Every day, more and more of us look for a connection to our foodshed. At the farmers’ market, we meet our thoughtful, local organic farmers and learn about what they are growing. Or we take it several steps further and become participants in community-supported agriculture (CSA).
That term was coined in the mid 1980s by a couple of farmers in Massachusetts who were following biodynamic* practices. As the CSA concept spread, it found fertile ground in Northern California, where back-to-the-land eco-farmers, such as those at Full Belly Farm, had no trouble enlisting a small but ardent group of Bay Area consumers in the idea of “supporting” local farmers in this direct manner.
In a CSA relationship, farmers and consumers bypass commercial supply lines and deal directly with each other. The consumer is buying a “share” of a farm’s output in the form of a weekly (or biweekly) box filled with freshly harvested produce (and perhaps other farm products). The membership fee, often paid in advance, helps stabilize the farm’s income, and the farmer can take comfort in having a committed set of customers.
For their part, members get to make a conscious choice about the kind of farming they want to support. They pick up their shares at a central location or pay to have them delivered to their home or office. For urban and suburban dwellers, having a connection to a piece of rural land can feel significant, and happily, many farms invite CSA members to visit. In rare cases, members can even earn shares through assisting with farm work.
The Rhythm of Your Meals
When you buy a CSA subscription, suddenly your meals are determined by the seasonal foods that show up in your box. You get more creative as you find ways to use the produce, and your fellow CSA members are getting creative with their boxes as well. Together, you are a community that eats in rhythm with your farm.
“The CSA box actually helps you to cook quick, simple family meals. CSA members learn a set of basic seasonal recipes that can be adjusted for many different vegetables. It expands the range of vegetables that members are comfortable with,” says Judith Redmond, a co-founder of Full Belly Farm, one of the first farms in California to offer CSA.
Many CSA farms tuck newsletters with recipes into the boxes, or they post recipes on their websites: Think roasted romanesco cauliflower with curry sauce, or pasta with fresh tomato–gorgonzola sauce. Full Belly has a nifty online search feature where you type in a produce item and up pops a set of recipes worthy of Chez Panisse or Oliveto. Eatwell Farm’s newsletter offers recipes for using all items in the box and even includes a shopping list of other items you’ll need for the recipes.
Your CSA farm may also be supplying your favorite restaurants. For instance, that produce in your box from Terra Firma Farm in Winters is also going to Duende and Pizzaiolo! And when you think about it, CSA farmers enjoy daily meals prepared from the same harvests they share with their members, so you’re eating the same fresh and nutritious food your farmer put on her table.
Of course, some CSA members wind up feeling dismayed when they get items they don’t like or more than they can use. Sharing a share with a neighbor is one solution, and there’s often an option to leave unneeded items at your pick-up site for others who might crave them, or get extras that others leave.
Find Your Soul Farm
* What is BIODYNAMIC FARMING?
Each CSA farm has a unique personality and style. They vary in size, structure, growing philosophy, products, method of delivery, and many other factors. What kind of farm resonates with your practical requirements around food and your values? Here are some questions to help you in your decision:
Are you invested in how the food is grown?
Does organic certification matter? Some farms forego the paperwork and inspections and ask you to trust them. Your call. On the other hand, there are farms that go beyond organic and follow agroecological practices. For example, staff at Frog Hollow Farm, a certified organic fruit farm in Brentwood, make their own on-farm compost and use compost teas for pest management. With over 13 acres of habitat plantings, they participate in a native bee project and provide nesting sites for owls, bees, and bats. CSA members are invited to the farm in March for the farm’s annual Blossom Walk when the stone fruit trees are in bloom.
The founders of Live Power Community Farm trained with agroecological visionary Alan Chadwick. Their 40-acre Demeter Certified biodynamic farm in Mendocino County produces fruits and vegetables, beef, lamb, rice, and flowers, and has a CSA program that is one of the oldest in the country. You’ll see no tractors on site—the farm is horse- and solar-powered!
