(Editor's note: Laurie Davis of the Essex County Cornell Cooperative Extension will fill in for Richard Gast this week. Mr. Gast's column from the Franklin County Cooperative Extension will return March 9.)
A few nights ago I was attending a growers' discussion group. Many of our North Country direct market farmers had gathered in the warm kitchen of a colleague to share ideas and concerns for the upcoming growing season. These farmers are enjoying a rare bit of down time, repairing equipment, placing seed orders and figuring out how to get reliable, affordable labor forces in the field. But part of the conversation took me by surprise.
Many of the farmers in the room, aside from attending farmers markets and selling to stores and restaurants, also run community-supported agriculture businesses. The CSA is one of the up-and-coming farm business models in the Adirondack region, and it's a great way to for a farmer to direct market his or her product. It did not surprise me that they were operating CSAs - I've been celebrating that fact for several years. What alarmed me was their news that share purchases were particularly slow so far this year. They were discovering that folks wanted to wait until the first share was ready (typically sometime in May) before they signed up and paid. Unfortunately, this runs counter to the CSA model and is detrimental to the farm.
The CSA consumer should purchase a seasonal subscription or "share" from the farmer during the winter. This business model is particularly well suited to direct-market farmers who are cash-strapped in the late winter/early spring, and it's critical to sell shares at this time. The farmer needs to purchase seeds and many other supplies for the growing season, and most of the farm income has tailed off.
By purchasing a CSA share in the winter, the consumer helps to ensure that the farmer can hit the ground running come spring. In return, the consumer is given many weeks of freshly harvested vegetables. Some farms don't stop at vegetables but also offer shares of eggs, meats, flowers, maple syrup, honey, dairy products and more. Some are seasonal, some are year-round, some are conventional, some are organic, etc. - the options are yours to explore.
How are the shares distributed? On-farm pick-up, once a week, is common, but many CSA farmers also vend at local farmers' markets and will bring the boxes of produce with them for distribution. Some farms even offer home delivery, although this is rare because of the increased labor involved. Shares are priced to reflect a fair market value for fresh local food. Often the consumer can negotiate a "working share" in which they work on the farm for a few hours each week in exchange for a reduced share price. This is a great way to breathe some fresh air, stretch your muscles with some new activities and take out your frustrations on that tenacious pigweed in the farm field. It reacquaints the non-agrarian public with the process of raising food. Again, both the farmer and the consumer benefit here.
One of the realities about our industrialized food system these days is that the public often feels less connected to its food sources. The advantage of a CSA is that one can get to know his or her farmer and growing methods. Many CSAs tend to be certified organic or at least use fewer chemicals - weed and pest control may involve intensive-labor methods. Every interaction between the farmer and the public serves to educate. If one CSA doesn't fit, there may be another one across the county or just across town that feels right.
CSA farms frequently offer events for their members such as harvest dinners or parties to gather a particular crop from the field. It can be fun to gather with other farm supporters and feel that sense of community that may be lacking in our daily, hectic work lives. Children are usually welcome at these gatherings, and it's a fine time to teach them about where fresh food comes from. It comes as a surprise to most people that even in our rural region there are a vast number of kids who do not know much about their food sources. Tasting produce fresh off the vine, bursting with flavor, can hook a kid into healthy eating without the nagging. Studies have shown that when kids are regularly exposed to fresh vegetables, they become adults who consume nearly double the quantity of produce than their veggie-deprived counterparts. Imagine those numbers ranging over the other fresh foods offered straight from the farm.
This spring, we are fortunate to have many CSAs spread across the North Country, and now's the time to join. Adirondack Harvest is a regional organization dedicated to connecting our local farmers with consumers and can help you in your quest for local foods. For a listing of CSAs with contact information visit www.adirondackharvest.com/csa.html. Buy a share in our region's bounty, and support your local farmer. Try a CSA this year!
Laurie Davis is an educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County and is the coordinator for Adirondack Harvest. Her office phone number is 962-4810 ext. 404, and her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.