Growing season may feel far away as winter lingers. But if having fresh, local vegetables throughout the summer sounds like a delicious idea, now is the time to consider a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Here’s how it works: Typically, a farmer sells a certain number of “shares” in winter or early spring, before the growing season starts. Buyers receive a box, bag or basket of the farmer’s produce each week for the entire growing season.
Local Harvest, a Web site that allows you to search for sustainably grown food in your area, lists more than 2,500 CSAs in its database, and that number continues to grow. In 2008, 557 CSAs signed up with Local Harvest, and in the first two months of 2009, 300 signed up.
The whole idea of a CSA is to benefit both the consumer and the farmer, says CSA Manager Jamie Barrett of Appleton Farms, which currently offers 544 shares and has a waiting list of more than 800 to join. Farmers receive economic stability, while consumers get a really good break on the price of their produce.
At Appleton Farms, customers pay $650 for the 350 pounds or more of produce that they receive throughout the 22-week season. This breaks down to about $1.90 per pound, comparable to what you would pay at a supermarket.
Although Appleton Farms is not USDA-certified organic like most CSAs, the farm does follow organic practices and customers are free to ask how the food is produced, Barrett says.
Not to mention, the produce you receive from your local farmer tends to be more nutritious than mass-produced supermarket vegetables, which give shelf-life priority over freshness and taste. A huge bonus: You decrease your carbon footprint. Eating food grown close to home (rather than shipped or flown across the country) saves a tremendous amount of energy in transportation.
Since visiting the local farm is often an option, building a sense of community is another benefit to joining a CSA.
“To see a family come to the farm and get excited about going and picking peas or beans and asking questions, just that communication connection is really awarding,” Barrett says.
However, joining a CSA does come with some risk to the consumer. Farms may be subject to less than agreeable growing conditions, and a variety of factors may prevent a farmer from farming, such as a death in the family. Last summer, for instance, much of the East Coast was blighted by rain, cold and disease during the growing season. For many CSAs, this made the weekly allotments smaller, minimizing weekly vegetable selection.
“It was definitely a bad year for tomatoes last year and some of the other heat-loving crops, like eggplant didn’t do so well,” says Barrett. “People definitely asked questions, but no complaints really. They really understood the whole concept of a CSA.”
Despite the smaller turnout in tomatoes and eggplant, Appleton Farms received a 93 percent renewal rate for this year.
Appleton Farms’ experience is representative of CSAs across the country. According to Local Harvest, only two to six complaints are heard each year from consumers about CSAs.