This weekend was the first weekend of spring. Contrary to last month, I can actually see my garden. Buried under the snows of February was a garden, somewhere. However, in the dead of winter, a small omen of spring and summer arrived—the annual letter for my CSA share. This was a fabulous reminder that spring (and summer) would arrive, albeit eventually.
CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture. The general idea is that the subscriber pays upfront for a season’s worth of vegetables from a nearby farm. “Nearby” often translates to within a couple of hours drive. In return, every week during the season, that same subscriber can pick up their vegetables. Pickups can be either at the farm, or more often at a local farmer’s market, apartment complex, etc. Often, the vegetables (and fruits and herbs) have been picked that morning or the day before. This guarantees maximum freshness. In some cases, (but not all), the subscriber also does a variety of a work on the farm(s) as well.
From the perspective of a whole season, the $500-$600 dollars I spend for my 22 weeks is money well spent, and it probably balances out. Many CSAs offer payment plans if you ask; but several hundred dollars up front can still be a large expense. Last year I actually calculated the implied weekly charge and decided it was close enough to what we would spend each week anyways. From the farmer’s point of view, having the CSA revenue in the spring pretty much mirrors when he needs it to pay for spring planting.
Last year was my (and my wife’s) first year subscribing to a CSA. We have actually been buying the bulk of our vegetables from a farm (Herrcastle Farm) at our community’s farmer’s market for several years. We started shopping at the farmer’s market initially because we wanted to support some local farmers. We wanted to help keep their businesses viable. If their agricultural businesses were sustainable, then they would not need to sell to developers who only had visions of more houses and concrete.
At the Glenside Farmer’s Market we found Herrcastle Farm and the Herrmann family. We consistently found their produce outstanding, and we got to know the Herrmann’s a little bit. We learned how they grew their crops. Their philosophy is in line with ours. We discovered that they often pick their crops on Friday for sale at the market on Saturday morning. Maybe this freshness is why their produce is so good. We also know exactly where the bulk of our produce comes from.
When we initially heard that Herrcastle has a CSA program, we wanted to subscribe. However, we were concerned that a CSA share would be too much for two people. But last year, we found out that the share was actually designed for two people. So we happily signed up in 2009, and we have been thrilled.
And we are not alone. In fact, the 2007 Census of Agriculture reported that 12,549 farms had CSA operations. Between that report and a survey I found by the University of Kentucky and Ohio State (below), I estimate that just shy of 700,000 people nationwide in 2009 enrolled in CSAs. These universities surveyed CSA operators in 9 states and found an average CSA enrollment of 55 per farm. The report notes that CSAs “began as an ideologically-driven effort to connect customers with their food [and have] matured into a widely utilized direct farm marketing method.” (pg 23) Perhaps this is why the CSA field is beginning to see some differentiation amongst CSA operators in terms of pricing policies, scale of operations, and key recruitment drivers.
More locally to Philadelphia, I’ve heard of at least 3-4 new CSA’s in my area beginning in the past couple of years. Just last week I noticed an ad in a Philadelphia area sustainability magazine (GRID Magazine) highlighting 8 CSAs that sell into the Philadelphia market—sometimes with multiple distribution points. If I did not belong to a CSA and needed more options, I could also go to http://www.localharvest.org for many more choices.
A Rocky Mountain Perspective