Farmgirl Confidential: CSA 101

By | January 29, 2009
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Veronica Worthington hugs a sheep

Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a relatively new model of farming and food distribution. A CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA’s focus is usually on a system of weekly delivery, or pick-up, of vegetables and fruit, sometimes dairy products, meat, honey and other farm products.

By making the decision to join a CSA, you are providing direct financial assistance to local farms, while helping to protect the rural environment and rebuild the old-time sense of community lost in today’s fast paced lifestyles. A good thing! But before you let your imagination run wild with visions of huge, overflowing boxes of all your favorite fresh picked produce, be aware of what to expect in your weekly pick-up box so that, in the end, you will be satisfied with your farm share. CSAs are not about “cheap food.” Shareholders pay the full and true value of the food they receive, although usually it is still less expensive than organic foods found in supermarkets. Farm members also share a financial risk in case of crop failures or weather-related disasters. A CSA can be a positive experience if you ask the right questions before you join.

And if you are a farmer thinking of offering a CSA at your farm, remember that a CSA involves an extreme amount of labor and time due to continual planting, huge diversity of crops, continual harvesting, cleaning, packing and sometimes even distribution as well as the continual stress of fulfilling your obligations to members.

CSA memberships vary greatly in price depending on type and length of membership. Most memberships require payment in March, before the season begins, helping the grower buy seed and supplies during a time when capital is most needed.

Deciding what to charge members when you first offer a CSA can be difficult. New CSA farmers generally charge a lower price than they should believing that they should give a discount of sorts to make up for their inexperience but soon learn that there is no “discount” of labor involved no matter what you grow! Consider those early mornings of picking, washing and packing produce as well as long hot days of planting and weeding. And then don’t forget every night on the Internet organizing membership payments, ordering seed, equipment, writing newsletters and, if you are an organic farm, record keeping for organic certification.

For the farmer offering memberships at his farm, under pricing is the major cause of burnout. The farmer must consider overhead costs such as labor, equipment, taxes, repairs and capital improvements. Offering “working shares” (where members agree to work at the farm for a few hours a week) can help lower the cost. Just remember, you are offering a unique product and working very hard to provide it.

This summer, I extended my small “Salad Club” to include a full-share CSA. A full share consists of approximately 10 pounds of produce weekly. I must admit that the increase in hours and labor in relation to the increase in volume was never accurately realized. The starting of herb and vegetable plugs in the greenhouse began in January, and there were so many of them that every inch of the floor and all benches were filled to capacity and spilling out the doors. Planting them consumed the entire spring. Then there was harvesting. The afternoon before a CSA pick-up, my helpers and I would start picking around 3:00 pm. We were usually out in the field until dark. Everyone would meet at 5:00 am the next morning to continue harvesting, cleaning and organizing the members boxes. That calculates to about four or five hours of sleep a night. By noon, allmembers had come and gone, so on we went to the weeding and planting. Re-planting crops like lettuce took the better part of the next two days. Mondays were also lettuce days, reseeding flats in the greenhouse. Although we tried not to work in the fields during the heat of the day, there were still times that we had to. You would get so hot and dirty that you wondered if you were nuts for choosing to be a farmer. There was never a day off. It was a long haul, but all in all an enjoyable experience. It is very inspirational having people who really appreciate your efforts.

Most members were happy with their weekly pickups, although we worried at the farm that there might not be enough or that the variety wasn’t as diverse as the members might have expected. Shares at either end of the season were quite repetitious; too many greens in spring, and too many squash in fall. In late spring, the boxes were stuffed with an over abundance of large, beautiful lettuce, and I mean abundance: spring greens, radishes and herbs. I have no idea what any one family could do with so much lettuce, but most of the members loved it. Some told me that they enjoyed sharing with other members of their families; some with neighbors but then again, there were a few members who were quite upset and let it be known that they had expected a much larger variety of produce in their first boxes of the season. One of my unhappy members complained that the price of the lettuce, according to their membership fees, averaged $5 a head and that their boxes, by no means, weighed 10 pounds. If I could actually figure out and pay myself my own hours in labor as well as other workers on the farm, cost of seed, equipment and so on, I would probably have to charge $25 a head of lettuce to break even. Farming is more of a labor of love.

It is certain that a box of lettuce will not weigh 10 pounds, but this is compensated for later in the season with 20-pound boxes of zucchini, cucumbers and winters quash or garlic, which is a relatively high-priced item.

Granted, my few disgruntled members were right occasionally. I would like to plant more spring crops like kale, spinach, chicory, over wintering root crops and perennial spring crops like rhubarb and asparagus. To do this, the fields need to be made ready in the fall, all set to plant and produce in very early spring. Talk about exhausted—the work never ends!

We do need to learn, if we want to eat local, that we can’t have what we want when we want it. Those same few disgruntled members neglected to realize that it is impossible to grow tomatoes in April.

For both members and grower alike, to get a real feel for what to expect quantity-wise, try loading up a basket of conventional, wilted produce from your local grocery store that equals $35.00—a common price for a full share CSA.

Yes, most mid- to late spring CSA boxes will basically be greens. In mid- to late summer you find the greatest diversity in your box, which might include two lettuce, six small squash or zucchini, two tomatoes, one medium butternut squash, an eggplant, a small bunch of carrots, one pound of new potatoes, two cucumbers and a handful of garlic. In fall you can expect lots of winter squash, pumpkins and plenty lettuce again.

The main difference between your grocery store basket and your CSA box will be that your CSA box is filled with fresh, organic vegetables picked that morning.

One complaint I repeatedly heard at my CSA was that there was never enough of one kind of vegetable to do anything with. I think I’ll try what some CSAs do next year and that is to have a “trade table” on which you could exchange a vegetable you didn’t want for one that you did.

When considering joining a CSA, shop around. See if one farm offers things that you prefer more than another. Remember, no two CSAs are alike. And if you are a farmer considering starting a CSA plant twice as much as you think you should and make sure you have enough help!

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