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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Community Supported Agriculture Grows Up

Air Date: Week of

About ten years ago a form of direct marketing for small farmers evolved called Community Supported Agriculture; or CSA. CSA's are based on a commitment between farmers, and consumers who put money up front for a share of the harvest. The model developed as a way to create a viable market for organic food, and to strengthen the link between the grower and the eater. From member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, Nancy Cohen reports that CSA farmers are learning long term sustainability also depends on operating a lot like any other business.


CURWOOD: A few years back some folks in the food co-op movement thought it was time to bring the farmer into the cooperative equation. They wanted consumers to bear some of the risk for the farmer in exchange for a lot of good, fresh food. The idea is called community supported agriculture, and it works like this. At the beginning of the season, consumers pay in advance for a share of the harvest. In return, the farmer gets an assured market and the consumer gets food at a bargain price. As community supported agriculture has spread to hundreds of small farms, practitioners are learning how to convert this idea from theory into sustainable businesses. Nancy Cohen has our story from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts.

(Sounds of cutting basil)

COHEN: For most CSA members the commitment they've made to a farm buys them a whole lot more than a steady supply of fresh produce.

PETIT: You know, you're a member, you belong. Part of it's yours, and you take what you want from it and give what you want from it.

COHEN: Donna Petit and her family are one of 375 households who have shares at the Brookfield Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. Today Donna and her husband Phil are harvesting basil, carefully snipping off just the top of the plants.

P. PETIT: If you don't know how to do it, Dan will come out and show you the first time you ever need to do it. And the basil, it's like a lot of plants. When you thin it down and trim it down, the plants get bushier.

COHEN: The relationship between shareholder and farmer is one of the key elements to the CSA's success. Brookfield's farmer Dan Kaplan says you can't be a tight-lipped Yankee farmer and expect to build a community of shareholders.

KAPLAN: They're coming to the farm where their farmer is. A lot of this is very personal, very personality-based, and you know, a cucumber is a cucumber. You've got to make it stand out somehow.

COHEN: Although a cucumber may just be a cucumber, growing enough of them efficiently while also growing a wide variety of other vegetables takes more than personality.

(Crunching sounds underfoot; vegetables tumbling onto wood)

COHEN: Dan Kaplan and 2 apprentices are picking sweet corn, a variety known as Burgundy Delight, named for its dark red tassels. But the farm crew isn't taking time to admire their crop. In about a minute and a half, 2 of them have picked about 8 dozen.

KAPLAN: Hard work is hard work. There is no organic way to, you know, harvest a head of lettuce. There is just a fast way to harvest a head of lettuce. And if you can't do it fast, you're going to fail.

COHEN: Sometimes the fastest way is to use machinery. But for smaller farms, it isn't practical to use large, costly tools that are designed for traditional operations. Brookfield, for example, uses a single-row potato harvester that dates back to the 50s.

(The harvester clanks, metal on metal)

COHEN: About 10 miles from Brookfield is Lampson Brook, a CSA which started as a school for organic growers. Miranda Smith says she wanted her students to understand soil, and that meant no tractors.

SMITH: When I start people out I want them nose to the ground and I want them working by hand, because I want them to develop a color sensitivity that they can't develop from the seat of a tractor.

COHEN: But Smith and new manager Sarah Weil say the farm needs to change if it's going to survive. They've started by mechanizing and would like to increase their acreage, their membership, and the farm manager's salary. Sarah Weil.

WEIL: I live very meagerly. Let's put it that way. And my feeling is that it has to change, so that's where I'm headed.

COHEN: Valuing labor accurately is a big challenge to CSA farmers, just as it is to most farmers. Dan Last teaches resource economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and is doing a long-term study of CSAs.

LAST: Farmers tend not to pay themselves appropriately. And so that's a cost that's being ignored in calculating their budget. And they can't continue to work for free.

COHEN: Dan Last says CSAs can be economically viable if their budgets reflect all costs: capital investments such as equipment and land. Many CSA farmers say the cost of land is one of their biggest hurdles. They also need to outdo supermarkets in quality and offer variety all season long. Dan Kaplan.

KAPLAN: It's one thing to say well, I'm going to give you 400 pounds of food for $280 and then give them all kale. And then they eat the kale, they hate it, and they don't come back again.

COHEN: When community-supported agriculture started, idealistic farmers thought consumers would change to accommodate the farm. But now CSAs are doing what they can to give customers more of what they want. Many farms deliver to urban neighborhoods, and some provide items from other farms, such as fruit, milk, beef, or even wild salmon.

DOCTOR: The CSA, to be successful, really has to be defined as a consumer- producer relationship.

COHEN: Michael Doctor, a CSA farmer in Hadley, Massachusetts, who consults on farm business practices, says the basis for that relationship should be skilled farming.

DOCTOR: There's a tremendous amount of education and social change that happens within the context of any CSA, even if you don't wear that on your forehead. It's just important that you shouldn't be wearing that on a forehead. We need to become good farmers at first.

(Milling people, squeaking plastic, footfalls on wood)

WOMAN 1: So we're allowed 2 bags of this stuff, right?

WOMAN 2: You should get some of those carrots; that's the best.

COHEN: In the end the key to a CSA's success is still the relationship between the grower and the community. Running a good business that meets the needs of both parties strengthens that bond. For Living on Earth, I'm Nancy Cohen in Amherst, Massachusetts.

(Voices and milling continue; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Natural recycling of human waste at a nature preserve. That's just ahead, right here on Living on Earth.



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