CSAs: A Hot Commodity
by Eileen Weber
A number of sites like LocalHarvest.org will list all the Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) available in your area of the country. The Fairfield Green Food Guide recently published an online Guide to Spring 2010 CSAs and lists CSAs in The Buying Guide. But what many people don’t realize is how rapidly CSAs have taken hold. Purchasing a share in a local farm in exchange for fresh produce, or in some cases meat, milk, and eggs, has essentially “gone viral.” More and more people are signing up for CSAs and many of them are sold out before the growing season starts. This is good news for the local farmer and one of the most economical ways for consumers to buy locally grown.
According to an article in The Hartford Courant dated April 8th, Shared Harvest CT, an upstart web site launched in March and a subsidiary of Edibles Advocates Alliance, helps connect farmers and the people looking for their produce. It essentially functions as an online classified ad. Like speed dating for crops. Consumers and restaurants can look online for what they want from what’s available, and the current listings include several CSAs.
“Shared Harvest creates a separate sales revenue stream for our producers and opens up that margin so that more people in Connecticut have the opportunity to participate and find their farmers,” Emily Brooks, CEO of Edibles Advocates Alliance, the parent organization for Shared Harvest CT, was quoted as saying.
Growing your own food and selling it is an age-old occupation. But with our societal focus shifting from processed foods, fresh produce is getting the spotlight. Farmers’ markets, CSAs, and farm stands are cropping up at an increasing rate. That’s because there is more demand for it.
For Stacia Monahan, who owns Stone Gardens Farm in Shelton with her husband Fred, her farm is in its third CSA growing season. As far as she’s concerned, CSAs provide her customers with new foods to try that they might not ordinarily pick up at the grocery store.
“There’s an investment in a farm, more than the value of the vegetables,” said Monahan. “By word of mouth, we’ve had more interest than last year. But there’s still plenty of room.”
Word of mouth is exactly what has helped CSAs grow across the country. According to Local Harvest’s January 2010 newsletter, they have nearly 400,000 shares from over 3,000 listings. That translates to 0.5% of all households in the U.S. who participate in CSAs. That might not seem like a lot, but it actually is. With that kind of growth, there could conceivably be close to 20,000 listings by 2020.
Growing your own food has expanded on a different horizon. According to an article on Change.org dated April 14th, prisoners in a Florida correctional facility are getting into the act. The state’s correction facility is working in conjunction with West Florida Research and Education Center to teach inmates how to farm. The article brought up three main points: Prisoners growing their own food meant a meal savings of $60,000; Farming is a sustainable job skill; With a link between nutrition and health, better food could lead to better behavior. That’s at least the hope for the latter statement.
For farmers offering CSAs, it gives them an opportunity to form a closer relationship with their consumers. For Dawn Allen, CSA manager for Gazy Brothers Farm in Oxford, the CSA means they can be more personally focused on the customer. “It’s not that we don’t like farmers’ markets,” said Allen. “But you see hundreds of people come and go. With a CSA, you can be very individual.”
Gazy Brothers has been doing farmers’ markets since 1995. The CSA is relatively new for them in comparison. Allen said that obviously farmers’ markets provide a financial return, but the goal will be to have the CSA as their mainstay. “You can tailor it more,” she said. “We’re really listening to what our customers want.”
With last year’s shares totaling 273, Gazy Brothers is now in their sixth season. Their ultimate goal is 600 shares. Overall, the CSA experience has been a good one for them. But, Allen said the one minor down side to the CSA is when customers don’t tell them there’s a problem until the end of the season. “When customers bite their tongues and don’t tell us they didn’t like something-maybe they got more radishes than they wanted-we’ll wish they said something earlier,” she said.
Each of the farms interviewed for this article said that CSAs were an added bonus to doing business. It not only supports their farms, but it brings them closer to the customer. Good produce. Good face time. Good profit. Now that’s a good business model.