Monday, December 22, 2008

CSA brings responsibilities for the shareholders, not just farmers

" a shareholder in both the bounty and the risk, I understand that nature ultimately decides what I receive and when I will receive it."

That is a quote from the first paragraph of our CSA membership agreement and it is a powerful statement. For anyone who is considering membership in CSA (any CSA, not just ours) I would like to give some insight into what being in a CSA means. While every CSA is different in some way, the basic premise is pretty much the same.

Buying into a CSA is an investment in a working farm, not hiring a produce delivery service. No investment comes without potential risks, as well as potential rewards, and a CSA is no exception. The member's investment returns are paid with the labor of the farmer, the use of his land, water and other resources and as a portion of harvests received. There are many factors that can affect the outcome. Anything that happens on the farm affects the CSA, ergo the members are affected, also.

Nothing is ever guaranteed in any investment, especially one involving a farm venture. When a crop is less than expected or fails completely members share that outcome. There is never any way to know exactly what conditions will provide which bounties or crop losses and a CSA member should be prepared for either situation.

Members of a CSA invest in a specific year's seasonal crops and harvests, in return for a specified number of week's products during that year. Ours happens to run for 30 weeks and our growing season runs from April to April. Sometime in that 12 month period, we will fulfill our 30 week obligation to our members. We do our very best to provide it as a weekly portion for 30 consecutive weeks, but there can be no guarantee that this will be the case. The same is true for most any CSA.

Generally, the operator of a CSA knows pretty well what members can expect to receive over the seasons, but there is never any way to say exactly how much or exactly when crops will come in. Say a strain of green beans is supposed to take 65 days to produce, that is only an average and usually if growing conditions are optimal. With the weather in this region being so unpredictable and extreme sometimes, there are many many factors that weigh into a successful year's harvests. Part of the farmer's expertise comes in with being able to plan, execute and deliver crops by being able to work around these variables.

Any venture in which the ultimate successful outcome is dependent on variables like weather conditions, insect pests, crop failures, flooding rains, wind damage is stressful. It is business as usual in our region. Organic field grown crops are considerably more susceptible to any adverse conditions because of the nature of how these crops are grown. With all the factors that weigh into a successful growing year, a farmer who is bringing in a decent crop of 30, 40 or even 50 different varieties is quite a feat, yet we do that consistently here at our farm.

Food doesn't just happen. Growing certified organic food takes capital, extensive knowledge, patience, perseverance, hard work, luck and sometimes even a small miracle for any crop to come to its full fruition. The farm labor has to be done, sometimes 50-60+ hours per week, in searing heat or bitter cold ( farmers work year round to provide food during the growing season). The varieties are chosen (picking out good ones is a skill in itself), the seeds are bought and planted, the weeds hoed and pulled. Planting, picking, prepping and packing has to be done.

All of that work is done no matter what the final outcome is and nothing changes that. I think that people don't realize is how much the farmer loses when there is a crop loss. The expense, time, effort, space, effect on future plantings, the scrambling to plant something to make up for the shortfall all falls on the shoulders of the grower. We have worked just as hard and put in just as much on a crop that didn't produce but a bushel of produce as we did on the one that produced ten.

The CSA farm/member relationship is not a simple one. Being in a CSA means that you have to be willing to support your CSA farm, financially, spiritually and personally. Most people join a CSA because they want to know the person who grows their food and develop ties to that person, even if it is just to say "hi" when the share is picked up for the week. Having that supportive membership means a lot to the farmer.

Most CSA operators are extremely dedicated to their members and the expertise and skill of the farmer has something to do with the end results. Unrealistic expectations about the CSA farm usually leads to disappointment or an unsatisfactory experience with CSA membership. Going into the relationship with realistic ideas about what can and might happen and appreciation of the amount of work involved in growing and managing a CSA can make a big difference in your CSA experience.

CSA membership is an immensely rewarding experience for most people who join one. Beautiful fresh, healthy produce, sharing in bountiful harvests, feeling good about supporting a family farm and getting to know the person who grows the food you feed your family should be enough to make CSA membership worthwhile.

Helping to support a small sustainable farm is also a great way to put your "green" food forward by actually doing something pro-active to improve the environment. Most small farms pollute less, protect the land from environmental concerns and use methods that make the food that they grow much safer and healthier than anything you can buy at a supermarket. Reducing the carbon footprint related to your food supply is certainly a positive thing.

So, after reading all of that, if you think that being in a CSA might be the thing for you, go out and find one in your area. You can look on websites and or you can search the Web using keywords like CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, farm share, local produce along with your state or Zip Code (otherwise you will find CSA's from California....).