Should your farm have a progressive social agenda?
Some CSA programs are on a mission. By joining them, you support their good works. Examples include:
Dig Deep Farms, a social enterprise of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League, grows local jobs as it grows row crops in unincorporated areas around East Oakland and San Leandro.
The Alameda Point Collaborative Farm2Market CSA program uses proceeds to grow its job-training program for people struggling with homelessness.
Oakland’s Phat Beets Produce sources fruit and vegetables from six ethnically diverse farms for their Beet Box. They also have a Youth Pickle CSA program that employs local youth.
Much of the produce at Urban Tilth’s Farm to Table CSA in Richmond is grown at school and community “teaching” gardens. This nonprofit’s mission is to bring food security to local residents.
The CSA program at Buttercup Farms Garden is designed to serve members living within 10 miles of the site in Clayton. The farm’s mission is to help people help themselves. Says farm manager Jorie Hanson, “We have a mentally challenged guy who’s been here a number of years, and he’s a key part of the farm. But we also work with the elderly, families going through divorce, recovering addicts, and foster kids, a couple of whom have been adopted by staff. We find they’re all able to help each other.”
You can support organic agriculture and underserved families at the same time through some CSA farms’ donation programs allowing vacationing CSA subscribers to route their share to a charitable organization. At Farm Fresh to You, the Donate-a-Box program is something you can set up as an ongoing bequest.
Does farm size matter?
How local is local enough, and what about convenience?
Your options run the gamut. Some established farms have CSA programs that are well-oiled machines with all the logistical kinks of getting food to members worked out. Others, such as Happy Acre Farm in Sunol, are run by young farmers who a year ago broke ground on a couple of acres: You share in their dream by supporting them.
At Shooting Star CSA in Fairfield, most members live within 40 miles. Farmer Lily Schneider, who hails from Berkeley, runs the 15-acre farm with husband Matthew Mccue. She says, “We love doing the produce. That’s our focus. We do what we’re good at.”
If you live near El Sobrante, you can stop by Cloverfield Organic Farm to pick up your share and chew the fat with farmer Susan Abernathy, who grows open-pollinated heirloom fruits and vegetables, as well as quinoa, amaranth, apple mint, chocolate mint, popcorn, wheat seeds, and fresh rau ram (Vietnamese mint) and methi (fenugreek). She says her tiny urban farm can “ambitiously” feed up to ten families.
Contrast that with Farm Fresh to You, the largest CSA program in America, which feeds 13,000 households. A call center answers the phone. With several different box types and sizes, they will fully customize your box, taking out what you don’t like, adding more of what you do—and delivering it to your door on schedule.
Most people get into CSA for the veggies, and most farms still focus on vegetable row crops, plus popular fruits like strawberries, melons, and citrus. Eggs are an option at many farms, like Eatwell or Rancho Piccolo, a small family farm on 60 acres in the Central Valley. CSA options might also include honey, flowers, or medicinal herbs produced on the farm.
Diversifying is a good strategy for farmers, and so is the process of creating “value-added” products, since that can mean year-round work for staff. For example, Eatwell Farm’s à la carte add-ons include body care products and probiotic soft drinks made on the farm.
If you have signed up with Frog Hollow Farm’s Happy Child CSA, your box of fresh fruit can be augmented with dried and preserved fruits, olive oil, scrumptious fruit-laden pastries, and other delights.
CSA Finds a Home on the Range
Marin Sun Farm and Prather Ranch Meat Co. both run CSA programs. Prather Ranch founder Doug Stonebreaker says the CSA model helps his company find and engage conscientious customers who support farming and ranching practices that care for the land and for animals. “We are never going to be able to compete with big conventional meat producers. Nor do we want to,” he says. “To survive, we have to be creative about how we sell our products, creating our own reality and building our tribe one caring customer at a time. The CSA program helps us do that.”
