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Community Supported Agriculture: Know Your Farmer by Jessica Kesselman

The statement, “Know your farmer, know your food” has become a rallying cry for people looking for sources of seasonal, regionally grown produce. It’s about purchasing food as close to the source as possible, shortening the distance the food travels from field to plate and reducing the amount of handling and processing along the way. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is the model that can connect them to a farmer for an entire growing season.

The History

The first CSAs in the United States were started by New England farmers in the 1980’s who adopted the model from farms in Europe. The CSA movement really took off in the United States in the early 1990’s when Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook, New York started delivering shares of produce to its CSA members in New York City. Since then, the non-profit organization Just Food has helped groups of city residents connect with farms upstate to establish over 100 CSAs. Local Harvest, a national organic and local food resource, has more than 3,000 CSA listings in its database.

How It Works

Community Supported Agriculture is an economic model used by farmers to grow food and deliver shares of freshly harvested produce each week to an organized group of CSA members throughout the growing season. CSA members pay the farmer in advance of the season for their share.

This relationship between producer and consumer has many benefits. The CSA receives payment from its members before the long workdays of the season begin which allows the farmer to buy what is needed for the growing season. The CSA members get to enjoy nutritious, seasonal, produce, often harvested within 24 hours of delivery. They get to know their farmer and the farm’s growing methods. Some farms offer their CSA members the opportunity to visit the farm on exclusive “CSA Member Days” or to participate in the production and distribution of CSA shares in some way.

CSAs put consumers in sync with the economy of farming. The growing season is a labor-intensive time for farmers, but during the winter months, when things on the farm have slowed down, the CSA model gives the farmer the opportunity to raise essential revenue to cover the cost of seeds, equipment maintenance, labor and fuel during a time of year when they are not bringing in much income. Once the growing season arrives, the farmer has an established customer base through the CSA.

In It Together

Inherent to the CSA model is the concept of shared risk. If the growing season is hit with drought, hailstorms or crop failure resulting from pests or other causes that affect yield or quality, the CSA members generally are not reimbursed. In a CSA, grower and consumer are in it together, strengthening the connection between who grows the food and who eats it. The floods resulting from Hurricane Irene destroyed fields and left many upstate farms devastated, unable to fulfill their CSA obligations that season. This is the reality of the fragile relationship our food system has with nature.

Being a member of a CSA means knowing the farmer and how the food was grown. It means eating seasonally, and often trying new vegetables or varieties of old favorites. There are jokes about CSA members receiving a lot of kale. In a CSA, one person’s kale is another person’s zucchini. While CSA members don’t usually have much of a say in what the farmer plants and delivers for the season or what grows abundantly due to nature’s course in a given year, they can be sure that it will be fresh, local and grown by someone they know.

Jessica Kesselman is the Communications Director for Rockland Farm Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to reviving food production in Rockland County. Their first farm project, Cropsey Community Farm has a 250-member CSA. For more information, visit CropseyFarm.org or RocklandFarm.org.

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