Richard de Wilde, a pioneer in organics and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Wisconsin, has been growing vegetables at Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua since 1984. In 2010 Harmony Valley served thousands of people fresh food every week through their CSA program. After two seasons as an intern at Troy Community Farm, Gini Knight started Sweet Magnolia Farm in 2010 with 10 CSA families, this year she expects to expand the farm membership to 16 families; providing weekly boxes of delightful goodness grown in Sun Prairie. Gini and Richard are two examples of the hundreds of dedicated local farmers committed to CSA to feed our community, preserve our agricultural heritage, and keep farmers growing fresh food. We are fortunate to live in a region that is both literally and figuratively a fertile ground for farmers to grow.
Community Supported Agriculture is a relatively new model of farm and community connection that is both radical and radically simple; families should know where their food comes from and farmers should make a living as stewards of the land growing top- quality food. CSA as we know it draws on a rich international history of movements from Europe, Japan and South America. In 1965, mothers in Japan concerned about the rise of imported food and the loss of arable land started the first CSA projects, called “Teikei.” Literally translated, Teikei means “partnership” or “cooperation,” however, according to Elizabeth Henderson in her classic CSA resource, Sharing the Harvest, a more philosophical translation is, “food with a face on it.” With CSA you often have a whole community of faces on your food; each one a critical link in a very short food chain from farm to table in less than24 hours and often fewer than 75 miles.
The first formal CSA programs in the United States began in New England in the early ’80s and have since captured the hearts and stomachs of farmers and farm members from Alaska to Florida. CSA has exploded here in our backyard due to the organizing power and foresight of a dedicated group of Madisonians who banded together to form the Madison Eaters Revolutionary Front, or MERF, back in the early ’90s. Organizers had heard the whispers of a win-win model that could help preserve farms, shorten the distance from farm to table and build community through food. They committed themselves to building awareness of the concept of CSA, recruiting and empowering local farmers to develop CSA programs on their farms, and raising the profile and availability of CSA shares in the greater Madison area. Today MERF has evolved into the Madison Area CSA Coalition (MACSAC), and the Madison area is the heart of an incredible CSA movement in Wisconsin. With 50+ CSA farms serving over 200 delivery sites, more than 22,000 individuals are eating fresh food from local farms every week throughout the growing season (and often throughout the year!).
The Madison Area CSA Coalition is a non-profit organization made up of certified organic (or in transition to certification) farms serving the community with weekly shares of produce, meat or other farm-direct products. The coalition conducts an annual application and interview process to endorse new, top-quality CSA farms and maintains a detailed website to help community members understand and participate in local farms as CSA members (www.csacoalition.org). The Coalition is deeply involved in bringing all aspects of Community Supported Agriculture to current and perspective farm members through workshops, information sharing, and increased access to CSA shares. Through an innovative program in partnership with local health insurance providers, many people are eligible for rebates of $100-$200 for purchasing a CSA share from a local farm (check out the website for more details).
The Coalition’s Food Preservation and Use Workshops (many of which are hosted at Willy Street Co-op!) teach farm members skills and techniques to make the most of their shares through canning, freezing, drying and cooking instruction.
The Partner Shares Program is an innovative initiative to connect low income families with CSA shares by offering financial and educational assistance to make CSA farm membership more accessible. The Partner Shares Program ensures that farmers get a fair market price for their produce and works to increase diversity of CSA membership by eliminating barriers to participation for low income families by providing assistance funds, offering payment plans to spread payments through the year, and administering Food Stamps benefits to be utilized for purchasing CSA shares from any farm in the coalition.
Each year we host a CSA Open House (coming up on March 13th, 2011, from 1:00pm–4:00pm at Monona Terrace), bringing farmers and community members together for a free event to learn about CSA shares and select the right farm for your family. This year’s event will feature kids activities, workshops on CSA and ample opportunities to meet and greet your local farmers and learn about their farms.
Of course, without a strong and connected coalition of farms we wouldn’t have any CSA shares to promote; the organization also coordinates grower training and resource sharing opportunities for direct market farmers within and outside of the coalition. By facilitating winter trainings, in-season field days, grower gatherings and web resources, we are working to build capacity, increase efficiency and assist farmers in building viable farm enterprises that steward the land and feed the community.
