CSA movement builds communities, one farm at a time
By CRAIG IDLEBROOK
On a quiet road just off Route 23 is Indian Line Farm, a place where agricultural history was made.
Not that you would know it. The only marking to distinguish the farm is a small sign on the mailbox.
It was here in 1985 that farmers Robyn Van En and Jan Vander Tuin joined with a group of area residents to form what is believed to be the first community-supported agriculture program in the United States. It was simply named the CSA Garden of Great Barrington.
For three years, local people paid in advance to buy shares of the farm’s harvest, picking up produce weekly throughout the growing season. It didn’t always go smoothly, and there was even a bitter split between the original CSA organizers and Van En, but the local farm helped spark a revolution in small-scale agriculture.
In the CSA model, which had been pioneered in Europe before Van En imported it to Massachusetts, a farm’s customers essentially share the risk and provide the farmer with a measure of financial protection from bad weather and insect pests. Farms across the country, especially small-scale vegetable producers, have since adopted the model, and the concept has thrived in New England in particular.
CSAs are helping the region’s small-farmers to stay in business and earn a living, said Jennifer Conte, marketing coordinator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Saratoga County.
“They don’t have to be a giant farm to compete,” Conte said.
But just how many farms are using the CSA model is hard to figure.
This fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will send out a questionnaire that, among other things, will try to count the number of CSA farms across the country.
It’s the second time the USDA has tried to take a head count of CSA farms; the previous attempt sparked controversy. CSA advocates argued that the original USDA question was too vague and led to an inaccurate count.
Still, everyone agrees that the number of CSA farms nationally will be in the thousands.
At a movement’s birthplace
Elizabeth Keen, who has worked the land at Indian Line Farm since 1999, two years after Van En died of an asthma attack, said she is awed by the idea that the farm is where the CSA movement got started.
“It is pretty amazing when you think about it,” she said.
But Keen and her partner, Alexander Thorp, don’t have too much time for reverence. They’re busy raising five acres of produce for their 140 CSA members.
Although members are welcome to visit the farm, Keen said she’s just as happy that more people don’t make the pilgrimage to see where the CSA movement got its start.
“I don’t want a lot of people stopping by,” Keen said. “We have a lot of work to do. We have been put on video more times than I care to say.”
Before her death in 1997, Van En worked actively to help other CSA farms get started around the country – up to 200 of them, by some estimates. Today, the nonprofit Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Pennsylvania continues that work by serving as a resource center for the CSA movement. In Massachusetts, the local BerkShares currency also honors Van En’s work by featuring her image on its 10 BerkShares notes.
After Van En’s death, most of the land at Indian Line Farm was transferred to The Nature Conservancy and a local land trust. The groups raised money to keep the farm in production and leased the property to Keen and Thorp.
Counting the CSAs
This fall, thousands of farmers will receive the USDA’s questionnaire, asking about their farming practices, as part of the national agricultural census conducted every five years. Nestled among the dozens of boxes to check off is a brief question that asks farmers if they “marketed their products through a Community-Supported Agriculture arrangement.”
Although the form allows farmers to answer the question by checking yes and no, figuring out how to count the number of community-supported agriculture programs in the United States may not be that simple.
The same question, asked in the USDA’s 2007 survey, prompted the agency to declare in 2009 that 12,549 farms nationally were involved in CSAs -- thousands more than previously thought. Although the findings made it seem as though the CSA movement was growing rapidly, many people in the movement challenged the USDA’s estimate, calling it wildly distorted.
The USDA estimate represented more than four times the number of CSA farms listed in 2009 by Local Harvest, a California-based nonprofit group that many believe has compiled the most comprehensive listing of CSAs in the country.
The USDA figures seemed especially suspect to Ryan Galt, a professor of human and community development at the University of California at Davis. Galt had been researching local food systems in California when the USDA census figures came out, and he felt he had a good handle on which farms ran CSA programs locally. He believed, for example, that there were four or five CSA farms operating in Stanislaus County, where he had grown up, but the USDA census said there were 36.
“It just didn’t make any sense to me, the numbers and where they were located,” Galt said.
Galt believes the USDA census question may have unintentionally confused farmers in two ways. First, the questionnaire did not offer a definition of community-supported agriculture, so farmers unfamiliar with the concept might not have understood what they were being asked.
Second, the USDA did not ask farmers if they manage their own CSA programs; it simply asked if they had taken part in one. So if a farm sold apricots to a CSA program once a year, it might answer yes to the question, even if the farm itself wasn’t organized as a CSA.
In response to the USDA figures, Galt undertook his own analysis CSA data using his training as a geographer, employing cartography and multiple sets of data from secondary sources. His independent study estimated there were some 3,637 CSAs across the nation as of 2009.
Despite the pushback over its previous estimate, the USDA chose not to revise the CSA question in this year’s survey. Donald Buysse, chief of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the question is doing what it was designed to do.
“The intent of the question was not to get at the number of CSAs,” Buysse said. “The intent of the question was to get at the number of farms that contribute to CSAs.”
