’Tis the season to be thinking about next year’s CSA share.
By Michael Clune • Photo by Molly McDonald Peterson
Today was Local Foods Day in our county’s elementary and high schools. The menu featured hamburgers made from local beef, salads containing organic vegetables from our farm, and an apple crisp made with apples from a nearby orchard. Parents were invited to come dine with their children. Cruising the room, answering questions from both students and parents, I was gratified to see that the kids loved the food, which came from less than 10 miles away.
That’s when it hit me. Why is supporting local agriculture so important? Simple. It’s important because we want these kids to enjoy local foods from their communities 20 years from now—communities that have not been concreted or overdeveloped, communities that instead remain, at least partially, in agriculture.
So the question is, how can we make sure that happens? Easy! Support your local farms by shopping at the farmers market, signing up with a buyers club, or subscribing to a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
Adopted from European models, CSAs and farm-share programs have been in the United States since 1986. Customers, sometimes called subscribers or shareholders, buy a “share” in the farm. Depending on the farm’s production, this share can include a cornucopia of farm-fresh products: vegetables, fruits, eggs, and in some cases, meats. While some farms have on-farm share pick-ups, others deliver to specific drop points on a weekly basis, which is very helpful if there isn’t an active farmers market in the area. Farms with a presence at a market may have shareholders pick up at their stall.
At our farm, shareholders pick up their weekly portion on Tuesday afternoon or Saturday morning. Many CSAs will have shares ready to go in baskets or boxes. Rather than box the vegetables combining varieties, textures, and colors in such a way as to highlight the quality of every head, bunch, or bulb. This serves two purposes. The first is that our shareholders, working off the weekly list, can select that particular vegetable that appeals to them, either by size or look. Secondly, we make every share day an event rather than a chore. The idea is that we are not just conducting business. We are constructing a farm community where everyone’s participation is necessary for the success of the program as a whole. Recipes are shared, weekly events are recalled, and in some cases, I get all the county gossip that I missed at the barbershop. People meet their neighbors and friendships are formed. In appreciation for their participation, we host potluck dinners for our shareholders—a great way to get feedback and taste some of the recipes that were invented over the share season.
In my opinion, a share program is a win-win for all parties involved. Philosophically, an on-farm program epitomizes what local agriculture means: fresh food provided to our customers with minimal mile “additives.” Economically, projected revenue from a share program has a consistency that an outdoor farmers market cannot offer. Professionally, I feel that a farm share program is a true collaboration for both the shareholder and the farmer. By signing up for membership, the shareholder acknowledges and shares the risk with the producer, should Mother Nature decide to play some of her tricks. In most CSAs, the sale of shares early in the season gives the farmer capital with which he or she can purchase seeds or materials that will be needed during the growing season. Lastly, and most importantly, a bond is formed between shareholder and farmer in that you, as the shareholder, have instant access to how your food was produced, from seed to harvest.
Many communities have share programs in place. I recommend you start your research well before the season starts, because most share programs fill up quickly—as early as January and February. (Here’s a list of CSAs in the Capital foodshed.)
Michael Clune is the director of farm operations for the Farm at Sunnyside in Washington, Virginia. A former firefighter and paramedic, he is an ardent advocate of local, sustainable agriculture.