March 28, 2010

Farmers Sell Crop ‘Shares’ for Spring Harvest

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Farmers and Ithaca community members talked business at farmers’ booths last Sunday at the Community-Supported Agriculture Fair at the Boynton Middle School Cafeteria.

The event, which was organized by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, allowed  community members to purchase shares in the crop yields that farmers will produce in the upcoming spring growing season.

Most plans allow community members to pay a certain amount up front and then receive weekly deliveries of vegetables that they can pick up at their local farmer’s market. Other farmers offered locals  discounts on future produce, depending on the size of their down payment. The bigger the payment, the larger the discounts later on. Some farm owners even pitched the chance to come to their farm and pick a certain amount of berries each week –– called the “U-Pick” plan –– after a lump-sum payment.

Plans like these are part of the community-supported agriculture initiative, which is a marketing strategy that depends upon the personal relationship between the farmer and the consumer. Consumers buy shares in the farm, and farmers deliver those shares. The farmer then has a guaranteed market for produce, and the consumer obtains fresh, local goods throughout the growing season and, usually, the opportunity to visit the farm.

“The CSA fair is mainly to give the public a chance to interface with all of the CSA [based farms] that we have in the community –– to talk to the farmers and find out which CSA fits their needs the best,” Monika Roth, the Agriculture Program leader for the CCE said.

“We’ve done this for about five years now. Each year it helps farmers recruit some new folks that may not have known about them. Every year we have a few new CSAs too.”

People milled around from booth to booth, sampling apples from the Fruit Bowl and asking farmers for details about their specific programs. The fourteen CSAs at the fair varied widely in the programs and produce that they offered, but all shared a common commitment to sustainable farming practices and and the production of the highest quality fruits and vegetables.

“Typical fair attendees are folks who know, or are pretty sure, they want to join a CSA farm and want to learn about as many as possible before making their decision,” stated Debbie Teeter of the CCE in an e-mail.

Katie Creeger from Kestrel Perch Farms is both a CSA member and a CSA operator. She gets her vegetables from a West Haven Farm and grows berries on her “U-Pick” CSA.

“I’d been a vegetable CSA member for years. You get to know who’s growing your food; you can quiz them about their practices. You know it’s fresh, you know it’s local. If I’m growing berries for 200 people I want someone else to grow my vegetables,” Creeger said.

Creeger also said that she believes in the division of labor, as it is very difficult to grow both fruits and vegetables. This was her third year at the CSA fair. She is trying to increase membership in her CSA to 200 people from 180 current members.

“I think it went well –– it’s a very high-yield crowd, meaning a high percentage of the attendees wind up joining a CSA. Also, we had a really nice turnout from the farms, which lets consumers talk to a lot of farmers in one place,” Teeter stated.

It was Gordon Gallup of Silver Queen Farm’s first time at the CSA fair. He has an established U-Pick farm, and had decided to offer the discount approach to consumers at the fair. He started using the community-supported agriculture approach because he was losing customers to other CSAs.

The personal level of the CSA model also appealed to Gallup.

“I think the family level is good for both the farmer and the consumer. For the farmer, on a family scale you can use your own labor. For the consumer, it’s an ideal situation for young families with kids so that they [the kids] can understand that there’s people out there growing food for them,” Gallup said.

“In the summer when you’re standing in a field that’s three football fields of strawberries it’s just … amazing.”

Roth also noted that the Cornell Cooperative Extension has multiple CSA-based programs.

“We have a program called Healthy Food for All, which subsidizes the cost of a CSA for food-stamp eligible residents in Tompkins County. We have about 7 CSAs who participate in that program … We coordinate with local social service agencies to get the sign-ups, the low-cost share,” Roth said.

“We had enough for about 120 households, so there were over 300 actual individuals who were getting CSA subsidized shares and weekly produce throughout the whole season.”

In terms of the success of the program, Roth said that “results and changes in diet have been really huge with most people who actively get 8-10 new vegetables into their diet.”

She added that the subsidized shares program “increases vegetable intake in the summer by leaps and bounds” and that their “main goal is to improve nutrition.”

Original Author: Emily Coon