At its core CSA is a movement driven by the desire of individuals to reorganize the relationship of consumers and producers and to recognize our farmers as more than commodity producers and our farms as more than places we pass on the way from here to there. CSA is a unique social and economic arrangement between local households or individuals and farmers who work together to share the responsibility of producing and delivering fresh food. Members support the farm by paying an annual fee in the winter or spring that entitles them to a “share” of the season’s harvest. Once harvesting begins, members pick-up a weekly or bi-weekly box of fresh foods grown by their farmers. CSA is different than a buying club or other forms of box delivery because payment, relationship and communications are directly to and with the farm family that is growing your food. No middleman, no aggregation, no questions about who grew what or how it was grown. Or‚ even better, if you do have questions, you have a real person to direct them to: your farmer.
A word of caution, despite the many, many social, health, community and economic benefits of CSA, it is not for everyone. Just as your farm is committing to growing you top-quality food with strong environmental ethics, you are committing to your farm. A successful (and happy) CSA member is one who embraces the challenges of having vegetables picked out by your farmer, being at the mercy of mother nature, and cooking with fresh food. As a CSA member, you’re sharing the benefits and the risk of the farming season and agreeing to weather the bounty as well as the scarcity with your farmer. Most seasons see bizarre crop failures (think tomato blight of 2010) and unexplainable bumper crops; as a CSA member you’ll ridethose waves with your farmer. If you want to support local farms and eat fresh food, but only like zucchini and cukes, it’s probably best for you to shop the Farmers’ Market or local Co-op where you can put your values and your dollars into your local food choices without incurring the dreaded “food guilt” that can accompany the composting of unused vegetables. CSA is a wonderful and satisfying option for lots of people, but not everyone—make sure it is a good choice for you before committing to a farm and a weekly delivery of food.
CSA shares are as diverse as the farms and farmers who grow them. Size, content, frequency and location of delivery, price and variety all vary by farm; finding the right farm for your family is all part of the fun! CSA shares can include produce, fruits, cheeses, eggs, meats, poultry, flowers, herbs, preserves and more. Most CSA farms offer a standard vegetable share which lasts 20-24 weeks, starts in May or June, and provides enough food every week for four healthy vegetable eaters who like to cook.
Variations on the standard share are the half-share or every-other-week share, which provides about half the quantity of the standard share (though some things can be equivalent since it can be tricky to give members a half butternut!) that comes every week in a smaller box or in a standard size box delivered every other week. Some farms offer smaller or larger shares in addition to standard and half-shares (large family shares, couple shares, etc.) or unique arrangements dreamed up by creative farmers to elect certain weeks or seasons to receive shares. Families who love to garden but also love their CSA farm membership often elect to sign up only for a late season storage share and stock up on those winter roots from a local farm while growing their own seasonal produce in their backyards. Others just can’t possibly eat enough greens and elect to break their winter fresh food fast by joining their farm for an early spring greens share to get the summer juices flowing with a stiff chlorophyll infusion of tasty, tangy, sweetness in April before the standard shares are up and running.
When members sign up for their farm share they also decide where they’ll go to pick up their share every week. Pick-up sites are often located at a member’s house, a local business, or at the farm. Many farms have long-standing relationships with members who have hosted their boxes on their front porch for a decade; every week, for a few hours their homes are hubs of activity as neighbors drop by to sift through the weeks harvest and exchange favorite recipes for celeriac or kale. Many local businesses and employers have relationships with CSA farmers who utilize their break rooms or front lobbies for pick-up locations providing a convenient employee perk by increasing easy access to fresh, local food and helping farmers find members by spreading the word about CSA.
