Community-supported agriculture flourishes
A look at how CSAs or community-supported-agriculture farms have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from the farmer. Plus, tips on what consumers need to know before signing up with a CSA.
Scripps Howard News Service
This year, as we have toured the country filming episodes for "Growing a Greener World," I have had the pleasure of meeting many interesting folks and visiting amazing farms and gardens. It was inevitable that we would travel to New Jersey, the Garden State.
Nestled in the Hopewell Valley area of central New Jersey, Honey Brook Organic Farm is one of the nation's largest CSAs (community-supported-agriculture farms) and the state's largest certified organic farm. Jim Kinsel and Sherry Dudas, husband-and-wife owners, run the farm. These two have combined their love of community and organic farming to grow more than 60 types of crops and 350 varieties, including many unusual and heirloom selections.
Over the last two decades, CSAs have become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from the farmer. It's often the perfect way to have access to fresh and certified organic produce, without having to grow it yourself. The farms operate by offering a certain number of shares of produce to the public each year. For a reasonable annual fee, consumers purchase a share or membership and, in return, receive a certain amount of seasonal produce each week throughout the growing season. Farmers benefit from this arrangement since they receive payment early in the season and can begin marketing efforts before long days in the field take over.
Consumers benefit by eating fresh, nutritious food all season and becoming acquainted with less familiar vegetables. Children and families have the chance to even meet the farmers and see firsthand how and where their food is grown, a rare opportunity in our high-tech, mass-produced world.
"One of the best things about our farm for both our clients and ourselves are the relationships we've developed with each other over the years,"says Dudas.
Before you jump into a CSA partnership, there are a few things you should think about. First is the concept of eating seasonally. The produce you receive will not be what you are used to seeing in the grocery store. Those fruits and vegetable have traveled thousands of miles from all over the world to be at your fingertips each week. Instead, what you'll get is what was harvested that very day, in most cases. That's a tradeoff I'll take every time.
From spring to fall, produce will flow in waves. Early in the season, you may have an abundance of Chinese cabbage or Swiss chard with few, if any, tomatoes. As the season progresses, you may find a surplus of ripe juicy tomatoes and other assorted summer staples, but less or no cool-season crops. Yet that's the beauty of eating what's fresh and in-season.
Depending on how you cook and what you like to cook, you may have to supplement items from the farmers market or grocery store. Check with your friends to see if they like certain vegetables your family doesn't.
It's all about managing expectations. A CSA is essentially a partnership between you and the farmer. You must be willing to accept some risk along with the reward. It's this shared-risk concept that makes CSAs a win-win for farmer and consumer.
On occasion, farmers have bad crops or even bad years. Hopefully, this will become a mutually rewarding relationship over the long term. Don't be shy. Ask questions: "How long have you been farming?" "How was last year?" "May I have some references?" Inquire if you can visit the farm and know the CSA's policies.
Do some research and talk to other members and understand the risks as well as the rewards. Local Harvest (localharvest.org) is an excellent online source of information for CSAs around the country. If eating fresh, in-season, locally grown and certified organic produce sounds good to you, then a CSA may be just what you're looking for.
Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visitwww.joegardener.com.
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