Here’s an idea whose time has come. Buy your vegetables or meat or cheese by pre-paying the farmer in the winter, then collect the food you’ve paid for during the year, when it’s freshest and best. This is the essence of the CSA or Community Supported (or Shared) Agriculture system. Basically, we, the consumers, are advancing the farmer the funds with which to produce his or her crops and collecting a return on our investment in produce. Talk about win-win!
CSA farms are mostly vegetable producers, and there are lots of them, though they tend to fly under the radar in our supermarket-dominated environment. (One estimate has about 500 CSAs in Canada, more than 12,000 in the U.S, of which the largest, in California has 3000 families as members!)
Typically, CSA members go to the farm each week during harvest season and pick up the baskets of fruit or vegetables that they have paid for. Sometimes they get to select from the week’s varieties of produce, but in other cases, they pick up their basket of whatever the farmer has on offer that week.
The advantages for the consumer are many, freshly picked fruit and vegetables right from the farm every week being the most obvious. High quality food, often produced organically or biodynamically, is an attractive alternative to imported, days old, factory farm produce. Beyond that, a real sense of where our food comes from and a closer relationship with the farmer is an important, though intangible, benefit. CSA members also report that kids who are vegetable-resistant suddenly take an interest in the veggies on their plates once they have visited the farm and seen “their” food being grown right before their eyes.
For the farmer, the advantages of CSAs are even more important. Having the money up front to produce the food, make necessary capital expenditures, and budget labour and materials costs is an enormous benefit. Then there is the idea of shared risk: the farmer is usually the only member of the food chain who takes the risk of crop failure and pays the price if the worst happens. With the CSA system, that risk is shared with the “investors” who acknowledge that an early frost might wreak havoc on the spring lettuce or excessive rain might damage the tomatoes… and hope for a bumper crop of asparagus or raspberries or squash.
But vegetable producers and consumers aren’t the only ones to benefit from the CSA system. Recently, Monforte Cheese of Stratford launched a CSA, offering cheese lovers a chance to invest in their new dairy and cheese-making operation in return for certificates that could be used to buy the cheese that would eventually be produced. Locally, Lake Land Meats on Regional Road 81 in St. Catharines offered their first CSA in 2009 for their vegetable production. Now they are launching another to get the capital for a new culinary studio and production kitchen. Investors can use their certificates to buy Lake Land meat and game over a five year period, getting a nice return on the original investment. (lakelandmeats.com)
Other local CSAs include Tree and Twig Gardens in Wellandport, specializing in heirloom produce (treeandtwig.ca); Creek Shore Farms in Vineland, growing a wide variety of vegetables (creekshorefarms.ca); Fair Wind Farm in Sherkston, also producing a wide variety of vegetables and berries (fairwindsfarm.ca); and Sexsmith Farm in Ridgeway, offering vegetables, berries, herbs, and flowers (sexsmithfarm.ca)
Here’s an opportunity in the dead of winter to invest in good, wholesome, local food, support local farmers, connect with the food we eat, and save the planet! What’s not to love about CSAs?