BRATTLEBORO—With the snowpack finally fully receded and the cold weather slowly releasing its grip on Windham County, the farmers at local CSAs find themselves preparing for the peak growing season.
Jesse Kayan of Wild Carrot Farm in Brattleboro is optimistic.
“It’s a little early to tell,” Kayan said when asked how the season is going. “It’s been a late spring, but there is still time for it to catch up and be an early summer.”
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is an economic model in which customers pay a farm directly, and in advance, for a share of the season’s crops. These shares are sometimes further split into half shares, or informally shared among families and friends.
A monetary investment by members during the winter buys allotments, or shares, of locally grown food distributed weekly or bi-weekly throughout the seasons, depending on the setup of the farm.
“There are a bunch of conscious choices you are making joining a CSA,” Amy Frost of Circle Mountain Farm in Guilford explained over the sound of rain on the high-tunnel greenhouse roof. “Eating healthier, supporting local economy, getting a better value.”
Having adapted well to the Vermont growing season, Circle Mountain Farm is one of many CSAs providing members with locally grown food year-round.
“I had fresh spinach this past week, and arugula,” Circle Mountain Farm CSA member Phyllis Erwin said. “With the hoop houses, they are able to produce these wonderful greens.”
Circle Mountain started canning and preserving food a few years ago.
“We’re going pickling-crazy,” Frost said. “Food preservation has taken us to the next level and allowed us to stabilize our own economics.”
“Last week, I had fire-roasted cherry tomatoes,” Erwin recalled fondly. “Get that in the middle of this dreary weather!” she challenged.
An increasing number of CSAs are starting in Vermont, with a number of new farms adopting the business model over the past five years, including Tapalu Guilds in Guilford and Full Plate Farm in East Dummerston, among others.
Farmers have observed a stable and increasing customer base.
Wild Carrot Farm, which provides 70 shares, both half and full, to 115 area families during summer, fall, and winter, is “just about sold out for the season,” Kayan said. “We have put very little energy into marketing, no advertising, and we are within three or four shares of our goal. We’ve had a higher return rate than ever.”
An evolving model
As participation grows, CSA farmers have adapted in a number of ways, including new payment models, choice of product, and various pick-up options.
Early monetary commitment to the farm is an essential and defining part of the CSA economic model. When customers pay money for shares in February, that capital allows the farms to do all the necessary preparations for the growing season: purchasing seeds, compost, fertilizer, budgeting for staff, replacing and repairing equipment, to name a few of the requisite expenses.
Farmers understand that the early commitment can be a scary one.
“It’s a risk for people,” Justin Nye of Circle Mountain Farm acknowledged. “People aren’t used to giving $300 or $400 for something they are not getting right away.”
The commitment can be particularly difficult for folks who might not need a box of food every week of the summer, whether it be because of travel, vacations, or unanticipated events.
According to Erin Buckwalter, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont market development director, to meet the ever-increasing need for flexibility in people’s lives, some CSAs throughout the state are moving away from the traditional format in which members pick up a prepurchased portion of their share every week.
Instead, such farms are adopting what she has coined “the farm stand model,” which she likened to “buying a gift card up front. It’s a tally sheet, and you can use it or not use it on any given week.” Buckwalter explained.
Another trend in the CSA model is “free choice” for customers, she said. Instead of a weekly allotment designed by the farmers, “where the customer gets what is in the box every week,” members choose their food.
Wild Carrot Farm has implemented the choice model, as members are able to browse harvested selections at the farm, and even forage in a “pick-your-own garden.”
“We love bringing people onto the farm,” Kayan said. “It’s more of an interactive process. They don’t get it in a box, they choose their own.”
CSAs are challenged to anticipate what produce will be in demand, and they strike a balance between variety and staple crops.
“We want people to walk and take their seasonal staples, but we want people to try things,” Kayan explained. “The free choice lets them do that at their own pace.”
“We try to grow a little bit of everything,” he said, “and we notice what people are taking year to year.”
While maintaining the very personal relationships with customers that are part of what defines community-supported agriculture, CSAs have responded to a demand for convenience from generations accustomed to buying groceries at the supermarket.
“When CSAs first started, pick-ups were at the farm; now there are pick-ups at coffee shops and markets,” Buckwalter said.
In Brattleboro, the New England Youth Theatre on Flat Street is partnering with local farmers for the first time this year to host a market on Tuesday nights from 4 to 7 p.m., where CSAs will be distributing shares. And of course, every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., just west of the covered bridge on Route 9, is the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market.
Circle Mountain Farm distributes “from farm and at market,” Frost said.
CSAs see increased participation
The reason for increased participation in community-supported agriculture is multi-layered.
