Friday, May 14, 2010

Community Supported Agriculture: A Model that Works for Consumers & Farmers

By Jim Kanak
Staff Columnist
As people strive to include more locally produced food in their diets, Community Supported Agriculture, a program in which people buy “shares” in what a local farm produces, is growing in popularity. Essentially, farmers sell shares of the items they grow and produce to individuals and families before the growing season begins. Those families, then, visit the farm, usually weekly, to pick up their “bundle” of products. The bundles vary depending on the range of food the farm produces and what’s harvested at a particular time of year.
“Community Supported Agriculture has evolved and spread in the United States over the past 25 years,” said Melissa White Pillsbury, Marketing Coordinator for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “It started as a community generated activity, where consumers grouped together and approached the farmer. Now it’s more farmer generated. They see it as a viable marketing strategy and a diversified income stream. The farm gets help with cash flow and operating capital for start up costs instead of using a credit card or getting some other type of loan.”
Riverside Farm of North Berwick is entering its first year in the program. Farmer Gregg Harrington said using the model makes good marketing sense. “In the seacoast area, there’s a tremendous amount of interest in eating local,” he said. “A CSA allows us to get into growing our customer relationships. It’s a way to work outside our traditional customer base. We do the majority of our retail out of the farm stand. With the CSA, we’re trying to reach out to a new segment of the market.”
CSAs vary widely from farm to farm, White Pillsbury said. “There are as many models as there are farms,” she said. ‘The CSA ‘culture’ is that each farm structures the program to meet its needs and customer base. There’s no one model. There’s a different mix of products based on the individual customer base (the farm) appeals to.”
Harrington, for example, said Riverside Farm did not offer share holders a defined basket of goods each week. “They can pick from whatever vegetables are available,” he said. ‘We also open up flowers and plants. We’re a commercial kitchen, so baked bread and jams are included. We also include local eggs and honey that we pick up. People can focus as much of their share on a single product if they want. That makes us a little different.”
Two-Toad Farm in Lebanon also participates and is beginning its second year. “We offer Monday and Thursday pick up days,” said Jordan Pike of Two Toad farm. “We grow produce and harvest what’s ready and divide it up. It evolves over the summer. We have already counted over 100 varieties of vegetables and will plant probably around 200.”
Bill Fletcher of Finson Farm in South Berwick uses another model, one that was characteristic of early CSA’s. “We still have the members come in and do the work,” Fletcher, who started farming after he retired, said. “The members do most of the weeding, harvesting, and keep up with a lot of the routine work. We have 30 families and grow vegetables and have a little honey at the end of the season.”
The key feature is that the CSA engages the customer in the business of farming as well as providing local food. “The share holders are incurring some of the risk with the farmer,” said Harrington. “The CSA is great because there are people willing to support local agriculture. It wouldn’t work if not for people that wanted to support farmers like us. That they want to get involved and help a local farmer is most important.”
Pike echoed Harrington’s comments. “It’s a very good model,” he said. “We get operating funds in advance of the season so it helps limit borrowing. Without the CSA, I wouldn’t be able to grow produce at all. The customers get a good bargain and help support neighbors to have access as well.”
According to White Pillsbury, about 6,000 households and 155 farms in Maine participate in CSAs. The number of farms involved has roughly doubled in the past four years. The typical season runs from April through October, depending on what kinds of products the farm offers. Share prices can vary from a few hundred dollars to the low thousands, again depending on what the farm offers. For a listing of CSAs in York County and throughout Maine, visit
“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Fletcher, who’s in his ninth year as a CSA. “It‘s a way to keep a nice small farm active and the land open. And it gives me an excuse to drive a tractor.”