Results from this year’s USDA survey are expected sometime in 2014.
An appetite for local
Regardless of whose estimate is used, it’s clear the number of CSA farms has increased rapidly as interest in locally grown foods has exploded in the past decade.
The concept has flourished in New England especially. On Local Harvest’s national map of CSA farms, the markers are so plentiful in Vermont and Massachusetts that they blot out all other geographic signs. By comparison, the markers are scarce in the Midwest, where commodity-scale corn and soybean farmers have little use for the concept.
Erin Barnett, the director of Local Harvest, said the CSA system makes the most sense for growers tending small pockets of land like those in New England.
“The model lends itself well to the geography,” Barnett said.
It’s also vital to have a population ready to embrace the CSA concept.
So it’s no surprise then that CSAs are thriving in Vermont, where the local food movement is particularly strong, said Erin Buckwalter, the direct-marketing coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
In fact, farmers in Vermont do a higher percentage of their business through direct-marketing models, including CSAs, than anywhere else in the country, Buckwalter said. And the CSA model, while not right for every farmer, has the potential for a high return on marketing investment, Buckwalter said.
“It’s the most bang for the buck,” she said.
The best aspect of the CSA model is that it offers a farmer access to investment partners, she said. Farmers receive capital in the spring when they need it most -- and when they have the least amount of liquidity. CSA customers effectively assume some of the risk of farming -- and sometimes even help out when disaster strikes.
After being devastated by flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene last year, for example, several Vermont farms were able to rebuild as a result of donations from CSA members.
The role of CSA member has its own rewards: Customers get first pick of a farm’s bounty and a connection with how their food is grown, Buckwalter said.
Changing with the times
The symbiotic relationship between farmer and customer is on display in the CSA program of True Love Farm in North Bennington.
Karen and Steven Trubitt have adapted their farm’s organic CSA program to offer greater flexibility and fun for customers. For their summer CSA program, the Trubitts sell vouchers that customers can redeem at the True Love farmstand on market days. Shareholders get first priority and can call ahead to have food put aside, which gives them more flexibility than those in the traditional CSA model, Karen Trubitt explained.
“It’s pretty in tune with modern lifestyles,” she said.
Their winter CSA program is more traditional, with customers picking up shares of root-cellar vegetables and greens at the farm. But each basket of vegetables also contains a goody, be it a homemade pizza crust or a gourmet cheese from a nearby farm. The treat is a thank-you gift for investing in the Trubitts’ farm and being part of their community, she said.
“They are the group that allows us to put seeds into the ground,” Trubitt said. “That relationship inspires us.”
Perhaps one of the reasons the USDA is having trouble counting CSAs accurately is that the CSA model is morphing into something new, said Jack Kittredge, policy director for Northeast Organic Farmers Association of Massachusetts.
There are all kinds of farmers “running with this model in different ways,” Kittredge said.
Sometimes, customers take matters into their own hands and lease a plot of land and hire a farmer. In another example, consumers who prefer unpasteurized milk have skirted state regulations on raw milk sales by collectively “buying” a cow on a farm.
The size of CSAs varies widely, as well. Some prefer to cap the number of shareholders at 50, while others, including one in New York, have as many as 1,000 shareholders.
But innovation also has the potential for newer CSAs to drift away from the original intent of the community-supported agriculture movement.
Although the CSA movement originally was tied to the concept of growing food using organic methods, many CSAs have chosen not to obtain organic certification or do not use strict organic farming practices, Kittredge said. And some CSAs are actually more like distributors, with farms offering local produce when it’s available and switching to non-local sources at other times.
Reviving small-scale farming
Kittredge credits the CSA movement with revitalizing small-scale farming in New England and curbing the pace of urban sprawl. The CSA model offers established farmers a way to make a sustainable living – and young farmers the capital to get started.
“You see places in crops now that weren’t in crops 10 years ago,” Kittredge said.
That’s what happened at Three Maples Market Garden in West Stockbridge, just 20 miles north of where the CSA movement got started. The land had been in Amanda Dalzell’s family since the 1930s, but it hadn’t been farmed since her grandfather grew vegetables for his young family and sold surplus produce to local markets.
Now Dalzell and her husband, Cian, cultivate two acres to feed 16 CSA members. That’s twice the number of members they had in their inaugural season last year, and next year they aim to cap membership at 20.
Dalzell’s family loves that the land is growing food again.
“All the aunts and uncles, when they come to visit, it’s really nice for them to see it as a working farm,” Dalzell said.
The couple had worked at various farms in the United States and internationally. When they returned to Dalzell’s family property in West Stockbridge, they quickly decided that a CSA program would help them with their start-up costs and prove easier to manage than selling at farmers markets.
The CSA model has also proven invaluable in supporting the young farmers as they expand. This winter, CSA members donated to help the couple build greenhouses that allow them to grow food year-round.
“Having a CSA really helped with that, because it gives you a community,” Dalzell said.