Farmer communications and on-farm events are aspects of belonging to a CSA farm that enrich the experience and elevate what could be a necessary chore of food procurement to a delightful adventure of community building and education. Most farms create a newsletter that accompanies their delivery and includes notes about farm activities, descriptions of what’s in the delivery, cooking tips and recipes. From learning what types of bugs are currently eating your bok choi to hearing about the daily adventures of partnering (and sometimes quarreling) with nature to coax deliciousness from the soil, newsletters offer an opportunity for the non-farmer to reconnect with the rhythms of the farm and vicariously enjoy the farming rollercoaster. It’s not all fun and games on the farm; knowing what your farmer is working on and understanding the work that goes into each carrot helps us to appreciate the magic of each nutritious bite.
Of course, nothing beats seeing your farm in person to catch a glimpse of your food in progress and your farmer at work. Most farms offer opportunities for members to visit the farm, a priceless opportunity to take it all in, taste food that is seconds from the harvest and build community with others who eat from your farm. Vermont Valley Community Farm in Blue Mounds hosts an infamous “Pesto Festo” each fall; I’m certain that the sweet smells of basil and garlic can be sniffed on the wind from Mt. Horeb to Mazomanie. Farm members come toting their Cuisinarts, parmesan and olive oil and help themselves to fresh basil from the fields. The army of buzzing kitchen appliances is lined up in the barn with farm members enthusiastically swapping pesto recipes and blending their own batches.
Stoney Acres Farm, a newly endorsed farm in 2011, also has a tradition of successful, innovative on-farm events (farmer Kat Becker was a former Vermont Valley employee and with husband Tony and their two young children are one of only a few CSAs serving Marathon County). Kat and Tony welcome their farm members at their annual pancake breakfast, famous barn dance and fall pumpkin pick and pie event. They have weekly small potlucks centered on the farmwood-fired bread/pizza oven, and offer 120 acres to explore and make your own. Farm events and visitation vary by farm, but always offer new experiences and the opportunity to know your farmers, your fellow eaters and your food.
The logistics of CSA are important to consider and understand. When selecting your farm you want to pay special attention to the details to ensure that you’re entering into this mutual agreement with enough information to fully commit to your farm and farmer. Many families have been with their farm for years and consider their farmers and fellow members part of their extended family. The pick-up location and farm details are critical nuggets of information in choosing between farms, however, the understanding and appreciation of the profound commitment of farmer and farm member to the health, environmental, community and economic improvement through food system reform are the foundation for long-term systemic change. As CSA members you and your family will not only embark on a journey of exploring new foods and forging new relationships, you’ll also be introduced to the delicious subtleties of seasonal eating.
Let’s fast forward for a minute past the muddy ice and heart breaking thaw/freeze/thaw/snow that so often accompanies March in Wisconsin. It’s May, the sun is getting brighter, the days are getting longer and Asparagus has made its heroic appearance in our wild ditches, farm fields, and Community Supported Agriculture boxes. For me, the arrival of asparagus has always meant the kick off of an explosion of fresh flavors. Fruits and vegetables start competing for refrigerator and counter space, ideas for meals outnumber hours in the day, and every week’s harvest brings old favorites back into the kitchen, long forgotten in the world of winter roots. Asparagus gives way to strawberries that take us on to sweet peas and spring onions. On their heels we snap our first green beans, savor the early cherry tomatoes, crunch our cukes and melt to the floor with the first full-flavored heirloom tomato, warm from the field sun, juice dripping down your arm like a summer peach; suddenly it feels like the wait was so worthwhile. Then, if you’re anything like me, you gorge yourself on fresh tomatoes until your mouth is sore and you welcome the arrival of the fall harvest, rich creamy potatoes and crispy cabbage prepare us for the pumpkins and winter squash that taste just right with the perfect fall carrots, kissed by the frost for deep sweetness and satisfying crunch. Finally we tuck back in with the Brussels and rutabaga for a hearty winter in Wisconsin—wait a second, I’m getting ahead of myself; its easy to dohere in the breadbasket of the Midwest.
For now, with spring on the horizon and the hopeful spirit of the growing season before us, we can simply explore the possibilities of Community Supported Agriculture. Surf the web, familiarize yourself with our local CSA farms and join us on March 13th at Monona Terrace; you’re sure to be amazed, as I always am, by the incredible diversity, ingenuity and spirit of our local food movement.