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Why Subscribe to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program?

Subscribing to your local Community-Supported Agriculture program is a great way of enjoying locally grown seasonable fruits and vegetables while supporting small farms.

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Films like Food, Inc., books like Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and TV shows like "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" have influenced Americans about the desirability of eating seasonal, locally grown food. Some folks are growing their own food, while others are frequenting farmer's markets. Still others, like my husband and me, are subscribing to Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines CSAs as follows:
CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community's farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, members or "share-holders" of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer's salary. In return, they receive shares in the farm's bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production. Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.

LocalHarvest, a site with a search engine that enables prospective subscribers to locate CSAs in their area, notes that, while the government does not track the number of CSAs, LocalHarvest has more than 2,500 CSA farms listed in its grassroots database.

Last year, we subscribed to the Stevens County (WA) CSA for half a season, and this year, we're signed up for the full June through October subscription. We loved the experience and wanted to talk to both CSA organizers and subscribers to learn what they felt were the benefits of subscribing (I also asked about the downsides and cautionary notes, which I've covered in the companion article, 14 Points to Keep in Mind if You're Considering Subscribing to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program ). Here's what they said about the advantages:

CSA subscribers contribute to supporting and preserving small and family farms. The CSA organizers I talked to made it fairly clear that no one is getting rich from CSAs, but the programs provide a means for small farmers to attain working capital upfront and a way for subscribers to stimulate the local economy. A CSA program, observes Kate Zurschmeide of Great Country Farms in Bluemont, VA, "is a wonderful way to ensure cashflow and is part of a larger picture of farmer's markets and buying local trends that will keep the family farm sustained."

Randall Hansen, PhD, with our first CSA box But, notes Stevens County CSA Program Coordinator Jamie Henneman, "none of our farms could be supported solely by a CSA program. Everyone has to pursue other markets as well. For young farmers with the high overhead of land, feed, equipment and other costs, this creates an almost impossible financial situation."

Adds Tracie Smith of Tracie's Community Farm in Fitzwilliam, NH: "I still find that I'm working a lot of hours for not much money and not being able to pay my employees enough due to the true cost of growing food. As a CSA trying to stay in business, we don't charge enough to stay competitive with the large scale, mechanized commercial farms. If we want [small farms] to sustain into the future, we need to pay enough to keep the farm going financially."

CSAs alone probably won't save small and family farms, but "they are one giant step small farms can take to get good prices for their produce," says Sandra Marquardt, who coordinates the CSA drop to her community through Calvert Farm in Cecil County, MD.

CSA subscribers become more connected to their communities. Belonging to a CSA is a great way to meet others interested in buying and eating local, seasonal produce -- as well as a way to get to know the farmers who actually grow the food. As Smith notes, the connection advantage is especially relevant in rural areas "where everyone is so spread out." She points to the greater sense of community that CSA subscribers often experience.

CSA subscribers consume food in season. The huge variety of produce available in supermarkets year-round has made consumers forget that fruits and vegetables have seasons. Consumers who prefer to eat fresh, just-picked local produce in season rather than food from, say, South America that is out of season in North America and has to be transported, will benefit from a CSA subscription. "I find myself floored when I'm at the market and see produce that's not in season," comments Amy Potthast, who subscribes to Pumpkin Ridge Gardens North Plains, OR, "then I remember how things get trucked in from all ends of the earth."

"Eating with the harvest is hard for an American from the suburbs," notes Liz Sumner, a six-year subscriber to Smith's CSA. "It's hard to imagine how our ancestors ate only what was in season."

CSA subscribers reduce their carbon footprint and often support humane treatment of animals. By consuming local produce, subscribers aren't supporting a food system that requires huge quantities of fuel to transport fruits and vegetables to market, resulting in carbon emissions.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and several other books about the Western diet, notes that "we spend less on our food than any people who have ever lived, than any people anywhere on earth -- 9.5 percent of our income." The American industrial farming system keeps food cheap, but Henneman would like to "introduce the public to the idea that they are not entitled to cheap food as we have come to believe. Although it may be nice to load up on inexpensive items at Walmart, there is a high cost in terms of animal treatment and environmental impact when we buy cheap food from factory farms." Not all CSAs offer animal products, but those that do tend to treat animals humanely.

