Cultivating Community Through CSAs
Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass., has 13 distribution spots where CSA shareholders can go to pick up their weekly produce.
Photos courtesy of Red Fire Farm unless otherwise noted.
As consumer interest in purchasing produce directly from farms increases, more farmers are turning to the community supported agriculture (CSA) model to get their crops to customers and are finding it to be a way to mitigate some of the uncertainties and risk of farming, as well as a way to foster a supportive community around their farms.
The model is based on farms selling "shares" of their crops to customers, who purchase a share for a flat amount, usually at the beginning of the year, and then receive regular quantities of food throughout the growing season. Shareholders look forward to a consistent supply of produce, but also share in some of the risk of the farming endeavor, as their agreement includes an understanding that a poor growing season or some sort of disaster could result in less food for their investment.
Photo courtesy of Tanya Hall/sxc.hu.
Collecting payments, or even partial payments, from shareholders at the beginning of the season helps solve a common cash flow problem farmers often have in the spring: having to lay out money for seeds and labor at a time when there are no crops to sell, so there's no money coming in.
While the prices farms get per pound or per item through a CSA membership are usually a bit less than they could charge at a farmers' market, labor costs are lower, and the amount of risk is contained because sales numbers are a constant that is determined at the beginning of the season.
"You know how many members you have before you start planting," says Matt Volz of Greyrock Farm in Cazenovia, N.Y., "so there's less risk of overproducing. And you're not covering the cost of seeds and hoping you'll sell enough produce to make it back."
An exact count of the number of CSAs in the U.S. is hard to pin down, but the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture reported more than 12,000, a number that has certainly increased since then. That's rapid growth from the handful that existed just 30 years ago, when the model first came here after 20 years or so of development in Europe. The traditional model has a farmer selling shares at the beginning of the season and customers coming to the farm each week to pick up a bag or box of whatever has been harvested that week. However, as the number of CSAs has grown, many creative farms have adapted the model to better serve the particular needs or desires of their customer base.
There are no set quantities of items available to shareholders at Greyrock Farm, for example, just bins of fresh produce and an offer to take what your family can use. That doesn't result in people overloading their boxes, says Volz. More often, the farmers have to encourage people to take more. "It makes people really think about what they eat," he says.
Along with the vegetable shares, Greyrock offers shares that provide raw milk, eggs and meat, making it possible for households to get virtually all of their food from one farm. The farm has also invested in walk-in coolers, allowing them to grow storage crops and offer shareholders items like carrots, beets, potatoes and onions year-round. A new hoop house means shareholders will soon be able to enjoy greens even in the coldest months.
Many CSAs augment shares beyond what they grow, offering members other agricultural products such as maple syrup, honey, grains, baked goods, dairy products, etc. Some offer pick-your-own for some crops, and others ask that shareholders volunteer a few hours of labor each season. In some instances a group of farms will join together to create a CSA, each farm specializing in producing certain crops.
While in most cases shareholders come to the farm for their weekly pickups, as is the case at Greyrock Farm, others have more complex to or even ownership of the farm. They look forward to their weekly pickups, want to get to know the farm staff, and often ask lots of questions about management practices.
Paying for food up front means that CSA shareholders are more loyal than farmstand or farmers' market customers, says Ryan Voiland, who owns Red Fire Farm with his wife, Sarah. Shareholders will usually show up on distribution days no matter what the weather may be - not so with farmers' markets. The year-to-year retention rate of shareholders also tends to be high.
Sarah and Ryan Voiland's Red Fire Farm CSA has 1,500 shareholders.
Each week at the distribution spots, "people talk to each other a lot and talk to the coordinator," says Voiland. For many years, Red Fire Farm produced a biweekly newsletter that was distributed with the shares, but communication with their 1,500 members has shifted to email and Facebook, he says. Weekly emails offer reminders about distribution dates, updates on what crops are being harvested that week, and recipes that highlight whatever is freshest.
Greyrock Farm also has a newsletter, with a column from one of the farm's seven farmers each week, along with crop reports and recipes. That educational component is part of the appeal of CSAs. Volz says, "People want to understand how growing food works." Joining a CSA means committing to cook with what's fresh at any given time, rather than going to a grocery store and buying what you feel like cooking. That means learning about new foods, about storing foods, and about how to cook in ways that take advantage of what's available.
Red Fire Farm shareholders are encouraged to visit the farm during the growing season, take advantage of pick-your-own days to augment their delivered produce with flowers and additional vegetables, and attend special events like the annual Strawberry Soiree, Tomato Festival and cider pressing.
CSA pickup spots often become much more than just a location to get food. They can become community centers and places where people learn more about food and agriculture.
While Red Fire Farm also sells through farmers' markets, farmstands, and wholesale to restaurants and local co-op grocery stores, the CSA represents the largest portion of its business. "It's good to grow produce for people who are committed to it, rather than on speculation," says Voiland. The system is certainly complex, he adds, requiring office staff just to coordinate membership management and the logistics of fulfillment.
Red Fire Farm surveys its members at the end of each season, says Voiland, and adjusts the following year's planting based on the survey results. That way the farm will produce what's in demand and have more happy customers and less leftover produce. "We want to grow what people want," he says, "which means a lot of sweet corn, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes, but we also try to introduce them to other things in small amounts, like bok choy and rutabagas."
In some instances, CSAs are fulfilling a mission to provide produce to communities that traditionally can't afford such food and often don't even have access to it - families in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods. Corbin Hill Road Farm in New York's Schoharie County has teamed up with a number of small farms in their area to pool their crops and work with community organizations in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City. Individually, some CSAs invite members to pay a little extra for their shares in order to subsidize shares for low-income families.
Similarly, the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association launched CSA Connect in 2012, building relationships between community-based organizations in two neighborhoods in Boston and two farms. The project provided nearly 50 families with access to weekly deliveries of fresh food throughout the growing season, along with educational materials about how to best prepare and store produce that they might not have had experience with before. The two farms saw sales of $23,000. The project attracted the attention of other funders, who provided resources to help subsidize the cost of the shares for participating families. Entering 2013, the project has grown to the point where it is working with five neighborhoods and hopes to serve at least 120 households.
Greyrock Farm CSA, in Cazenovia, N.Y., offers food year-round, growing lots of root crops and storing them for weekly distribution to shareholders through the winter.
Photo courtesy of Greyrock Farm.
The popularity of the model has prompted many new farmers to jump right into starting a CSA without realizing the complexity and commitment it takes, Voiland notes. "Members can be forgiving because they understand that some crops may not make it due to weather or other problems, but you can really fall on your face if you don't plan right and everyone who paid for a share gets nothing but kale all season," he says.
In Massachusetts, Voiland says the market may already be approaching the number of CSAs that the market can sustain. "Buying a CSA share isn't for everyone; there's a limit to the number of customers," he says. "As much as I'd like to see more farming happening and more small farms starting up, more people need to be introduced to the concept of CSAs so that the customer base grows first."
Around the country, buy local organizations are doing just that, educating consumers about purchasing their produce directly from farms and connecting them to CSAs. The success of this model, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast, is a likely sign of growing demand. Farms considering starting a CSA can look to Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org/csa), the most comprehensive national directory of CSAs, for a range of resources.
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer based in western Massachusetts.