Columnist Claire Morenon: CSAs play critical role in success on the farm

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 25, 2019. By Claire Morenon

FInd CISA's list of CSA farms here!

This is an exciting time of year on local vegetable farms: greenhouses are waking up as the earliest seeds spring to life, seasonal employees are coming back to work, and all the winter’s planning and prep is being put into motion.

Farmers are hard at work now, but it’s going to be another month or two before their earliest crops are ready for harvest, which means another couple of months until money starts coming in to cover the costs that have already accrued.

Farms have historically managed the timing mismatch between their biggest financial outputs and their incomes through a combination of careful financial management and reliance on credit. But in the mid-1980s a new sales model emerged to ease this burden: community supported agriculture, or CSA.

On a CSA farm, customers purchase a “share” of the farm’s harvest up front, which generates an income stream for the farm during the winter and early spring. It also frees the farmer from needing to manage produce sales during the busy growing season. In turn, shareholders receive weekly distributions of the farm’s harvest, often at a value that outstrips the upfront cost.

Maureen Dempsey and Rick Tracy have offered CSA shares at Intervale Farm in Westhampton for 17 years. Says Maureen, “The shares make up about a quarter of our income, and it’s nice to have that income in February and March when we’re ordering seeds and supplies. We used to get operating loans, but we haven’t had to do that for years. It also helps with planning to have a commitment from a certain number of customers lined up already.”

The original CSA model was built around on-farm distribution, where shareholders make a weekly visit to the farm to pick up their vegetables and access pick-your-own crops. Intervale’s model allows for a personal connection between shareholders and the people and the land that produce their food.

“We’ve stayed at a size where I can have a real personal connection with everyone who comes — I know them, and they’re our neighbors,” says Maureen.

Although the CSA model is relatively young, it has spread quickly throughout the United States and generated special interest here in our region.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture started tracking CSAs in 2007, when there were 19 farms offering shares in the Valley. In 2018, there were 53, down from a peak of 60 in 2016. This trajectory has required CSA farms, especially newer farms, to find their own niches in the CSA market.

Stone Soup Farm in Hadley has been in operation since 2007, and the CSA model has worked well for owners David DiLorenzo and Amanda Barnett.

“We’re not really big or mechanized enough for wholesale to make sense for us, and farmers’ markets require a lot of coordination and staffing and there’s always waste at the end, so CSA fits us really well,” says Dave.

But as a younger farm in an increasingly competitive local CSA market, Stone Soup has looked east to find their clientele. Approximately 60 of their 350 seasonal shares are sold in the Valley, and the rest are sold in the Boston area.

“We sell a lot of our eastern Mass shares through relationships with workplaces, and I think the convenience that offers people means we’re reaching a whole new population who might never buy a CSA if they had to go to a farm. Big picture, I think it makes a lot of sense for people who live in the city to get their food from farms in western Mass.”

The explosion and leveling off of the CSA model reflects the dynamic reality of growing and selling food in the Valley. The first farms to offer CSA shares were vegetable farms, but today you can find fruit, meat, herb, and plant CSAs in our region, and many farms offer their shares year-round.

As the CSA model has matured, CSA farms have introduced more flexibility for shareholders, including payment plans and sliding scales, varying share sizes, SNAP/HIP payment options, off-farm distribution sites, and multiple distribution days.

While the CSA model isn’t a panacea for all the financial challenges that local farmers face, it does offer them real benefits, including early cash flow and a reliable market, not to mention the community connections it can foster.

If supporting local farms is important to you, purchasing a CSA share is an excellent way to put your food dollars directly toward a farm’s bottom line. This month, as farmers plant seeds in anticipation of summer’s bounty, it’s the perfect time to secure your share of the harvest!

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).