CSA Pick-Up CSA subscribers usually gain exposure to unfamiliar foods and can try new recipes. "What I loved most about it was the surprise factor," says Tonya Kubo, who subscribes to TD Willey Farms in Madera, CA. "I never knew what I was going to get each week, and it really inspired me to be more creative in my cooking. Because of my subscription, I cooked with beets, fennel, winter squash, rutabaga, fresh cranberries, and even chard for the first time. Sometimes, I would use the recipes included with my produce box (like a yummy radish coleslaw -- and I don't even like radishes!). Other times, I would have my own little recipe adventure online as I tried to find recipes that used one or more items from that week's shipment."

Sumner echoes the excitement of the surprise factor. "It feels like Christmas every time I get my basket delivered," she says. "I love the bounty, and I love putting things up. The first year, I canned. Two years ago we got a large freezer. This year I'm going to try my new dehydrator," Sumner says.

"There's no way we'd have bought celery root at the market, but we love it," says Potthast. "Tomatillos I'd never eaten before, but now they are among my favorites. Same with beets and other root vegetables that we may not love as much but that are healthy. The constant seasonal variety is really great."

CSA subscribers generally consume more fruits and vegetables than they did before subscribing. "Most members say they eat a lot more vegetables after joining," Smith observes, adding,"usually CSA farmers grow using organic and/or sustainable methods, so you know you're getting healthy food for you, your family and the environment."

Increased consumption is important because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests that Americans consume at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables daily, but a 2007 study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that Americans are not meeting these minimum levels.

Two subscribers I talked to for this article became especially interested in increasing their produce consumption when they became pregnant. "My being pregnant ... made us much more conscious about food," Potthast says. Similarly, Kubo says, "we're going from being childless to expecting our first ... That makes eating organic, sustainably produced fruits and veggies a higher priority in our home."

Subscribers save time and fuel costs by belonging to a CSA. If you are committed to eating local, seasonal foods anyway -- for example, by patronizing farmer's markets -- you don't have to drive from farmer's market to produce stand once you subscribe to a CSA. "We are a unique one-stop pickup for local food since our eggs, fruit, veggies, and bread are all grown within the county limits," Henneman says. "Replicating our weekly boxes would take a lot of driving and effort by going to each individual farm."

CSA subscribers may have opportunities to visit the farms that grow their food. Zurschmeide cites "local, fresh produce and a wonderful family farm experience -- we have our customers come out to farm as often as they like for agritainment and family fun during our season, and this is a big draw for many of our customers." Kubo noted that she's had opportunities to visit the CSA farm several times a year and is invited to members-only events. "We ... know where our food comes from, and have visited the farm many times," Potthast says. "It feels like 'our' farm -- we know our farmers; it's just amazing to me! When you hear about potato blight hitting the Northeast, you know it doesn't affect your potato supply or prices, because your potatoes come from 20 miles away."

And finally, the most obvious CSA benefit -- just-picked, delicious, quality food.

Final Thoughts on CSA Programs

See our chart, The Skinny on CSAs, for more basics about CSA membership, and our article 14 Points to Keep in Mind if You're Considering Subscribing to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program.

And you may want to reflect on Smith's words: "Our world needs a greater sense of community and connection to what I find is one of the most important and nourishing aspects of life: food! Food is the center of our existence and so has become the center of our most important traditions, celebrations and holidays. We need to remember and be reconnected to the value of the growers of our food, and support them in their journey to produce it for us."

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Katharine Hansen, PhD, EmpoweringSites.com Creative Director Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an avid bicyclist, gardener, educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including EmpoweringRetreat.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.

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