Cutting out the middle man

Community Supported Agriculture creates direct link between local farmers and urban families

Summer isn’t just about sunscreen, mosquitoes and boat rides. It’s about corn on the cob, watermelon and salted radishes. For more than 3,000 Twin Cities households, these delights of summer come directly from a local farmer without a trip to the market.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a concept whose popularity is on the rise. Common Harvest Farm in Osceola, Wisc., was the only area farm that offered shares 19 years ago. Now, more than 33 farmers deliver shares to Twin Cities homes, co-ops and retail locations. Produce is dropped off throughout the growing season, usually from June through October.  

Reasons to join a CSA

CSA goes hand-in-hand with organic farming, according to Brian DeVore, communications director for the Land Stewardship Project. The bonus is that for a CSA-only farm, there is no need to market as certified organic. People who buy a CSA, referred to as members or share holders, can get to know the farmers and see firsthand the growing process. This direct knowledge allows many CSA farmers to bypass the costly process of being certified organic, even though their growing processes are organic.

Eating local, organic produce feels good for the taste buds, the belly and the environment. Most CSA farms reuse containers, bags and coolers that transport the vegetables. This means less packaging waste than buying produce at a supermarket; therefore, joining a CSA also means reducing one’s carbon footprint.

According to DeVore, some of the farms delivering shares to Minneapolis residents are only 20 miles away. Even if many of the farms are 80 miles away, this relatively short distance for the food to travel amounts to a reduction in transportation-related use of fossil fuels. Any CSA food has traveled fewer miles than the 1,500 miles that most foods sold in a supermarket have traveled.

The crops are also grown without harmful chemicals and pesticides that rely on petroleum-based energy for production. This uses less fuel and keeps the soil organic.  According to Devore, small-scale farming also releases less carbon from the soil than occurs with large-scale tillage.

There are economic benefits, too. A common reason to choose a CSA is that it supports the local economy. Josh Bryceson, CSA farm director for the Minnesota Food Association (MFA), said that locking in food prices is another reason people choose to purchase crop shares.

“A CSA is the equivalent of buying bulk produce,” he said. With an uncertain economy and weather patterns, especially in the western U.S., buying a share usually translates to more food for less money for the consumer.

How to choose a CSA

First, meet the farmer.

To meet farmers before choosing a CSA, one can visit the farms. If time does not permit driving from farm to farm, check out the Seward Co-op CSA Fair on Saturday, April 19 from 11 a.m.–3 p.m. More than 15 farms will be represented. CSA shares can differ in many regards. The differences include cleanliness of the produce, the amount of food, diversity of crops and the inclusion of a weekly newsletter with the share.

Chris Blanchard, owner of Rock Spring Farms, recommends finding a farm that fits the buyer’s personality. For example, some people prefer to cook with familiar foods. “Trying to cook with 10 new ingredients each week can be challenging,” said Blanchard. “Some people don’t want to eat bok choy every week.”

Because of this, Blanchard’s emphasis is on what most people would consider “normal” vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, onions and potatoes, for example). Rock Spring Farm differentiates itself by spending more time on after-harvest food preparation. “Everyone cleans the dirt off of carrots, but our carrots glow,” said Blanchard.

Blanchard, whose farm is in its ninth season, suggests asking how long the farm has been in production when choosing a CSA. If it is a new farm, ask the farmer what farm-related experience he or she had prior to this endeavor. It is typical for farmers to intern or manage a farm for experience. Often, new farmers have the most diverse crop lists. This means members may get more variety, said Devore.

Bryceson’s CSA farm, now in its fourth production year, has made changes each year to meet member need. The changes are made based on a member survey that includes questions about which vegetables were disliked and which were enjoyed.  

“We’ve really taken note of what members want,” he said “We take the survey to heart and plant accordingly.”

Other considerations

Community: If the community aspect of CSA is appealing, choose a farm that has member events. It may be worth looking for a farm close to home. This way, the drive won’t be a deterrent to regular visits. Another consideration is the mission of the farm. The MFA is a nonprofit that trains farmers who are new to the region. This commitment to the community is an added bonus to becoming a CSA member.

Pickup location and day: The pickup location, or drop site, is where a farmer will leave your produce. Often the drop site is not refrigerated, so it is wise to bring the share home as soon as permitted. Many sites will dispose of the share if it hasn’t been picked up after 24 hours. One way to narrow the search is to choose a convenient day and place to pick up a share. Then choose the best CSA based on the appropriate drop-site.

Variety of produce and other options: Some farms plant unique varietals. Choose a produce list that sounds appealing for the type and amount of produce appropriate for the household. Farms may give members the option to buy other items such as honey, fruit, flowers, eggs, bread, meat or other specialties at an additional cost. Two Gals and a Garden, a farm located 80 miles from the Twin Cities in Mantorville, even offers a pie share.

Payment choices: It is difficult, and not recommended, to choose a farm based solely on price. Growing seasons, food quantity and share quality can vary from farm to farm. Payment options, however, can vary. Working at the farm can reduce the cost of the shares. If paying $250–$400 in one chunk isn’t feasible with your budget, many farms allow multiple payments. Splitting a share with friends or family can also help reduce cost.

Communication: Ask how the farm will communicate. Many farms have a newsletter that lists the contents of the box and usually provides tips or recipes. This can prove useful if you are not familiar with the many vegetables on the crop list. Blanchard’s newsletter included recipes that can be easily prepared without buying many additional

Risks of CSA membership

There are challenges that must be weighed before buying a CSA. Since one is buying a share in the farm, the risk is similar to purchasing any stock: the return may be less than expected. Poor weather, insects and other acts of Mother Nature can yield a poor growing season. This will be reflected in the share that is divvied up each week.

Devore and Bryceson both mentioned that when one farm does have a crop failure, there is usually another farm that will lend a helping hand. Last year, many farmers contributed to the farms that lost crops due to floods.

Bryceson, who farmed in the Carolinas and Arkansas before moving to Minnesota, stayed here because of the tight-knit farming community. “The market isn’t in a place where we’re vying for each other’s business,” he said. “People don’t mind sharing crops or equipment.”

When choosing a farm, consider all the needs of the household. Once the choice is made, it is time to enjoy a summer with fewer trips to the grocery store. This leaves more time for picnicking outdoors with the freshest, local vegetables.

One neighbor’s CSA story 

Bridget O’Boyle lives with her husband and two children in Southwest Minneapolis. O’Boyle teaches kids and adults to cook at Cooks of Crocus Hill and writes a cooking-with-kids column in Minnesota Parent magazine.

O’Boyle grew up on a local farm, so supporting the Minnesota farmers by purchasing a CSA is a natural choice. Other reasons for being a CSA family:

Her family likes the assortment of fruits and vegetables in the crop share. Many of the vegetables aren’t available at the store.

When she has more veggies around due to the plentiful selection in her crop share, she is more apt to throw them in whatever she is cooking.

And, O’Boyle appreciates the organic (or nearly organic) farming methods used by her farmer. O’Boyle, a cancer survivor, believes the chemicals on the food supply are a major cause of cancer and other diseases. She chooses to feed her family a nearly all-organic diet.

Contributing writer Bridgett Erickson lives in Linden Hills.