Community Supported Agriculture brings the farm to your front door
Share with others:
What, in food's name, is CSA?Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Working in the cooler of his barn, farmer Don Kretschmann earlier this month packs boxes of winter produce -- onions, garlic, apples and potatoes -- for delivery to customers in Pittsburgh.
Click photo for larger image.
CSA farms spring two recipes
Dinner, conference focus on local food
Artists make statement on energy costs of food
Michael Pollan teaches us to think before we eat
It can be a cardboard box overflowing with green onions, pea tendrils, lettuce, spinach, radishes, strawberries and rhubarb.
You can pick it up -- if it's not too heavy for you -- at the farm where it was raised. Or the farm can deliver it to you on a regular, usually weekly, schedule. You and other "subscribers" in the community prepay to be members and receive your "shares," thus sustaining the farm while it sustains you.
That's CSA: Community Supported Agriculture.
It's a growing phenomenon, nationwide and in this region, where there are moves afoot to start CSA programs at several large businesses and universities.
It's also one that prospective consumers should ponder now, and not just because it's fun to fantasize about succulent spring greens. Farmers who offer CSA subscriptions, as they're called, need to plan their planting and distribution.
"It's time," says Don Kretschmann, whose Kretschmann Farm in Beaver County was one of the first hereabouts to offer CSA, in 1993.
Today he has "hundreds" of subscribers and says business has boomed, despite no advertising. "The huge change in the last three to five years is that people are suspicious of the normal sources of food, and they want to have as much knowledge and control over that as they possibly can. That's really taken off."
In the unlikely event that his spinach were to make a person sick, he can e-mail all his customers in minutes. "This is as short as the supply chain gets," he says, "other than growing it yourself."
While awareness is spreading, the term CSA still makes many people say "What?"
It's only been in this country since the 1980s, having arrived by way of Europe, perhaps from Japan. According to LocalHarvest, a Santa Cruz, Calif., group that maintains a definitive Web directory of small farms, the number of North American CSA farms has grown to about 2,000 to 2,500.
"They're popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain," says LocalHarvest's founder and president, Guillermo Payet, who notes that "growth has really picked up since 2000" with about 120 starting each year.
Like heirloom tomatoes, CSA programs come in various shapes and sizes. Many, but not all, are organic, even certified organic. Most offer customers extras such as options to buy produce in bulk for preserving, or even local eggs and meat.
One in this region, Wil-Den Family Farms in Mercer County, delivers nothing but bulk, pastured pork products to several locations. Not-for-profit Misty Morning Farm in Indiana County started two years ago doing a CSA program of just meat and poultry, and this season is adding produce.
Kretschmann Farm is a more typical veggie example. It's mostly organic but offers nonorganically grown corn. As with most CSA plans, subscribers pay in advance for a certain amount of produce over the growing season. Mr. Kretschmann's season runs 25 weeks, from late May to mid-November. His subscribers can choose from three share sizes: Small (for $500, or $20 a week) is sufficient for two adults and one to two small children. Medium ($600, or $24 a week) fits a couple with two older children. Large ($700 or $28 a week) is for families with several hungry teenagers -- or for vegetarian families. Singles can sign up for a small share delivered every second week.John Beale, Post-Gazette
Strawberries from Harvest Valley Farms.
Click photo for larger image.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Arugula from Blackberry Meadows Farm.
Click photo for larger image.
Otherwise, every week, farm workers pack up boxes of what's in season and just-picked, then deliver them -- Tuesday through Friday -- to about 30 drop-off sites, where subscribers pick them up.
"It's actually more convenient than going to the store," Mr. Kretschmann says, citing one of CSA's pluses for consumers, along with freshness and value.
A twist he offers is winter shares -- monthly deliveries of produce that the farm keeps in cold storage. Last month's delivery included a quart of frozen pumpkin pie mix, a pound of sauerkraut, two pounds of apples, a garlic bulb, two yellow onions, 10 pounds of potatoes, two pounds of beets, two pounds of carrots and a green cabbage. The cost: $32.
One of the negatives people cite when they quit CSA is, interestingly, that they get too much stuff.
Barb Kline, of Mildred's Daughters Urban Farm in Stanton Heights, says, "CSA isn't for everybody. It's a big commitment for people to come every week for 20 weeks" to pick up at the farm, which is how their CSA program works.
Another local CSA farm -- Cherry Valley Organics in Washington County -- allows customers to order exactly what they want, a la carte, and pay an itemized bill at month's end.
Whatever the model, city folks need to realize that buying local this way isn't just some quaint version of shopping at a supermarket, says Jack Duff of Blackberry Meadows Farm. "Tomatoes aren't going to come in until late July."
