Spare a Share?
Is community-supported agriculture a victim of its own success?
It's not often there's good "bad" news in the world of local farming, but that seems to be the case for farms practicing community-supported agriculture. CSAs, as they are more commonly known, have become so popular among Vermont consumers that in Chittenden County, at least, demand for locally grown food now exceeds supply.
Despite an increase in the number of agricultural operations selling farm "shares" directly to the public - from eight to 11 in Chittenden County - virtually every one reported selling out earlier than usual this year.
What are CSAs? The concept is simple yet ingenious. Early in the year, when fields are still frozen and greenhouses shuttered, local farmers sell CSA shares to consumers for the upcoming growing season. Each CSA share - which typically runs from about $300 for an individual to $600 for a family - entitles the consumer to a weekly supply of locally grown food and other goods for anywhere from 18 to 25 weeks.
The weekly mix of fresh fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers varies considerably throughout the season, depending on what's being harvested that week and in what quantities. Once or twice a week, consumers visit their member farm to pick up their weekly bounty, or "farm share." These pick-up days also provide consumers and farmers with an opportunity to discuss other food-related issues, such as new recipes, gardening tips and cooking suggestions for the produce of the week.
Plenty of consumers are willing to swap the "convenience" of an all-night supermarket for the chance to get locally grown, freshly picked and mostly organic produce at a better price. According to one calculation by the not-for-profit Intervale Community Farm in Burlington - at 500 shares, the largest CSA farm in Vermont - consumers pay 20 to 40 percent less than they would for similar organic produce at a retail market.
Moreover, consumers get to know the people who grow their food - and sometimes participate in its production - even as they help farmers earn a decent living and pay their workers a livable wage. They're also helping to slow global warming by eating foods that travel around the block, rather than around the world.
Local farmers reap benefits, too, including a hefty infusion of cash early in the growing season when they have nothing yet to sell. In the same way a "season pass" insulates ski areas from economic vicissitudes, CSAs serve as a form of insurance against blights or crop damage. During stretches of bad weather, such as last spring's floods, CSAs keep farmers afloat until growing conditions improve and they can make up their losses. Finally, farmers get a chance to establish long-term relationships with their customers.
Sound appealing? With luck, you might get your share - in summer 2008. Reportedly, all three CSAs in the Intervale have been sold out for at least a month, with many farms already taking names for next year's waiting list. You could look elsewhere, but traveling too far to support a CSA negates some of the benefits of buying local.
"We filled up real quick," says Josh May, co-owner of Open Heart Farm in the Intervale, which sold out its 55 shares by mid-April. "I think everyone in Burlington did."
Why the dearth of ag enterprises? First, longtime Burlington farmers David Zuckerman and Rachel Nevitt decided to take a one-year sabbatical from CSA farming this year because of a number of personal challenges, including a new baby, an illness in the family and the considerable time constraints of Zuckerman's political duties - he chairs the House Agriculture Committee. In past years, their Full Moon Farm in the Intervale, which is the largest private CSA in the state, sold as many as 180 shares,
"We're not planning on being gone forever," emphasizes Zuckerman, an ardent supporter of CSAs. "But I guess we created a little problem this year."
Likewise, another longtime CSA farm in the Intervale - Arethusa Collective Farm - stopped offering CSA shares last year. According to co-owner Thomas Case, he and business partner Ben Dana still support the concept of CSAs, but, for logistical reasons, they decided to focus on their wholesale contracts and farmers' market sales instead.
On the demand side, Vermont's localvore movement has dramatically raised public awareness of the shortcomings of the U.S. system of food production and distribution. Last year, hundreds of Vermonters signed up for so-called "localvore challenges" and committed to eating only foods that were grown or produced in Vermont or within 100 miles of their homes.
"I think the localvore thing last year really tuned people in," says May. Even before Full Moon Farm announced it wasn't offering CSAs, May's farm encountered enormous consumer demand that let it commit to doubling its CSA offerings, he says. This year, he adds, CSAs will compose at least two-thirds of his farm's total income.
Christine Bourque, co-owner of Blue Heron Farm in Grand Isle, has seen a similar spike in interest among her consumers. Bourque and husband, Adam Farris, have also doubled their CSA offerings - from 17 in 2006 to 35 this year - nearly all of which were sold to people who live in the Champlain Islands.
"I think people are starting to realize the importance of where their food comes from, knowing how their food is grown and being connected to it," Bourque says. "As people learn about agribusiness and hear about all these food scares and how many truck-miles their lettuce has to travel from California, they're like, 'Wait a minute. There's got to be a better way.'"
The experiences of Open Heart Farm and Blue Heron Farm reflect a larger statewide trend. According to figures from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, the number of CSA farms increased from 47 in 2006 to 56 this year. Moreover, many farms, such as the Intervale Community Farm and Pete's Greens in Craftsbury, are now offering "winter shares" as well. As the name suggests, these CSAs include root vegetables and other wintertime produce, along with "add-ons" such as locally raised milk, eggs, cheeses, meats, breads, grains, syrup and other Vermont products. In fact, some farms are already gearing up to provide CSA shares for this summer's localvore challenges in August and September.
One factor contributing to the recent popularity of CSAs is nothing to celebrate, though - namely, the rise in the number of Vermonters who would go hungry without them. According to NOFA-VT, more than 1000 Vermonters will receive subsidized CSA shares this year, up from 811 in 2006. At the Intervale Community Farm, for example, about 12 percent of the shareholders are low-income Vermonters in the Burlington area. Other subsidized recipients include the elderly and disabled, many of whom wouldn't otherwise have access to any fresh produce.
If this year's CSA shortage has left some consumers longing for local legumes, the long-term implications for local agriculture are still promising. "I really think there's room in Burlington for another 400-share CSA farm to open up in the next year, and they could sell out relatively quickly," suggests Andy Jones, who manages the Intervale Community Farm. "The demand is definitely there for people who want to get into it." He adds, "But finding a site will be tricky."