Pittsburgher creates nationwide CSA Day promotion

From an office on the North Side, Simon Huntley runs Small Farm Central, a company that helps small farms with technology and software issues such as websites, customer retention and marketing.

A few years ago, Mr. Huntley discovered that among the farms he works with, the most common day for their customers to sign up for Community-Supported Agriculture subscriptions was the final Friday in February.

As this seemingly random fact “bubbled around” in his mind, he decided he could capitalize on it by declaring the final Friday of each February “CSA Day” as a tool to help raise awareness of CSAs and encourage consumers to sign up for them.

He came up with the idea in 2015 about 10 days before “CSA Day,” leaving little planning time. That year, he created an online directory of about 200 to 300 CSA farms in North America. Last year the directory expanded to between 700 and 800 farms; this year he expects to have about 1,500 farms in his directory by CSA Day, which is this Friday.

Here’s how a CSA works: A customer buys a “share” of a farmer’s crop ahead of the growing season. The customer’s advance payment provides the seed money to help the farmer get his crop in the ground. Throughout the harvest season, customers get regular deliveries (usually weekly or every other week) of fruits and vegetables. Some CSAs allow customers to choose which fruits or vegetables they receive; many CSAs simply deliver a mystery box. Many CSAs offer recipes to help customers learn how to use the less common fruits and vegetables. Some CSAs also offer local meat, eggs, cheeses and honey.

Mr. Huntley grew up on a 70-acre farm in Greene County. His parents never worked full time on the farm; his dad was a coal miner and his mom an academic at West Virginia University. They raised sheep and made hay, but as a child Mr. Huntley was always more interested in computer programming and technology than in farming.

So he studied information science and technology at Penn State, but there, he discovered he was interested in farming after all. He minored in agribusiness and spent two years working on a farm in Colorado, helping to set up a CSA program.

Ten years ago he started Small Farm Central (www.smallfarmcentral.com); he now heads a staff of five and works with about 1,000 farms across North America.

His directory of CSA farms is not limited to his customers; any farmer can add a CSA to the directory free of charge. So far, about 15 Pittsburgh-area farms are included.

As awareness of CSA Day (csaday.info) grows, Mr. Huntley is beginning to hear about groups in various cities that have scheduled celebrations such as happy hours or sign-up fairs. One organization in New York’s Hudson Valley won a grant to publicize CSA Day through radio and billboards.

“It’s a simple idea, so anyone can take it and run with it” to schedule a local event, he said.

He sees CSAs as a vital trend in agriculture for both farmer and consumer.

“From the farmer’s perspective, it’s a path to profitability,” he said, noting it’s hard to do farming justice without doing it full time, yet farmers struggle to create a viable business without an established customer base like a CSA provides.

And for the consumer? “In a world of intractable problems — economic and political instability, homelessness, world hunger — it’s hard to figure out what we can do” to help our neighbors, he said. “This is a concrete act you can do to support farmers, support your local economy and get healthy food on your table.”

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


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