Healthy Sustainable Lifestyle
What do you think of when you hear the word farmer? Most people think of the iconic image of the family farming their land the way their parents did, and so on down their lineage. That idea is nostalgic, but farming is getting a makeover.
We may not live on a farm, but we can grow where we live.
Community Supported Agriculture
October 15, 2015
Published Weekly Urban Farm Lifestyle Magazine
The reason the family farm has changed is plain and simple: economics of scale. You cannot make enough money to pay for seed, fuel, labor cost and all the other expenses that go into farming without having a large scale operation.
With a large scale operation (at least a thousand acres), you can start to scale enough to make a profit in a good year. But this depends on the commodities market that helps you hedge with futures.
This is the reality of today’s farm. It has to be large, it grows one crop at a time, then ships that crop off at harvest time to be distributed around the world.
That is how you make money farming, if you are lucky enough to make any money at all.
I was once told that if I wanted to farm the way you have to, with all the land, equipment and overhead, then why not just take that money and retire? Why bother with all the headaches? Farming is one of the quickest ways to lose money.
I disagree with some of these concepts. Yes, it takes a lot of money and overhead to run an industrial operation in farming, but a small farm can do things that a large operation has difficulty with.
A small farm can concentrate on providing food for the person or family on the farm, and also look for income by selling local. It is really hard for a large farm to produce variety due to losing economics of scale.
A small farmer can look at providing fresh produce and meat within a fairly close radius to the farm. These farms can also be supported by the local community that has people that may not have the time or ambition to raise their own food but still want fresh healthy food.
This brings into play the CSA or Community Supported Agriculture model.
Community Supported Agriculture consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm. The growers and consumers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of food production.
Typically, members or “share-holders” of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary.
In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production.
Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.
This arrangement creates several rewards for both the farmer and the consumer. In brief:
Advantages for farmers:
- Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their 16 hour days in the field begin
- Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm’s cash flow
- Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow
Advantages for consumers:
- Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
- Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
- Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
- Find that kids typically favor food from “their” farm even veggies they’ve never been known to eat
- Develop a relationship with the farmer who grows their food, and learn more about how food is grown
It’s a simple enough idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and in some areas of the country there is more demand than there are CSA farms to fill it.
The government does not track CSAs, so there is no official count of how many CSAs there are in the U.S.. LocalHarvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with over 4,000 listed in our grassroots database.
As you might expect with such a successful model, farmers have begun to introduce variations. One increasingly common one is the “mix and match,” or “market-style” CSA. Here, rather than making up a standard box of vegetables for every member each week, the members load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice.
The farmer lays out baskets of the week’s vegetables. Some farmers encourage members to take a prescribed amount of what’s available, leaving behind just what their families do not care for.
Some CSA farmers then donate this extra produce to a food bank. In other CSAs, the members have wider choice to fill their box with whatever appeals to them, within certain limitations. (e.g. “Just one basket of strawberries per family, please.”)
CSAs aren’t confined to produce. Some farmers include the option for shareholders to buy shares of eggs, homemade bread, meat, cheese, fruit, flowers or other farm products along with their veggies.
Sometimes, several farmers will offer their products together to offer the widest variety to their members. For example, a produce farmer might create a partnership with a neighbor to deliver chickens to the CSA drop-off point, so that the CSA members can purchase farm-fresh chickens when they come to get their CSA baskets.
Other farmers are creating standalone CSAs for meat, flowers, eggs, and preserved farm products. In some parts of the country, non-farming third parties are setting up CSA-like businesses, where they act as middle men and sell boxes of local (and sometimes non-local) food for their members.
There is an important concept woven into the CSA model that takes the arrangement beyond the usual commercial transaction.
That is the notion of shared risk: in most CSAs, members pay up front for the whole season and the farmers do their best to provide an abundant box of produce each week. If things are slim, members are not typically reimbursed.
The result is a feeling of “we’re in this together”. On some farms the idea of shared risk is stronger than others, and CSA members may be asked to sign a policy form indicating that they agree to accept whatever the farm can produce.
Many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli.
Most CSA farmers feel a great sense of responsibility to their members, and when certain crops are scarce, they make sure the CSA gets served first.
Still, it is worth noting that things go wrong on a farm like they do in any kind of business and the expected is not always delivered. Sometimes, members will feel shortchanged. At LocalHarvest we are in touch with CSA farmers and members from all over the country.
Every year we hear complaints about a few CSA farms (two to six farms a year, over the last nine years) where something happened and the produce was simply unacceptable. It might have been a catastrophic divorce, or an unexpected death in the family. Or the weather was abominable, or the farmer was inexperienced and got in over his/her head.
In our experience, if the situation seems regrettable but reasonable,most CSA members will rally together if they already know and trust the farmer.
These people are more likely to have a long-term vision, especially if they have received an abundance of produce in the past. They are more likely to think, “It’ll be better next year,” than new members who have nothing to compare a dismal experience to.
The take-home message is this: if the potential for “not getting your money’s worth” makes you feel anxious, then shared risk may not be for you and you should shop at the farmers market.
This may or may not be something that works for you. Typically, you are receiving what has been grown seasonably and you may feel the need to augment the diet with other sources of produce.
Keep in mind though, the relationship that is built between you and the grower. When you go to the store the only relationship you have is with the cashier.
Fredericksburg Area CSA Project
N.p., n.d. Web.
“Community Supported Agriculture.” – LocalHarvest. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.
“Community Supported Agriculture.” – LocalHarvest. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. Tips
Don’t expect all your produce to come from the CSA
Most CSAs do not provide families with enough fruit to meet their usual intake. Many don’t provide any fruit at all, so it is good to ask what to expect in that regard.
Depending on the size of your family and how much you cook, you will probably find that you need to supplement the vegetables as well, especially staples like onions, garlic, and carrots.
If you are not used to eating seasonally, do some research.
If you are not accustomed to eating seasonally, you may find that it takes a while to make a transition from eating whatever is at the grocery store (pretty much everything) to whatever is in your CSA basket (what’s in season).
It may surprise you to find that tomatoes do not ripen until August in your area. You should expect the season to start off lighter than it finishes. In most areas, the first crops will be salad greens, peas, green onions and the like.
By the end of the season, the boxes should be much heavier, with things like winter squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli. Many farms provide a list of what produce to expect when. It’s worth reading. If they don’t offer you such a list, ask.
Quantity varies good to ask up front.
When filling the weekly CSA baskets, farmers try and provide a variety of items, in a reasonable quantity. They don’t want to be skimpy, and they don’t want to overwhelm their members. Too much of even a good thing, and it ends up going to waste, which makes everyone feel bad.
Over time, farmers develop a feel for how much is the right amount for their particular community what’s fair, what’s reasonable, what will get eaten. Of course, the weather and other mitigating circumstances can get in the way of their ability to provide the ideal amount, as discussed above.
One of the most important questions to ask before you sign up is, “About how much produce do you expect to deliver each week, and how does that vary from the beginning of the season to the end?”
If you want to preserve food for winter, ask.
Some farms allow members to get extra quantities of certain vegetables for canning or freezing. If this is something that interests you, talk to the farmer early in the season.
Make sure you understand the policies.
Farms differ in their policies regarding what happens with your box if you don’t pick it up (e.g. vacation, something-came-up, I forgot, etc.) Make sure you know how these situations are dealt with, before the season starts.
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