April 14, 2012 -
Fresh Perspectives on Community Supported Agriculture
Northeast Ohio is rich in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs – so much so, that fresh new options are cropping up each season! With so many choices, how do you decide which CSA is right for you and your family? Spice interviews a former farmer and a suburban mom to shed some light on their own personal CSA experiences.
Perspective #1: Beth Knorr, Market Manager at the Countryside Conservancy & Former Farmer
Q. CSAs have become increasingly popular over the last few years. What’s the major attraction for people?
Beth: Each family comes at it from a different perspective. For many people, it’s a way to get fantastically fresh vegetables and a great diversity of products without having to grow it themselves. They don’t have time to garden but love to cook, and they want to support local agriculture and enjoy fresh-picked produce.
For other people, they want to build a relationship with a farm or farmer and with the land on which their food is grown. I think that this later perspective is what fueled the beginning movement of CSAs across the country, along with the desire to combat urban sprawl by supporting an individual farmer.
Q. What are the different types of CSAs? How would one go about finding one?
Beth: The traditional model is an individual farm. Essentially, when you join a CSA, you are contracting with that farmer to grow your produce for the summer. You’re giving them money up front to produce the best quality and the most diverse amount of products possible to feed your family for that set period of time, which typically in Northeast Ohio is anywhere between 18-26 weeks.
So, you contract with a particular farm and that farmer grows to the best of their ability for that season. With a traditional CSA, you’re sharing the risks and rewards of farming with this farmer, so if you have a great growing season, you get tons of product.
But there are different kinds of models that work with multiple local farmers to supplement what they’re growing. They’re are also other models where they offer other products that are produced locally, like cheese, eggs, flowers, mushrooms and sell those as optional shares. Another model is where a couple of farmers work together to reach a larger group of customers by taking advantage of what each one does well. Then there’s a cooperative model, where there is a larger group of farms, maybe 8-10 farms. But they’ve hired someone to do the administrative legwork of marketing a CSA and each farm provides an amount of produce for the CSA members each share week.
What’s relatively new is an Aggregation and Distribution model, where a business will work with various farmers in Northeast Ohio and purchase certain things from each of those farms on any given week to provide for people who sign up for their shares. It’s not a traditional CSA in that they’re not building a relationship directly with the farm, but they’re still supporting local agriculture.
Q. What are the most important factors one should consider before deciding on a CSA?
Beth: The first thing to decide is if a CSA is really right for your family, as opposed to shopping at a farmers’ market, because you’re signing up to get vegetables every week. You have to love cooking. You have to be willing to eat a lot of vegetables to make it worth your time and effort. And you have to be willing to change your entire way of cooking too. How much time do you have to spend in the kitchen with your delivery every week? (This is true for any model.) Also, what model best suits you and your family’s needs and values: Do you want to build that relationship with a farmer or a couple of farmers, or do you just really want fresh vegetables? What is your motivation for joining? Some CSAs require that everyone work a little bit on the farm. Do you enjoy gardening? Or are you looking for convenience? All of these questions impact which kind of CSA you’re looking for. I’m so happy to see this diversification of the models, because one format is not going to work for everyone.
Q. Why do you prefer the farm-exclusive model over the multi-farm format?
Beth: You know, CSAs were really developed with the idea of not only supporting a particular farm, but eliminating the middle man and building that relationship directly with the farmer. Some of these models fit different peoples lifestyles better than what a traditional CSA would. But the traditional CSA model where you’re supporting a particular farm and eliminating the middle man is really true to its roots. And it’s what I value about CSAs.
My husband and I are joining one for the first time this year since we are no longer farming. We prefer the model where the farmer isn’t supplementing from anywhere else, because we want to make the choices where our dollars go on our own- that’s how we operated our CSA and that lines up well with our values. And we’re in touch enough with the local food scene to feel like we can make educated food choices with confidence. That’s not to say this CSA type it’s necessarily better than the other formats, it’s just better for us.
Some families prefer the other methods for the convenience of having picks ups close to their work, which is certainly understandable, and also the diversity you can get with some of these other models, where you can pick and choose what you’re getting. But for me and my family, it’s about eliminating the middle man and supporting one farmer directly.
Q. What trends do you see for CSAs in the future?
Beth: I do see a few neat CSAs popping up all over the place. In California, they have some grain CSAs, and I think we will start to see those around here over the next few years. I also think it would be really exciting to see community-supported energy, which would be a completely different riff on the whole CSA model. It’s really up to farmer and consumer imagination where CSAs are going to go next.
Perspective #2: Leslie Hilliard, Mom of Two, Fresh Fork Fanatic
Q. Why did you first start looking into CSAs and how did you land on Fresh Fork?
Leslie: Our old neighbor used to have a full garden and every season he would give us whatever he was growing. We got so used to eating fresh picked vegetables that when we moved, we looked into joining a CSA. We chose Fresh Fork mainly because they deliver and because they source all of their products locally. Trevor, the guy who runs Fresh Fork, sends out a newsletter that gives you ideas about what you can do with each bag, such as how to peel and store them for later, recipes, and spotlights on certain farms. They give you the whole lowdown of what’s going on with the pigs and pictures of the free range chickens. My kids are really interested in that sort of thing, so they love reading the newsletter.
We’ve gotten different kinds of grains that I would have never thought to buy on my own. My kids now love chard, which is something else we would have never tried had it not been for Fresh Fork. We did the small share, which was enough to supplement our weekly grocery list. It’s a fun activity to do with my kids and it works out to be only $25 a week. All in all, it’s been a great experience.
Q. Give us the basic synopsis of how Fresh Fork works.
Leslie: You reserve your spot, pay your money, and you can expect to get a newsletter a couple days before you get your bag. You can pick up your bag at one of the 12 pickup locations or you can sign up to have it delivered. It’s really that simple. When you go to pick up, if you choose to, there’s usually a truck of other things you can buy, like Ohio City Pasta or extra fruits and veggies that you can purchase separately. Once you get your bag, the fun begins.
Q. What exactly can one expect to find in one of the weekly grab bags? And what was the most memorable one you ever received?
Leslie: In each bag, you will typically get a green (lettuce, collard greens, chard, broccoli), a fruit (blueberries, peaches, cherries), and a different kind of meat (chicken, pork, ground beef), or eggs. Sometimes they have local yogurt, which is crazy good compared to the kind you pick up at the grocery store that’s been sitting for weeks and weeks. Other times there’s fresh pasta. It always varies. And you get a fair amount of everything. With a small share, you can expect around five of each fruit and vegetable.
Our favorite bag was the one week Fresh Fork had the most amazing cabbage ever, ground beef, a whole big thing of tomatoes and organic onions. We made so much stuffed cabbage that week. They also have a pizza week where they give you fresh pizza dough, tomatoes, and basil.
Q. What kinds of meals have you made with your Fresh Fork goodies?
Leslie: We make a lot of soups (potato leak) and chili because the celery they give you is amazing. The locally grown celery is not like the big stalks you find at the grocery store. It’s really skinny and green and delicious. We made chorizo pasta sauce one time, although the Ohio City Pasta is so good you can eat it without anything on it. We received whole chickens another time and made chicken pot pie and chicken stock. And one week, we made the best salsa with fresh cilantro and tomatoes.
Q. Why does Fresh Fork work for you and your family?
Leslie: It’s so exciting to get something with the dirt still on it. The lettuce that’s pulled from the ground is unlike anything you will ever find in the store. And it’s such an educational tool for my kids. It’s better for them. It’s better for everybody. If you can support local, why would you bother buying anywhere else?
Editor’s note: Seeking a great CSA for your family? A good place to start is LocalHarvest.org.