Fresh & local produce, anyone?

By Pat Leuchtman

For some people, the initials CSA are just another of those annoying acronyms that can make our conversations sound like an unintelligible inter-office memo. For some, CSA means Community Supported Agriculture, which encompasses delicious local food, help for the farmer and a community of like-minded folk who enjoy fresh food and enjoy knowing they are supporting farmers and farms, and the very land and environment that surrounds us.

Small farmers never think they are going to get rich doing what they love. They only hope they won’t go broke after a bad season. In the 1980s, a new idea came on the scene when the first-community-supported-agriculture farms were first organized. The idea is that people would buy shares in the farm and its harvest at the beginning of the growing year, essentially sharing the risks the farmer would face over the course of the season. Would there be flooding rains? Drought? Would blight kill all the tomatoes? Mother Nature can throw all kinds of disasters at a farmer. CSA members are essentially buying the harvest as crops are planted and becoming a part of a community, sharing the risk, the worry and the joys of the farm.

When I first became aware of the program some years ago, there were not many CSA farms or people buying shares. The organizational elements were fairly standard. An individual or family would buy a share in the spring and then as the May and June harvest started coming in, they would pick up their weekly boxed or bagged share of greens, beans, radishes and vegetables of every type in season. Because man does not live by carrot alone, many CSAs also included a bouquet of summer flowers.

Now there are many more CSAs in our area. I spoke with Phil Korman, executive director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), who said that in the three counties — Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden — there were about 4,550 farm shares sold in 2009, but in 2012 that number had increased to about 7,300 farm shares sold. Some of those shares were to people outside the three counties. The expectation is that the number has continued to increase but statistics are only collected every five years. Korman pointed out that those farm shares did not include winter shares, which are now available.

In fact, there are now many more kinds of CSA shares that people can buy. In addition to the regular vegetable garden shares, there are shares for meat, fish, eggs, flowers, beer and grain.

The last few years have seen other changes in CSA distributions. Originally, a shareholder paid up and then picked up that share weekly at the farm. Nowadays, CSA shares can be delivered to various sites, including schools, retirement communities and work sites. Cooley Dickinson Hospital allows staff to pay for their share with a payroll deduction and the share is delivered to the hospital. Some people share a share with a neighbor

Hager’s Farm Market and Upinngil Farm sell vouchers. The Hager vouchers are dated for use throughout the season, but they can be used at the market on Route 2 in Shelburne, with the shareholder making his own choices among produce or pies, eggs or yogurt. Upinngil’s vouchers are not dated. Several can be used at one time. In both cases, at the Hager Farm Market and the Upinngil farmstand, the vouchers provide for a discount, so you are saving money as well as getting wonderful produce.

There are 15 CSA farms in Franklin County: Greenfield, Montague, Gill, Leyden, Colrain, Sunderland, Ashfield, Whately and Berndarston. Each CSA farm delivers its share one day a week. All of them are now signing up shareholders for the 2014 season.

Western Massachusetts has been “an incredibly receptive community” to desiring and buying local farm products Korman said. The first local and now longest running CSA farm is Brookfield Farm in Amherst. The first Winterfare was created in Greenfield by volunteers just a few years ago. Now farmers plant winter storage crops for the 30 winter farmers markets that are ongoing across the state. CISA was the first such nonprofit organization in the state and created the Local Hero marketing project.

Currently, there are 55 Local Hero restaurants using local produce for a total of about $2 million a year. There are also 240 Local Hero farms. Between 2002 and 2007, they sold $4.5 million worth of farm products, but that amount has now doubled to $9 million. Food co-ops account for $16 million in sales. Right now in the three counties,10 to 15 percent of our food is fresh local food, but CISA’s goal is to have that reach 25 percent.

I was shocked that we are eating so little local food, but Korman gently pointed out that the whole population of Franklin County is only half the population of the city of Springfield. I can see that it will be a great day when everyone in Springfield gets 25 percent of their dinners from local farms. I have to keep reminding myself that not everyone lives in our beautiful and fertile valley or near a hilltown farm where fresh food is available for a good part of the year.

It’s finally getting warmer. It’s time to think about fresh salads, grilled vegetables and corn on the cob. It’s time to think about the possibility of joining a Community Supported Agriculture farm.

You can find a full listing and information about local CSA farms on the CISA website.