And you'd have to wait even longer -- like forever -- for him to grow grapefruit in Fawn.
In theory, CSA subscribers not only share in the rewards, but also in the risks, of farming. If it's a bad year for a certain vegetable, you won't get many. Or any.
But Mr. Duff says he's only had one or two failures, which he makes up with other items. "The way it seems to work is, if tomatoes are bad, something else is good."
CSA continues to get more and more popular, according to the 15 area outfits that offer it. Butler County's Dillner family farm jumped from 50 to 80 members last year, just on word of mouth.
"To me, it almost feels like the kind of buzz word that 'organic' was five or eight years ago," says Neil Stauffer, manager for Penn's Corner Alliance. The cooperative of about seven or eight farms used to sell mostly to area restaurants, but decided this year to "ramp it up a bit" and focus on CSA.John Beale, Post-Gazette
Art King of Harvest Valley Farms in Butler County.
Click photo for larger image.
Another alternative for buying local food is to order specifics ahead of time and have it delivered via the "Laptop Butcher Shop." Slow Food Pittsburgh facilitates this via e-mail. Four times a year, folks on the mailing list can place orders, which Susan Barclay forwards to the farmers. Then the farmers deliver it.
There's still time to get in on the first delivery, which will be made March 10 to the parish hall at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church at 5801 Hampton St. in Highland Park. Subsequent orders will be delivered to the Farmers@Firehouse market in the Strip District, which isn't yet open for the season.
Meat suppliers include Wil-Den Family Farms (pastured pork), Rose Ridge Farm (organic, grass-fed beef), Misera's Organic Farm (pastured chickens and eggs) and Pucker Brush Farm (pastured lamb). You can also pick up other locally supplied goodies, including greens, mushrooms, prepared Lebanese foods, wild-caught salmon, even yarns.
This time around, orders must be placed by 6 p.m. this Saturday to be picked up at the church (bring a cooler) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 10. You pay when you pick up.
To get on the mailing list, e-mail Ms. Barclay at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-247-4853.
-- Bob Batz Jr.
CSA is great for farmers such as Art King of Harvest Valley Farms in Butler County. Let him count the ways: Unlike when he travels to farmers markets, he knows how much produce he needs and has no unsold leftovers. He gets paid faster and earlier in the season.
But mostly, he says, "I get a personal satisfaction from dealing with the people directly, and they know me personally."
It's easy to find customers who love CSA. They are people such as Mark Stroup and Liz Perry and their three kids in Friendship. Ms. Perry loves it so much they agree to have 18 to 20 crates of produce on their porch, where other subscribers pick them up and leave their empties. The couple have subscribed for about seven years.
Ms. Perry says she probably spends as much money on vegetables as at the supermarket but gets more for her money, and "I think we eat a lot better because we have to keep up with it." She cites other benefits, including feeling, thanks to the quirky Kretschmann newsletter, more connected to the land. "It's wonderfully inspiring," she says.
The phenomenon continues to spread. Harvest Valley Farms expanded from three (including the farm) to seven drop-off sites this year. Other farms are expanding or starting CSA programs this year.
"This is really catching on like wildfire," says Mr. King, who is one of the farmers involved in a pilot project just now beginning to start institutional CSA arrangements.
Driving that is Parkhurst Dining Services, the contract dining services arm of a division of Eat'n Park Hospitality Group. That company, through a four-year-old program called FarmSource, strives to use 20 percent local product.
Now Parkhurst is preparing a pitch to several clients -- from Bayer to Carnegie Mellon University to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield -- to hook them up with farmers who will make weekly deliveries to their offices. He also plans to arrange for weekly boxes to go to chefs at each operation.
"It's just an added service of our company," says Jamie Moore, whose title of director of food and beverage is morphing toward "director of sustainability" as he leads the green-conscious company in exploring other issues, from cage-free eggs to hormone-free milk.
David Eson, director of Western Pennsylvania programs for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, says his group also will encourage businesses to hook up with CSAs. A recent study found that convenience is the biggest barrier to buying local, and he believes CSA is the best model for making healthy food readily available.
A few CSA programs invite customers to work on the farms as a way to enhance the connection between the two. Sarver Hill Farm near Greensburg gives CSA subscribers a discount for spending a few hours on pick-up days picking and packing. Paul Sarver describes the moms and dads and kids who come as a community, which is just what he wants to encourage, and just what they seem to crave. People want more than just produce.
"It's not just being able to acquire it," Mr. Sarver says, "but understanding what it takes for it to be available."
In the bigger picture, proponents say, CSA can help preserve small farms, preserve the land and preserve our collective future.
That's why that box of produce feels so heavy: There so much good stuff in it.
First Published March 1, 2007 12:00 am