The CSA – Community Supported Agriculture
It’s May. Trees and flowers are finally blooming, I need to clean my winter jacket, we should really get vegetables coming into the farm market any minute now…
And I received an invitation for the Meet the Farmer Potluck and registration for the CSA we have belonged to for several years.
A friend points out that I spend the summers talking about the CSA without ever quite explaining it – and not everyone knows what that means. Also, the experience can vary in different places, and with different farmers and sponsoring organizations. So…
Literally, the letters stand for Community Supported Agriculture. Those of us not in agriculture can easily forget how risky a business farming is. Almost all of the costs are upfront – land and machinery, obviously, seed, and most of the labor. There is no income until the harvest is in – and sold. Along the way… is there enough rain? Too much? Crops are at risk of disease, and insects (and, contrary to common belief, modern pesticides and such do not eliminate those threats) and catastrophic weather. You can lose the whole harvest at any moment. And, ironically, if your harvest is too good, the abundance can drive prices down…
Mono-cropping – the planting of a single large cash crop – is extremely common in this country, and actually aggravates all these risks. If you only grow tomatoes, blight can wipe you out. If everything on your farm is ripe and must be harvested at the same time, you need a major investment in machinery and/or labor – and a hard rain on the wrong day can devastate you. Most of our produce is grown this way, often contracted to a major corporation – which can then control the price they pay to the farmer.
We have seen all of these problems in recent years. The Plains states had very bad drought for several years,and California is in crisis, now. Conversely, four years ago, Hurricane Irene came at the end of what was already an unusually wet summer, here in the Northeast, and flooded fields with a foot or more of standing water right at the peak of harvest.
Community Supported Agriculture is designed to mitigate that risk, by spreading it out among many people. If the farm does well, and has a good harvest, we all get lots of produce – sometimes more (and always fresher) than we would have had in stores for the same money. And if it does badly, well… a number of people get less than they might have, but the farmer isn’t hurt as badly. It also encourages diversified planting – we don’t want just a massive pile of kale all at once, we need a variety of vegetables all summer. And it helps support local farmers. I’m not a purist about buying local, but I think it’s insane to ship tomatoes East from California in the middle of our tomato season! And indeed, the current drought shows the danger of relying exclusively on one area. I’m glad that when our fields flooded, we could get vegetables from other places – but I hope that people in the drought stricken areas can also get vegetables from other places.
In the original form – some might say the purest – a group of people contracted with the farmer for all of his harvest, which they then divided into shares. (In some cases, I have gathered, they even owned the farm and hired the farmer – but that’s extreme… and I don’t know of anyone doing that, now.) Around here, at least, for most farmers offering a CSA, it is just one of several outlets they have – they may also sell at market, or to a co-op or other store – but they do guarantee a certain percentage of their crop to the CSA.
The farmer may manage it himself – in much of the country the shareholder drives to the farm, and picks up a box of produce that has already been packed. Here in the city, there is usually some sort of sponsoring organization, which provides a space for pickup, and handles the logistics. The farmer drives a truck in at a set time and drops off cases and cases of food – volunteers organize it, shareholders go through and select produce according to directions. (We often have choices – either kale or collards, that sort of thing.) A Share is usually informally considered good for a Family of Four – some but not all offer Half or Small shares. (We get a Small Share at ours, which is a little more than half of a Large Share – 3, not 5, tomatoes, either broccoli or cauliflower, not both,and everyone gets one pumpkin…)
We have been fortunate enough to have done extremely well with our CSA. Part of this is the farm itself – the same family has been farming some of this land for nearly 200 years, and the principal farmer is very experienced and very good. There is also some luck involved – both make your own luck (When blight hit, they had just brought a new field into cultivation for tomatoes – they had a bumper crop, when tomatoes were rotting in their neighbor’s fields) and pure and absolute luck – Irene mostly missed them, and they did not flood, unlike many other farms to the East and North. This is a large operation, selling to several coops and stores, and supplying several CSAs. (Bluntly, it is hard to survive around New York City if you do not have a big operation – there is so much demand for the land for housing that it’s hard not to sell out unless you are very secure.) And several years I’ve been able to freeze or otherwise keep vegetables that we use well into the winter.
On the other hand, one year – as it happens, the year Irene came through – we went with a different CSA. We split a full share with friends who couldn’t manage one by themselves, and didn’t have a small share option, with a pickup closer to their house. And that gave us a taste of the risks… and other benefits. It was a small farm that had grown herbs, but recently expanded into vegetables. They didn’t have the same degree of expertise – and, as it happened, they did have much worse luck with the weather that year. Their fields were mud, they didn’t have the greenhouses the other farmer has built to start seedlings in, we got small amounts all summer from an embarrassed farmer (much smaller than the previous summer, other shareholders told us) and then Irene flooded the fields, destroyed all the vegetables just coming ripe, and finished them off. So we all lost a few weeks of vegetables we’d “paid for” – but, because of the CSA payments, they were able to regroup, pull back, and, while they went out of the vegetable market for a while, they did not go bankrupt, because they hadn’t had to borrow the money at high interest rates to plant – and that, the worst case scenario, is still worth something. The land is still under cultivation, the family is surviving… they’ll be back.
Meanwhile, the concept works well enough that other farmers are doing it. There are meat shares, and egg shares – even flowers. We, the consumers, in return for assuming some of the risk and guaranteeing a market, get much fresher product than we do in the stores.Our farmer also sometimes brings us crops that are just coming in, or just fading out – there isn’t enough for a larger market, but we can have one ear of corn apiece… so sweet and tender, and welcome, in July…
And diversity! One major advantage – and occasionally disadvantage – of a CSA can be the assortment of vegetables. I get to try things I’ve never tasted! I have to cook things I’ve never cooked… As I said, we sometimes get some choice – but not always, or for everything. Our farmer is much more fond of eggplant than I am – she actually specializes in offering more than a dozen varieties – so I’ve found what kinds I prefer, and learned many more things to do with eggplant than I ever dreamed of. Kohlrabi? Celeriac? Yes, please! Bitter melon? Well… I am glad that I have now tried it… And we load up on beet greens and hot peppers that others discard. (Many places have some sort of sharing table for produce you don’t want.)
Our CSA runs from June to mid-November, as do most around here – the growing season in the Northeast. There are other configurations, though – year round ones, with frozen or cold storage vegetables, or fresh ones, in areas where they grow… and meat and eggs can run all year. (Usually you still buy in for periods of three or six months, for administrative purposes.)
So now, in May, we start organizing, the farmer starts planting. She is posting pictures of greenhouses full of seedlings, of the first hardy kale going out into the fields. (We’ve had several cold springs, now – and warm autumns. They’ve been investing in season lengthening technique, so that we have produce in June…)
And in a month, we’ll walk the half mile to the pickup. We’ll chat with the sponsor, we’ll confirm our volunteer schedule, we’ll get radishes (almost certainly – they grow quickly) and perhaps some spinach, peas if we are lucky, some of that young kale… and a few storage vegetables, perhaps. And it will begin, and grow, until in August we have a cart full of vegetables and wonder how many cukes any two people can eat.
And here in the city, we get to follow the rhythm of the year. Which itself is valuable…