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printable versionfood + nutrition

Growing Connections: Community Supported Agriculture Shares the Wealth
by Jessica Stein Thursday August 29, 2002 at 02:38 PM

“How do you build community around your farm?” asks Peter Brady of Phillies Bridge Farm in New Paltz, New York. “I think that’s what small farms should be about.” Phillies Bridge is part of a recent movement to connect farms with their surrounding communities: the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement.

In the CSA system, local residents buy a “share” of a farmer’s expected produce in advance of the growing season, and receive weekly amounts of produce when the harvest begins. A typical season usually runs from late May through Thanksgiving, though some farms have shorter seasons or offer additional winter shares.

Full shares in the New York City area cost between $300 and $400 per season, though half or split shares are often available at a lower cost. Some farms outside the city offer work exchanges for a reduced share price. Phillies Bridge, for example, offers a working share for $400, as compared to $500 for a non-working annual share.

Advocates of CSA say that the arrangement lowers the farmer’s economic risk, supports local agriculture and economy and gives families access to local and fresh produce. Most CSA farms are also entirely organic or striving for the lowest possible use of pesticides and genetic tinkering. “We could spray for them, but we don’t,” says Kate Khosla of the leaf hoppers infesting her potato crop. Khosla and husband Ron run Hugenot Street Farm, another New Paltz CSA.

Because they expect half the yield, the Khosla plant twice as many potatoes as a conventional farmer who sprays. Many of the potatoes are also smaller than conventionally grown potatoes — “but they’re clean potatoes,” Khosla says proudly.

CSAs were developed in Japan in the mid-1960s by a group of women concerned with the rise of pesticide use, the increased use of imported and processed foods, and the difficulty of maintaining a small, traditional farm. The Japanese term for the arrangement is teikei, which translates loosely to “putting the farmers’ face on food.” The practice spread to Europe and was then brought to North America in 1984 by Jan Vander Tuin of Switzerland. Robyn Van En, a Western Massachussetts farmer, is credited with popularizing the idea in the States.

There are currently over 1,000 CSA farms in North America.

In New York City, CSA exists in over 20 different locations in all five boroughs, from Riverdale to Bushwick. (See accompanying chart.) Farmers from a variety of upstate New York and nearby New Jersey towns bring the weekly shares to local distribution sites for pickup. Many New York City CSA farmers serve more than one location, such as Kinderhook’s Roxbury Farm which brings produce to CSA outposts in both Central Harlem and the Upper West Side.

Though it may sound similar to greenmarkets or farmers’ markets, CSA is different in that it establishes a consistent, reliable relationship between farmer and consumer, ending the farmer’s guessing game around both buyers and profits.

Once these associations are established, CSA farms are often willing to modify what they offer in order to please their shareholders. “We’re offering local berries this year,” says Ron Khosla of Hugenot Street. “They’re not our berries, but they’re local, and people were asking for fruit.” Even with guaranteed community support, however, many farmers are struggling. “We get up at 5 a.m. and at 10 p.m. we’re still out there with headlamps on,” says Khosla.

The Khoslas planted about 12 of their 77 acres this year, providing share members with over 240 different varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers, a diversity not often found in supermarkets. Phillies Bridge, which brings in a smaller percentage of its revenue from CSA, planted five of its 65 acres with 30 varieties of vegetables and herbs. Both farms draw their shareholders from New Paltz and the surrounding area, though the farmers spoke confidently about the future of the movement as a whole. “The foods we’re growing—are they really feeding you, or are they just filling you?” asks Brady. “I think people are instinctively starting to know that we need CSA.”

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