It was like packing a Christmas box and stuffing it full of all the goodies you know the person would love, only we were filling waxed boxes with beautiful, ripe veggies that had just been picked and washed to be delivered to the CSA participants.
“This week we have a good offering,” our packing instructor said, “so let’s fill them full.” She went down the line: a nice medium-sized kabocha squash (looks like a green pumpkin only tastes much creamier), 3 heads of broccoli (she held them up for us to gage the size), 2 onions, a bundle of kale, a stringer of turnips, a package of stir fry mix, 5 or 6 tomatoes, and a pony tail of green onion on top.
I have worked on assembly lines before (much younger and much more boring), so I got my box and got into line, trying to keep up with my daughter and the other farm hands at Mountain Bounty. After harvesting and washing all day, work commenced on packing a couple hundred of these weekly boxes. They pack twice a week and fill nearly 700 orders.
As I tried to quickly fill my box in such a way as to keep them from rolling around, I pictured the delight on the other end when the box was opened. I’d heard of horror stories where friends taking part in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) co-ops were given a whole box of beans or whatever the farmer had in season. Cabbage. Cauliflower. Nobody wants an excess of veggies rotting in the refrigerator.
But the boxes we packed were more like a potpourri of all kinds of new and different vegetables that would make fixing a meal more interesting. (And Lord knows, I could use some inspiration when it comes to cooking.) In the 25 years or so since introducing this idea of farmers offering “shares” to the public, the process has come along. Here are just a few of the ways that CSAs benefit both farmer and consumer:
Advantages for farmers:
Get to spend time marketing the food early in the year, before their 16 hour days in the field begin
Receive payment early in the season, which helps with the farm's cash flow
Have an opportunity to get to know the people who eat the food they grow
Advantages for consumers:
Eat ultra-fresh food, with all the flavor and vitamin benefits
Get exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking
Usually get to visit the farm at least once a season
Find that kids typically favor food from "their" farm - even veggies they've never been known to eat
Develop a relationship with the farmer and learn more about how food is grown
It's a simple enough idea, but its impact has been profound. Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and in some areas of the country there is more demand than there are CSA farms to fill it.
One of the risks with this venture, however, is if the farmer has a poor crop or some other unforeseeable problem with their operation, the “offering” can suffer. According to LocalHarvest.org in most CSAs, members pay up front for the whole season and the farmers do their best to provide an abundant box of produce each week. If things are slim, members are not typically reimbursed. The result is a feeling of "we're in this together". On some farms the idea of shared risk is stronger than others, and CSA members may be asked to sign a policy form indicating that they agree to accept without complaint whatever the farm can produce.
They say that many times, the idea of shared risk is part of what creates a sense of community among members, and between members and the farmers. If a hailstorm takes out all the peppers, everyone is disappointed together, and together cheer on the winter squash and broccoli. Most CSA farmers feel a great sense of responsibility to their members, and when certain crops are scarce, they make sure the CSA gets served first.
Still, it is worth noting that very occasionally things go wrong on a farm - like they do in any kind of business – and if you’re going to complain about your offering, you might want to try one of the less risky types of arrangement.
Some farmers are promoting a “market-style" CSA. Here, rather than make up a standard box of vegetables for every member each week, the members get to come and load their own boxes with some degree of personal choice. The farmer lays out baskets of the week's vegetables. Some CSA farmers then donate their extra produce to a food bank.
And if you’re very risk averse, you can simply go to the farmer’s market to support your local growers. The prices, however, will likely be quite a bit higher than when you co-op. But isn’t that true of anything we invest in? Anything we have faith in? It’s only going to be as rewarding as the risk we are willing to take?
The farmer can’t guarantee a seed will grow any more than you or I can make a prayer come true. But this is the beauty of sowing and praying – your work becomes part of the miracle - "a good offering".
As a wise person said:
“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.”
If you are interested in finding a farm near you, LocalHarvest.org has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with over 4,000 listed in thier grassroots database.