. Walker recommends trying out a farm for a month or so to see if you like what you get before you sign up for a longer period. "If someone tries us but we don't meet his or her needs for some reason, we'll recommend another farm that might be a better fit," says Walker, whose farm offers a four-week trial for $76.
A seasonal diet requires most home chefs to expand their culinary repertoire.
* Price: Weekly per-share prices range widely, from about $12 to $25. Typically, the longer the membership you commit to (by prepaying for the season at the time of sign-up), the lower per-box price you get. The delivery period depends on the farm's growing schedule, with some as short as a few months and others going nearly year-round. When considering a particular farm, be sure to understand its prices, commitment terms, and vacation and cancellation policies.
* Communications: Many farms include a printed newsletter or a list of recipes with your order. Others provide farm news, crop information, and recipes online. If you rely on the recipes, or you want to know what to expect in next week's box, be sure to choose a farm that provides that information in the format you prefer.
* Participation: If you just can't wait to get your hands dirty tilling the soil, weeding, and harvesting, choose a farm that welcomes active participation. Some farms even will allow you to work off all or part of your share fee.
CSA is a welcome idea for many individuals and families, but what if the program isn't right for you? Does that mean you have to forego farm-fresh tomatoes and just-laid eggs? Not at all. Many of the farms that deliver food directly to consumers also participate in local farmers' markets. With more than 3,100 such markets across the country, there's bound to be one in your community or nearby. Do a search on the Local Harvest Web site to find a farmers' market close to you, and then break out your recipe for mashed potato and turnip gratin.
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