Valley Bounty: Red Fire Farm
Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 23, 2021. Jacob Nelson
As local farms gear up for the main growing season, a chorus rings out: “Sign up now for your CSA share!” For some this is a familiar call. Others ask, “What’s that? And why would I want one?”
“For me, having a CSA share was a revelation about a whole new world of food out there,” says Sarah Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague with her partner, Ryan Voiland.
CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.” The basic premise is simple: Customers purchase a subscription ahead of the growing season and receive a regular “share” of farm fresh food — often weekly — that evolves with the harvest.
The concept of an upfront agreement between growers and eaters has old roots around the globe, from farming co-ops in Japan, to the biodynamic farming movement in Europe, to the American South in the 1920s, when Booker T. Whatley, a Black author and professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, encouraged farms to charge up front for pick-your-own “membership clubs.”
Today, Valley farms offer CSA memberships of all stripes in all seasons. Beyond produce, you can find shares of local meat, dairy, eggs, mushrooms and baked goods. Some farms include extras like pick-your-own privileges for berries, herbs and flowers, as well. Red Fire Farm offers all of these, either themselves or through collaborations with other local businesses.
One of the larger certified organic farms in the Valley at 200 acres, Red Fire Farm’s goal “is to build soil for the long term, and feed people delicious and nutritious food from that soil year-round,” Sarah Voiland says. “Our CSA membership is really the core of our farm, making up about 50% of our production and income.”
There are many reasons people are drawn to CSA memberships — connecting with who and where their food comes from, supporting the local economy over global agribusiness, taste and nutrition benefits, and more.
Many, Voiland says, are motivated by the opportunity to reinvigorate their relationship to food and cooking — to try something new.
“You might not buy something you don’t recognize in the store, but if it comes in your share and you try it, you’re likely to discover new favorites that become part of your life forever,” she says. “Members tell us they enjoy the challenge of using new ingredients — that’s what keeps them coming back.” Some, she says, have been members for over 20 years.
If the word “challenge” seems daunting, Voiland explains that the farm’s support extends beyond the field and into the kitchen. “At first, I didn’t know what to do with a stalk of Brussels sprouts,” she admits. “There is a learning curve, but that’s what we’re here for as a farm. In addition to providing good food, we help people learn how to use it and build skills each season.”
Voiland emails members weekly about how to use current items or store them for later. “Pesto-making is a very flexible way to use any greens, even spinach and radish tops,” she says. “Other vegetables, like peppers, you can just chop and freeze without doing anything else. And many people are nervous to try fermenting or pickling, but they’re very approachable skills too.”
Red Fire Farm’s flagship, 20-week summer CSA starts in June, but signs-ups are happening now. “It starts off with vibrant greens, and early things like fresh radishes, carrots, and garlic scapes — the flowering stalks of garlic that make a beautiful pesto,” Voiland says. Cucumbers, zucchini and sweet onions typically follow.
“By July and August, it becomes tomato and pepper wonderland,” she says. “We grow so many kinds of both. Later we get into things like small ‘new’ potatoes, sweet potatoes, and the first delicata squash.”
Paying upfront for a CSA membership gives farms financial flexibility, but can hamper access for lower-income folks. Local efforts to remove those barriers are growing.
Some farms, including Red Fire, offer sliding scale prices. “People can pay on the high end and subsidize the cost for people paying on the low end,” Voiland explains. “It’s all based on your sense of your budget. We don’t ask for information, we just let people choose what to pay.”
Their shares are also eligible for SNAP and HIP (the Healthy Incentives Program). This means customers can purchase a share using SNAP benefits, and through HIP receive a monthly reimbursement of $40 to $80 (depending on family size) back onto their SNAP card to spend again. This state program supports local agriculture and helps families stretch food dollars while accessing fresh, healthy food — a win for everyone (CISA updates a list of CSAs and local businesses accepting HIP at buylocalfood.org/hip-map).
Other efforts include subsidizing shares for certain groups, as CISA does through its Senior FarmShare, and zero-interest loans from UMass Five College Federal Credit Union specifically designed to spread out the cost of a CSA.
Making CSAs and local food more accessible has powerful implications for the health of the Valley’s soil and the people it sustains.
“Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people,” she says. “It’s not just about keeping land out of development, it’s about stewarding healthy soil for the long term. This affects the flavor of food, too. And that’s why I think, once you taste food grown with such attention, it’s hard to go back.”
To learn more about Red Fire Farm’s CSAs, visit redfirefarm.com/csa/csa-basics. To find more local CSA farms see CISA’s searchable online guide at buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally and selecting CSA farms as the business type.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).