Consumers’ increasing concerns about the sources of their food have combined with a movement toward healthier eating and increased desire for sustainability. All those trends have steered a socially and environmentally aware generation toward community-supported agriculture.
And at the state level, CSAs have been supported by Farm to Plate, a statewide network designed to “increase economic development and jobs in the farm and food sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters,” according to the initiative’s website.
“The Farm to Plate Initiative has done a lot to raise awareness about local food systems.” Buckwalter observes.
Caitlin Burlett of Wild Carrot farm cites the influence of food shows and social media as another factor.
“More people are interested,” she said. “I call it ‘foodie-ism’ for lack of a better term. It’s trendy right now. When that wears off, we’ll see.”
From her vantage point at NOFA-VT, Buckwalter has noticed some changes.
“It used to be that ‘one-stop-shopping’ was important.” she said. “The research is showing that that’s not important to consumers. They want to know where the food is coming from. People have gotten more skeptical about marketing.”
“With CSAs, we make customers aware of what’s going on. They hear it from us,” Kayan pointed out. “The customers feel value in that relationship.”
Picking up shares at farms provides CSA members with a level of transparency not found anywhere else in the food industry.
“With a CSA, you have the most intimate relationship with the food. You can see what’s in the barn. You can see what’s being put on their fields,” Buckwalter said.
“You can come, you can walk the land, you can check out the streams that run through it,” Kayan said. “It’s easy to know what’s happening. And you get to know the actual people behind it. What people say is they love to get to know the actual farmers.”
Erwin, the CSA member at Circle Mountain, agreed.
“I love being a CSA member,” she said. “I live in Guilford, and I love the fact that they grow in Guilford. Can’t get anymore local than that except your own backyard.”
The relationships between farmers and CSA members stand in stark contrast to today’s standard vendor-customer relationships, which often never break through the barriers of email or links on a website. But it is this old-fashioned quality of the experience that people are craving.
“All of the things that would normally be prohibitive for a business, people actually like,” Kayan explained. “It’s sort of quaint, but it’s also personal.”
“There was so much pressure to automate our system. We started pay online last year, but you still have to hand us a check,” Kayan said with a laugh.
“It’s a different kind of economy,” Frost explained — one “where you’re explicitly tied to relying on other people, and people relying on us.”
Farming for a community
For the farmers at Circle Mountain and Wild Carrot farms, the values of directly and positively affecting social and food justice deeply inspire their choice of livelihood and lifestyle. Structuring their farming enterprises as CSAs lets them follow through on those values.
“Food accessibility is the bed of our motivation,” Nye said, using a gardening metaphor. “Through the CSA, we are able to get food to low-income people.”
“We have a goal of one-third of our customers being low income,” Kayan said. “We do a lot of scholarships.”
Both farms participate in NOFA-VT’s Farm Share Program, Vermont’s longest running food access program, which has raised funds for and subsidized shares since 1994 for CSAs whose farmers shared these same values.
Buckwalter recalls when the program began, “We were hearing from farmers that they wanted to find a way to get low-income families food without giving away their food and not being able to feed their own family.”
The program has grown, and with the cooperation of restaurants throughout the state, NOFA-VT’s annual Share the Harvest fundraiser last October brought in nearly $20,000 with which to subsidize shares.
Vermonters apply annually to participate in the program. Eligibility is based on household income and size. For those qualify, NOFA subsidizes 25 percent, matched by the farmer. The result: a half-price CSA share.
The amount allocated per farm is capped at $1,000 for organic farms and $750 for other NOFA-VT member farms.
“We never can fundraise enough. We always have to waitlist folks,” said Jennie Porter, the organization’s community food security coordinator.
The number of applicants for subsidized shares has increased in recent years. According to Buckwalter, before 2011 there were not enough applicants to allocate all funds. Over the last few years, the program has needed a wait list.
“What we love is the program builds relationships with the community,” Porter said. “Many participants will no longer need assistance but will maintain their relationship. And eventually, those same customers will end up donating.”
“There are few businesses who are doing as much value-based decision making as CSAs,” Kayan observed.
Support of low-income participants has not been limited to NOFA-VT’s Farm Share Program at Wild Carrot and Circle Mountain. Both have further discounted shares beyond the NOFA match, despite taking a direct hit to their bottom line.
“I feel so lucky to be a part of this receptive and flourishing community,” said Kayan. “We couldn’t do what we are doing without their support.”
“Participation in a CSA strengthens local economy, strengthens people’s ability to support low-income folks, and supports a productive working landscape,” Buckwalter said. “When you actually get to meet that farmer, something special happens.”