By ERIN TURNER
In the 1960’s Germany, Japan, and many parts of Europe were facing a food safety crisis and much of their agricultural land was quickly being urbanized. As a response, many farmers and supporters of agriculture began new partnerships for continuing the important work of growing high-quality, safe food.
This new partnership was the first model of Community Supported Agriculture (or CSA) in the world. In 1984, America began developing its own model of this partnership as the east and west coasts began losing vast amounts of agricultural lands. Today, both coastlines are meccas for this type of shared partnership.
The model is simple. A farmer gets paid early in the season for a membership to their farm. This upfront money is beneficial for the farmer as they begin their season when most of their money is needed for start-up costs (think: seeds, planting tools, compost, etc). In return for a membership fee, the member comes once a week and picks up their share of the weekly harvest.
It truly is that simple and it works beautifully. It is a symbiotic relationship which evolves into a trusted friendship over the years. Farmers and members work together to promote sustainable, safe and viable local agriculture.
As you study the history and evolvement of CSAs over the last four decades, the pattern seems clear: When urbanization of local agricultural lands occurs then we begin to see a higher demand for CSA programs. It was true in Asia, Europe, and the east and west coasts of the US. Now we are experiencing it here in Missoula.
With the gross amount of agricultural lands lost over the last 15 years in Missoula County, CSAs have started to pop up and have become popular in our area. People are beginning to realize the importance of knowing where their food comes from and how it was grown. Plus, Missoulians now have a growing passion about protecting their local agriculture and want to support those in our community who are willing to work the land and provide safe, healthy food.
A CSA membership allows you to see where your food comes from, to know your farmer in a personal way, and to even have the experience of helping on the farm. Plus, your food is ultra-fresh since it usually is picked that day.
Picking up a basket of food each week is a complete adventure because you never know what exactly is going to be in the basket. That is part of the fun! It allows members to try different foods which they may have never thought of trying. Many farms will offer suggestions on how to prepare the produce or give recipes using a certain vegetable or fruit in a weekly newsletter. CSAs expand a member’s horizons by allowing them to share in the harvest of all the crops.
The unique relationship of a CSA model differs from a commercial model because of the shared-risk component. Meaning, if the spinach crop fails, then guess what? Unlike the grocery store which would just get it from another supplier, you won’t be getting any spinach in a CSA model. And more importantly, you won’t be reimbursed for a lack of spinach. The member knows they are sharing in the bounty AND in the failures! This makes the members realize their stake in the farm’s success.
So, while you may miss the early crop of spinach, you may be rewarded by an abundance of watermelon during the season. It all balances out and it’s the farmers’ job to make sure that it does. Each week the farmer evaluates what is ready to harvest and how much needs to be picked for the members’ baskets. Usually, the early season baskets are lighter while the end of the season yields an enormous abundance.
The important thing to remember is that you will probably still need to supplement your weekly produce basket with some items from the store or farmers’ market. The food you get in a CSA is seasonal which means you won’t be getting potatoes in June or strawberries in October. Typically, you won’t get enough fruit each week or enough basic items such as onions, herbs, or carrots. But the majority of your produce will be from your CSA basket and you can be sure it will be as tasty as if you had grown it yourself!
Most CSA’s run for 12-16 weeks and the costs range anywhere from $400-$600 for a full share. Many farms offer half shares for half the cost. Some farms will offer a work/share program where you can work at the farm for part of your payment. The typical farmer who participates in the CSA model tends to run a sustainable, organic and/or biodynamic farm. As a result, you can feel safe about how your food is grown and the farmer is concerned about their farming methods’ impact on the environment. Also, a good percentage of CSA farms are small, independent, labor-intensive family farms.
My family and I run a CSA program from our farm. It is a ten-member program. This year we have five full share members and ten half-share members. It is so rewarding to know the people for who we are growing the food. I know when I pick the broccoli that certain members are going to be very excited and I love knowing that one member shares her bag of produce with her extended family each week at their lake place. It’s always so fun to hear how they cooked everything! It’s invigorating each week to plan out what is going to be harvested and every now and then we love to throw in extra surprises like our own honey, fresh eggs or fresh, baked goods. Knowing our members and their support of us, makes us want to do more for them!
In order to keep our labor to a minimum, my husband suggested that we just place the produce bags in the barn and let the customers pick them up by themselves. I thought about it for a long time, agreeing it would free up an additional two hours of labor.
But I just couldn’t do it! For me, the reward after a long, hot, grueling day of picking produce and directing three young boys on picking and washing produce is seeing the faces of our members pick up their bags and their delight in the food we are providing! I love to tell them all about what’s in the bag and offer suggestions on how to use it. Sometimes I even will whip something up and have samples for them to try.
I also cherish hearing their ideas and recipes as well as what has happened in their family during the week. We tell each of our members once they join our CSA program they are a part of our Farm Family!
The CSA model is a win-win situation for the future of agriculture. Both the consumer and the farmer feel like they are winners, but in the end it is everyone who wins…the farmers, the consumers, the entire community, and the environment!
Belonging to a CSA program is unique and rewarding. Here are some benefits which come to mind:
- Support local agriculture
- Access to fresh, safe, and healthy food
- Budget-Friendly ($24-30 for a family of 4-5 or $12-15 for 2-3 people each week)
- Explore different foods and ways of preparing or preserving food
- Giving a local farmer the security of knowing they will have a steady income throughout the growing season without the costs of marketing, packing, and transporting their crops for market or competing with large-scale commercial operations.
- Reduces food waste on farms. When the farmer can thoroughly plan based on knowing how many members there is little waste, as opposed to harvesting items for the market and then not selling them.
- It’s FUN! (Food + New friends always equals FUN!)
Missoula offers a handful of CSA’s. Since there is such a demand for them, you will probably find most of them sold out for the season. Most have a waiting list and I would highly recommend getting on that list as soon as possible. CSA farms begin filling up in February or March. For more information on individual farms who offer CSAs check out LocalHarvest.com for some options in the Missoula area.
Eat local, eat well!
Erin’s got tons of tips for saving money, couponing, and sticking to a budget in her previous posts: What I Love About Missoula, Frugal Living: Grow Your Own Food and Save Money, and Frugal Living: Eat Tapas, Cut Your Grocery Bill. Be sure to check out the Missoula Save it Club.
Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian. Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped, and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques, and trying to maintain a well-run, happy, and organized home for her family.