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The ABCs of CSA

~by CSA member Brigid Rauch
You are a conscious consumer, concerned about the health of your family and the wellbeing of the Earth. You buy organic produce, but the cost –usually 50% higher than conventional produce– is killing your budget. What can you do? –short of resigning yourself to a side of nasty chemicals with your dinner?

One alternative that more and more families are turning to is buying a share in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). A CSA is a farm supported by a community of shareholders, who receive a share in its harvest in return for their financial support.

The CSA movement supports the vision that everyone, even those living in urban centers, can enjoy a personal connection with the land and the farmer that grows their food. Today there are over 1,000 CSA’s nation-wide. Jean-Paul Courtens, president of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (BDA), says, “When people join a CSA, they are recognizing that they need the land to live. They are entering into a personal relationship with that farmer and his land.”

Many CSA farmers follow biodynamic farming principles. This method of farming goes beyond the guidelines of organic certification to embrace a holistic connection between the farmer and his land. The farm is regarded as a living organism in context of its broader surroundings, and the farmer uses techniques that are focused on nurturing soil, eliminating pests naturally, and creating a sustainable and ecologically sound farm. Courtens says, “A biodynamic farmer strives to create a kind of integrity on the farm that is similar to a living organism. [It] is comprised of many living things working together like one great symphony orchestra”

This orchestra includes the community that supports the farm. In the CSA model, most farmers forgo the hassle and increased costs of the organic certification process, and instead rely on the relationship with consumers to create trust in their farming practices. Says Courtens, “I think the (organic) certification model is based on the absence of trust. While the CSA model is based on consumers taking an active role and taking responsibility in the well-being of the farm.”

CSA shareholders support the farm through subscriptions. Shareholders pay ahead of time in exchange for receiving a weekly delivery of produce for the entire harvest season, usually May through November. A weekly basket of produce is then dropped of at one of several delivery sites scattered throughout the CSA service area, and shareholders pick up their weekly delivery of produce at the site of their choosing.

The per-share cost for each CSA is set by the farmer, in consultation with CSA shareholders. Shares can run anywhere from $400 to $700 for the entire season –usually May through November. This comes out to a weekly cost of about $26 for a bushel of fresh produce, and representing a huge savings over store-bought organic produce. Many CSA’s also offer discounts for subscribing before a certain date, and others, such as Clagett farm in Maryland, offer a half-priced share option for low-income individuals.

The advance payment gives farmers a bit of financial stability in a business that can be unpredictable. It allows them to invest money in the farm at the beginning of the growing season, and shareholders enjoy the bounty of the harvest along with the satisfaction of knowing they are supporting a local grower and farming practices that are good for the Earth.

A typical CSA basket includes a wide variety of produce in season. For example, a basket in July, might include sweet corn, sweet peppers, eggplant, cucumber, zucchini, melons, baby salad greens, kale, beets, and herbs such as basil, parsley, or lemon balm. While later in the season some of the heavier heartier vegetables would be included –things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash, sun chokes, radishes, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, and garlic.

Cristy Marchis, of Wheaton, IL, is a shareholder in Erehwon Farm, a CSA in Elburn, IL. She hesitated to join a CSA at first because she thought she it might limit her choice of food. But now she, “likes it a lot better than I thought. I think it’s better to get what’s in season. I don’t feel deprived at all, and I feel more in tune with my environment.”

CSA shareholders also enjoy access to varieties of vegetables they may otherwise never see. For example: kohlrabi, sunchokes, heirloom varieties of tomatoes, and squashes native to a particular region.

The produce from a CSA has the advantage of peak freshness, giving it a fuller flavor and better vitamin and mineral content. A farmer that grows for large-scale distributors has to harvest long before produce is ripe, so it won’t spoil on their way to the supermarket. But the CSA farmer can harvest ripe produce, since his product reaches the consumer in a matter of hours rather than days or even weeks. This results in more satisfaction for the consumer. Cristy Marchis is amazed by the quality of the produce she gets from her CSA. “I remember the first time we got potatoes from the CSA. I had never been really excited about eating potatoes before. But these potatoes were absolutely amazing, like nothing else I’ve ever tasted. You could taste so much flavor in them!”

For many shareholders, the benefit of a CSA includes being a part of a community and having a tangible connection to their source of food. In many CSA’s, shareholders receive a weekly newsletter that tells them about happenings at the farm, future plans, and offers recipes for cooking that week’s harvest. Shareholders are invited to events and regular meetings about the farm. They are usually welcome to visit the farm or attend special events and educational programs. Courtens emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the land, farmer, and the shareholders. “When people join a CSA, they recognize that the privilege of eating comes with the responsibility of caring for the land. They take responsibility for the farm, which in turn sustains them with food.”