Growing Up connected with Farmers
Growing a community where farmers provide local produce enables couples to feed their household with the freshest food, and remain connected with the farm. Ideally you have your own homegrown vegetables and herbs too 🙂
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Here’s an overview adapted from Food Revolution to begin a discussion 🙂
Types of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)s
Member customers pick up their box at a given time and place, either directly from the farm or at community locations. And some CSAs deliver straight to the customer’s door for a no-contact option.
CSAs continue to evolve and experiment. And if you live near small-scale farms, you may have several different types to choose from.
The old-school CSA, which began in the US in the 1980s, is the simplest. Members fund the farm by paying their subscription fee in advance. And then they share equally in the harvest every week. CSA members drive to the farm at a set time to pick up their box. When the farm has a good year, the members become inundated in produce. The boxes vary depending on how the crops are doing. Bumper crop of zucchini? A whole lot of families start Googling zucchini bread recipes on Tuesday night.
When the growing season is poor, due to weather or pests or some other factor, the members receive a lean return. It’s this aspect — the risk-sharing — that truly defines the CSA. This means that one bad year will not bankrupt a local farmer, forcing them either to mortgage their future to a large industrial conglomerate or to sell outright and find another line of work. In essence, the community is protecting its small farms by guaranteeing farmers “living wage insurance.”
For many farms using this model, the CSA is their only sales and marketing channel. Whatever they grow, they provide to their members. Others may also sell through farmers markets or other channels.
Multi-farm CSAs take risk- and benefit-sharing to the next level by creating a cooperative or other business arrangement in which a group of farmers get together to market, plan, harvest for, pack, and distribute a CSA box. This is great for small farmers who prefer to concentrate on growing a smaller number of crops really well instead of worrying about growing 50 different types of fruits and vegetables to satisfy the entire market. Consumers benefit as well, by getting a more diverse box than they would receive from a single farm. There is likely less risk for the customer because the products come from so many different farms, so if a couple of the farms experience significant crop losses, the successful ones will make up for them.
In the market-style CSA, bulk bins display products at the distribution site. And each member comes to pack up their own box. That site might be on the farm, or at a different location. Each week’s share may be completely predetermined for each member, partially predetermined, or entirely up to the customer. The market-style CSA evolved to offer more choices to consumers. It also saves the farm some time and money because they don’t need to box up each package for the customers.
I once participated in a “market-style CSA” that operated on a you-pick basis. Customers would go to the farm and pick berries, melons, zucchini, tomatoes, chard, and lettuce out of the garden, filling the designated bags and bringing home the freshest food imaginable. Some market-style CSAs, have also gone online allowing you to “pick” your produce ahead of time instead of doing it in person.
A flexible-week CSA solves the problem of members going on vacation and coming home to a tower of rotting produce on their front step, or, more commonly, paying for boxes they aren’t going to consume. Members sign up for a certain number of weeks throughout the season. For example, if the CSA delivers shares for 25 weeks through the summer, each member signs up for 10, 15, or all 25 weeks. If they pay for fewer than 25 weeks, they then choose which 10 or 15 weeks.
The California-style CSA is popular in places with year-round growing seasons (hence the name). Instead of making a long-term commitment and having to pay for a few shares up front, this model works more like a produce “box-of-the-month” club, with a weekly charge. To sign up, the member simply purchases the first week’s share at, for example, $35. And then, they’re charged $35 every week until they cancel. Members can put their box on hold — solving the vacation problem — or cancel at any time.
Benefits of a CSA
The CSA model has proven beneficial enough to grow into a movement, staring in Japan, NSW & QLD. Other names for local cooperative buying exist in WA too 🙂
1. Cash Flow for Farmers
Being paid early in the season, helps with cash flow. They don’t need to take out risky loans to buy seed and amendments or to maintain, repair, and replace equipment and facilities. Since the money they receive isn’t only contingent on their results, they get the community to share the risks inherent in small-scale, local farming.
2. Getting to Know Customers & Community
Beyond the warm feelings of social connection and gratitude, this also allows farmers to understand their market better, and thereby match their crop choices and commercial policies to consumer preferences.
1. Farm-Direct Produce
You get produce directly from a local farm, which makes it super-fresh, and often tastier and healthier than anything you can find in the supermarket or online delivery service.
2. Getting Creative with Produce
While less control over what you get might be a downside for some, it’s also a potential upside, as you may discover new fruits and vegetables that you might not have otherwise tried.
3. Knowing Where Your Food Comes From
You also benefit from a close relationship with your local farms. You can meet the farmers and feel good knowing exactly where your food comes from — and where your money is going. Often, you can visit the farms and see for yourself if the workers receive fair treatment. And if the farm is following environmental practices that enhance, rather than degrade, the community where you live.
4. Relatively Inexpensive
And while the up-front investment might make you gulp a little (a typical summer share might cost a few hundred dollars), CSAs are often relatively inexpensive considering the amount, variety, and quality of produce you receive in a good year.
5. Don’t Have to Deal with Grocery Stores
It’s also a convenient way to get all your produce shopping done in one pickup. You don’t have to “gather” your produce from a large supermarket. Instead, just grab your box and bring it home. No need to worry about masks, long lines to get in or check out, or the potential dangers of indoor public spaces.
6. Better Access to Organic Produce
As an alternative to industrialized agriculture, CSAs and the organic food movement are intimately connected. While only around 27% of CSAs come from certified organic farms these days, most produce offered in CSAs is at least grown with some organic standards in place. Since many farms that offer CSAs are relatively small and membership dues help pay for seeds and plants, greenhouse expenses, equipment, labour, and other costs related to the workings of the farm, the only obstacle to becoming certified organic is often cost.
Cons of CSAs
Community-supported agriculture isn’t for everyone. While farmers can eliminate many of the risks of a poor growing season, they may miss out on the extra economic benefits of a bountiful year since the number of subscribers caps their income, rather than coming from the value of their harvest.