Up Your Local Food Game with Community-Supported Agriculture

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Olde Lane Orchard advertises its community-supported agriculture program at the Bloomington Winter Farmers’ Market.
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Teresa Birtles, Heartland Family Farm.
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In "Earth Eats", radio host Annie Corrigan and renowned chef Daniel Orr uncover recipes and tips on growing and preparing fresh local food.

Earth Eatsby Annie Corrigan and Daniel Orr (Indiana University Press, 2017) compiles the best recipes, tips, and tricks to plant, harvest, and prepare local food. Written by Earth Eats radio host Annie Corrigan and renowned chef Daniel Orr, this book focuses on local products, sustainability, and popular farm-to-fork dining trends. This feature promotes CSA’s – community supported agriculture.

It’s the early-spring waiting game for local food lovers. We still have a couple of months before spring crops will be harvested and farmers’ markets start bustling. But this is a busy and expensive time of year for growers. They have to buy seeds and soil amendments. They hire workers and improve their farms’ infrastructure. To get an influx of money when they need it most, some farmers develop CSAs — community-supported agriculture programs.

When subscribers sign up for a CSA, they pay a sum of money to a farm early in the planting season, usually around March. Then during harvest season, subscribers receive boxes of food from the farm according to a predetermined schedule (usually weekly) for a fixed number of weeks (usually 20–25, depending on the region).

Under a CSA model, subscribers agree to adopt some of the risk that goes along with farming as an enterprise. Farmers appreciate the fact that the model decreases, and sometimes eliminates, the need to take out early-season loans to pay start-up costs. Those loans would be taken out against the anticipated revenue that comes from selling the harvest, but if the harvest fails due to bad weather or other natural disasters, they still need to be repaid.

The origins of the CSA model are disputed. The most common narrative is that in 1965, a group of Japanese women were concerned by the possible effects of pesticides on arable Japanese land, and the associated increase in imports. These women started the first CSA projects, called Teikei, out of a desire to make local, pesticide-free food available in their communities.

Steve McFadden of the Rodale Institute traces the American CSA movement to Europe’s biodynamic agricultural tradition. Considered the first modern take on organic farming, biodynamic agriculture is a holistic approach to land management, in which building healthy soil is as important as growing food and raising livestock. The two pioneering ventures were Indian Line Farms in western Massachusetts and Temple Wilton Farms in New Hampshire.

The Temple-Wilton community farm was supported through pledges paid in advance by consumers at whatever rate they could afford, rather than paying fixed prices at harvest time. Its managers would publish the farm’s annual budget and ask members to pledge whatever they could contribute to help the farm to meet its budget requirements. Indian Line Farms, however, coined the term “community-supported agriculture” and designed the CSA model as it currently exists. The farmers who built Indian Line were advocates of sustainable farming, the idea that food should be grown and sold locally, and of strengthening the fading connections between farmers and consumers. CSA programs have enjoyed an uninterrupted increase in popularity since the founding of the movement in 1986.The US Department of Agriculture reports that more than 12,000 farms were operating on CSA models in 2012, up from about 1,000 in 1999.

CSAs Are Make or Break for Farmers

It’s CSA day at the Bloomington Winter Farmers’ Market. There are five vendors touting CSA programs. The basic facts are the same, table to table. You pay a flat fee now, and you receive a weekly batch of freshly harvested food for 18–25 weeks starting in May. The farmers talk about what they think sets their CSA apart from the competition.

“We offer both a standard and a flexible model for people who aren’t always in town. We grow pretty much every vegetable you can imagine, and we have a big you-pick strawberry patch now, which will also feed into our CSA,” says Michael Hicks of Living Roots Ecovillage.

“I specialize in European varieties, heirloom varieties,” says Teresa Birtles of Heartland Family Farm. “I grow for flavor. Having chefs as customers, I have to have wonderful flavor.”

“We are an organic farm. We’re not certified organic. We grow a lot of greens, and a lot of times we have greens throughout the really hot, dry parts of summer. We have special techniques to grow them that most farms kind of give up on,” says Jim Baughman of Freedom Valley Farm.

“And what you’re doing is you’re committing to focusing a good portion of your meat budget to one farm to ensure the survival of that farm, while getting the very best in terms of transparency, nutrient density, and the quality of the meat,” says Larry Howard of Maple Valley Farm.

Birtles’s table is packed with melons, three colors of cauliflowers, beans, broccoli, and berries. She admits she bought this food from the grocery store to illustrate the variety she offers through her CSA, but it seems to be causing as much confusion as excitement. “I’ve had some people who are not familiar with seasonality,” she says. “So, they think, ‘Do I get strawberries with my winter squash?’ or ‘Do I get tomatoes first thing in the spring?’ So, the seasonality question has been a huge, huge question.”

It’s romantic to fantasize about fresh-from-the-farm vegetables when you’re still wearing a winter coat and scraping your car off in the mornings. But for a farmer, the CSA can be an important part of the bottom line.

“It’s make or break, it really is,” says Howard, whose meat CSA includes beef, lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, eggs, and pork. “I think everything with the small farms now, who are doing this, is make-or-break whether people realize it or not. We’ve been in this ten years, so we know what the numbers are. What we’re trying to do is ensure that this is something truly sustainable.” For him, sustainable means being able to pass a successful farm business down to his kids. Howard is hoping for 50 members. He breaks down where the money goes—40 percent to salaries, 40 percent to sourcing the animals, and the rest for the risk management fund.

“What I fear the most probably, I have to be honest, is that we have a bad growing year and we don’t have much to put in there,” says Baughman. “I’m not sure how well they would really accept that, and that’s something I worry about.” He says CSA membership dictates what he plants at Freedom Valley Farm. He had 40 members last year, and he wants to nearly double that this season. That’s despite a stressful 2015 on his farm.

“Last year, it got really bad. We had a lot of rain early on. We had a lot of onions and carrots rotting in the ground. We had full-year disease problems, so it was a struggle. And I was at one point thinking, we’re going to have to refund people. But somehow we managed through it, and actually we were able to give them their amount every week.”

Kathy Curry is shopping around for CSAs today. “It just sounds like a good thing to do. I’ve tried to raise my own gardens throughout the years and not had a lot of success,” she says. After two conversations with Hicks of Living Roots and Birtles of Heartland, “I’m ready to sign up, but I know that’s not a wise thing to do. I’ll think about that over the week.” She grabs flyers and takes one last look at the bounty on the Heartland table. She still has three more pitches to hear, and then she’ll go home and see how a CSA fits into her food budget.

More from Earth Eats:

Make Your Own Stock
Bone Broth with the Hub’s Domestic Diva

This excerpt is reprinted with permission fromEarth Eatsby Annie Corrigan with Daniel Orr, published by Indiana University Press, 2017.

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