Consumers sometimes organize to create meatsharing (and milksharing) programs on their own, and such is the case with the Bay Area Meat CSA (BAMCSA). For many years the club was managed by the East Bay chapter of Slow Food, but it’s now tended by Berkeley resident Sylvia Wu. Members decide what they want to buy, then contact ranchers to work out the details of slaughter, butchery, and delivery. bamcsa.ning.com
Food Hubs: the Everything CSA
Many small farms are learning about the advantages of being part of a food hub like the Capay Valley Farm Shop, a network of 40 small family farms based in the Capay Valley. The mission of the shop is to build brand awareness and foster relationships between customers, partners, and farmers. Their FarmShares Multi-Farm CSA assembles a wide array of products from member farms. Omnivores love it that they can augment their veggie boxes with items like duck and chicken eggs, pork, beef, lamb, and goat meat cuts, and whole chickens and quail. A similar organization is Eating with the Seasons. Since 2002, owner Becky Herbert has sought to provide a unified brand for high-quality, organic food producers in San Benito County. They have many delivery sites in the East Bay.
CSF: Community-Supported Fisheries
Anna Larsen, founder of Siren Fish Co., says that the CSA model is a perfect fit for seafood, since members reserve their shares in advance, giving her company the ultimate ability to plan their purchasing from local, sustainable fishers. She buys exactly what is needed and delivers it to members as quickly as possible. “We once delivered fluke halibut that had landed five hours before it was delivered,” says Larsen. “That’s unheard of in the fish business.”
Alan Lovewell, CEO of Real Good Fish, was moved to found his CSF after witnessing damaging and illegal fishing practices by huge international trawlers and noticing the impact on small-scale fishermen in coastal communities. “Local wild seafood is a conduit for healthy communities,” he says. “It’s at the confluence of ecological and individual health, ultimately blending our sense of ‘place’ and ‘plate.’ Community-supported fisheries are uniquely positioned to reinforce these values.” Operating out of Moss Landing, this CSF informs subscribers about the species in each weekly share, who caught the fish, and when and where it was landed.
Other local CSF companies include H&H Fresh Fish and Sea Forager Seafood.
Hanging Out at the Farms
Volunteering was frequently a requirement of CSA membership in the 1980s and ‘90s. Today, it is not. However, if you want to volunteer, some farms will welcome you. At Buttercup Farms Garden, you can work for a few hours and then, perhaps, go for a hike on nearby Mt. Diablo.
Tara Firma Farms in Petaluma calls itself a “destination farm” where members are invited to hike, fish, or just relax. They welcome meet-up groups, as well.
Frog Hollow’s Happy Child CSA members are invited to three farm events a year including the Blossom Walk. The CSA also hosts two U-pick focused farm days in June and October for members.
Live Power Community Farm in Covelo has long run a program to host school groups for a few days on the farm. Farmers Stephen and Gloria Decater offer the opportunity as a way to encourage children to “encounter and begin to form a relationship with the earth’s life, as expressed by the many different plants and animals that constitute the farm.” They also say that the hands-on experience can adds a sense of the meaning of practical, productive work. (This June, Green Tortoise Adventure Travel is including Live Power Community Farm on one of its itineraries.)
Many farms host merry events. Eatwell Farm in Dixon has a Summer Solstice Party with garlic picking and braiding, and an annual tomato sauce canning party in August. They encourage members to camp out on the farm and wake up to a big farmhouse breakfast. You might even want to spend a romantic night in the Nest, their luxurious agriturismo-style tent lodging.
Likewise, you are invited to camp out at the mother of all harvest festivals, the Ecological Farming Association’s Hoes Down Harvest Festival, held at Full Belly Farm each fall. Over the course of a weekend there is live music and dancing, excellent food, workshops, and more. Bring your dancing boots! Anyone can go, but members will feel especially connected.
And read more: Down on the Farm up in the Hills