Community Supported Agriculture

by Sylvia Ehrhardt

Anyone who has enjoyed the taste of vine-ripe tomatoes or fresh juicy blackberries knows that nothing matches the flavor and aroma of just-picked, fully ripe fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately it is just about impossible to buy such fresh produce in any store. Most people know they could grow their own, but just don’t have the time or inclination to do so.

The availability of just-picked, fully ripe fruits and vegetables may change if the innovative marketing concept called Community Supported Agriculture takes hold. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) links consumers with growers, thus connecting the consumers to the source of their food.

While there are many variations of CSAs, the general concept is that the grower contracts with a group (community) of consumers to provide them with an agreed quantity and variety of freshly picked produce for the entire season. The consumers agree to pay in advance for the season’s output. Each week, over the season, they receive a share of whatever is ready for harvest. This arrangement benefits both grower and consumer.

Supporters of CSA hail this concept as a way to revitalize the vanishing family farm, to promote local agriculture, and to help consumers receive fresh nutritious food in the increasingly impersonal and detached world of agribusiness and supermarkets.

How did it start?

Although fairly new in the United States, CSA began in Japan over 30 years ago. In 1965, a group of women approached a farmer with a proposition: they would pay him directly for his produce, and he would give them all of his harvest. At present, in Japan, about 50,000 families belong to these consumer/farmer clubs. One such club links 1,500 families to 15 farmers who supply them with everything from vegetables and fruits to fish and tofu.

Today, in the United States and Canada, there are more than 600 CSA farms that will feed an estimated 100,000 people this year. Most of these farms are organic. Many predict that by the year 2000 the number of farms will reach over 1,000.

In 1990, our farm began selling vegetables, fruits, and herbs through the CSA marketing concept. We were one of a handful of growers, nationwide, experimenting with this idea. It has been so successful that today, 6 years later, we still sell much of our produce this way. Now, our farm is not ideally located for retail sales, situated 4 miles from the nearest highway. Still, we have members (shareholders) who live in Washington, DC, about 65 miles from our farm. In some cases we deliver to a drop-off point, but we encourage members to pick up at the farm. Most of our produce is picked the day of delivery. Members receive one or two shopping bags of produce each week, with no further payment after the advance payment is completed. The shareholders love the idea of just-picked, nutritious produce being available to them every week throughout the growing season. It’s as if they went to their back yard and picked their own fruits and vegetables.

Our experience with Community Supported Agriculture has demonstrated that large acreage, convenient location and expensive machinery are not essential to the success of this marketing method.

How does the Consumer benefit?

  • All produce is garden fresh and fully ripe; in most cases, picked just before delivery.
  • The cost is about the same as in the supermarket, but substantially less than prices at organic produce counters.
  • Adults – and especially children – benefit by seeing where and how their food is grown.
  • This operation is convenient for everyone. The shopping bags are waiting for each member to pick up.
  • Unlike most produce, which is shipped an average of 1300 miles before it reaches the consumer, food from a local grower is fresh and is not depleted of nutrients, vitality, vitamins, and flavor.
  • There is an assortment of fruits, vegetables and herbs not sold in grocery stores.

What does the Grower gain?

  • Early cash flow at planting time rather than at harvest, giving ease to the buying of seeds, materials and labor. Many farmers customarily take out loans at planting time and repay the loan at harvest.
  • Crops are sold and paid for before being planted.
  • Crop planning is easier because the market is assured.
  • The grower can concentrate on the horticultural aspects because the marketing is completed at the beginning of the season.

Perhaps the most important thing is that the nature of the relationship between the grower and the consumer is changed, shifting from adversarial to cooperative. The greatest long-term benefit goes to the land itself. CSA encourages sustainable farming practices, which do not degrade soil and water.

What began as an experiment in marketing for us, has shown itself to be a viable alternative to the traditional sales of produce. It is the answer not only for industrialized countries, but developing countries as well. Community Supported Agriculture can provide healthier produce to more people for less money, while at the same time sustaining the earth on which we live. I believe this marketing concept is the wave of the future.

Here are a few CSAs in the Washington Area:

The Accokeek Foundation – 3400 Bryan Point Road, Accokeek, MD 20607 (301) 283-2113.

Bramhall Family Farm – 5760 Brookswood Road, Lothian, MD 20741 (410) 867-4956 or (301) 281-9449

Chesapeake CSA Farm – 11904 Old Marlboro Pike, Upper Marlboro, MD 20772 (301) 627-4766.

Ehrhardt Organic Farm – 1036 Hoffmaster Rd, Knoxville, MD 21758 (301) 834-7520.

FOR A FREE LISTING OF CSA FARMS IN YOUR STATE CALL:

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association 1 (800) 516-7797

Community Supported Agriculture of North America (CSANA), Indian Line Farm, Box 57 Jugend Rd., Great Barrington, MA 01230 (413) 528-4374.

What you have in your mind?