Community supported agriculture (CSA) is all about shortening the distance between farm and fork. But it also fosters a unique relationship between growers and consumers. That, ultimately, means better food for healthier living.
There are over 1,000 CSAs in the United States and hundreds more in Canada, including several dozen in the Maritimes. The arrangement allows CSA subscribers to commit a certain amount of money (usually a few hundred dollars) at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a weekly supply of produce. This in turn allows farmers to plan in advance and share the risks and rewards of the particular season with their members.
But as more people are joining CSAs, the drawbacks of the model are beginning to show. Customers report that at times they feel overwhelmed by the amount of food they receive, bewildered by what to do with the items in their weekly share, or bored by the lack of selection during a certain harvest period.
A new model
One of the biggest complaints with CSAs is that people hate wasting food, says Shannon Jones, a farmer in northern Nova Scotia who worked on several farms with CSAs before starting her own with partner Bryan Dyck. “People wonder what they are going to do with all that produce, but they certainly don’t want to throw it out since they paid for it and their farmer grew it.”
Jones and Dyck think they have found a solution as they enter the third year of operating their business, Broadfork Farm in River Hébert, which currently hinges on bringing produce to farmers’ markets. This year, inspired by a similar concept they heard about in the United States, they plan to start a market CSA.
In this model, customers will still pay upfront, but the amount they select will be based on their own consumption patterns and will be held in credit. Rather than coming to the farm to pick up their basket each week, members will shop at their convenience at the farm’s stand at the Dieppe market in southeastern New Brunswick. CSA customers will receive a 5 percent discount on their purchases, which will be debited from their account.
“That way they give us a commitment and we feel secure,” says Jones. The guaranteed income reduces the farm’s risk and helps with cash flow early in the season. Another benefit is that the farmers will still be able to attend and engage with customers at the market. “We really love the farmers’ markets,” Jones says. “They are kind of our social life.”
Members of Broadfork’s CSA will be able to buy only what they need in a given week, or skip a week if it doesn’t suit their schedule. Adventurous eaters will appreciate the more unusual vegetables that Jones and Dyck like to grow – such as fennel or daikon radish – but no member will feel obligated to eat something they don’t like.
Is a CSA right for you?
Tom Crilley, a Halifax resident, has belonged to two different Nova Scotia CSAs in recent years. “I could do with kale once in a while, but not every week,” he says. In spite of the potentially repetitive diet, however, Crilley and his partner Terra enjoyed knowing they were supporting local farmers and appreciated the opportunity to get to know the people who grew their food.
“We knew about some of their struggles and challenges,” through talking to the farmers and reading their blog, he says. One week when the basket included four or five scrawny stalks of cilantro among the other produce, Crilley said he just smiled because he had already heard about the difficulties the farm had with growing the herb the previous year. “So much effort went into it that we cherished everything we got.”
There was also the element of surprise that came with each basket, which Crilley says was a thrill akin to opening a Christmas stocking. A main challenge, however, “was having to figure out what to do with something you didn’t really like.”
The majority of CSAs offer vegetables and fruit, but there are also options that provide meat, eggs, dairy and bread, as well as full meals. Community supported fisheries, such as Off the Hook in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy region, provide support to small-scale, independent fishing families while offering customers weekly deliveries of whole, dressed fish.
Marla MacLeod, who lives and works in Halifax and participates in a local CSA, recommends a few considerations in trying to decide whether to join one near you. Think about how you like to cook, for one thing. “If you follow recipes to the letter and plan out every meal far in advance, a CSA might not be for you,” she says. But, “if your cooking style is more laid-back and you’re creative in the kitchen,” then a CSA could be a good option.
A CSA may also work if you find getting to the market too cumbersome or inconvenient. “If you love going to the farmers’ market, keep going,” she says. “Sometimes I miss going. It is pretty fun in the summer. And sometimes I still end up at the market anyway because I need cheese, tofu, meat, herbs, etcetera.”
Ultimately the concept will not suit everyone. “I love peeking in a veggie box on Wednesday afternoon and seeing what’s new for the week,” MacLeod says. But, she warns, there are times when she wants more of one item and less of another. “I can eat seemingly endless quantities of tomatoes and basil, but I sometimes get sick of lettuce.”
- Find a CSA in Atlantic Canada: http://acornorganic.org/acorn/databaseregional.html
- Find a CSA in the United States: http://www.localharvest.org
- Find a community supported fishery: http://namanet.org/csf