Spring has sprung and if you are curious as to how you can eat better and support your local farmer, a CSA might be the perfect solution for your family. Recently, I asked Dan Moore of Farmshares.info a series of questions that will help you dive further into whether a CSA is the right choice for your family. I also asked a few of you in the community if you had further questions about CSA’s and those questions and answers will be in the next post.
Lilly: What is a CSA and what is the main reason to join one?
Dan: CSA stands for community supported agriculture and is a direct relationship between a farmer or rancher and the end customer with a risk sharing component. You give the farmer money early in the year, and they give you produce, meat or other food throughout the growing season.
The main reason to join a CSA is to learn more about who grows your food and how it is done. CSA provides a level of involvement with your food that is deeper than anything other than gardening.
Lilly: What is the most common question or concern you hear from people interested in starting a CSA?
Dan: The most common question is “how do I pick the right farm?”. Just as with any major purchase (share prices are typically in the hundreds of dollars and can be up to three thousand) you have to both know what you are looking for and do your research.
To the first point, many people are romantic about “getting food directly from the farmer” and ignore that they don’t like to cook, or travel often during the season, or work a job that will make a weekly pickup hard. There is enough variety in CSAs available, so think about what you need. If you want to learn the basics of CSA, I have put together a free email course.
To the second, while there are similarities, each CSA differs in what they expect of their members, the types of food they provide, and where you can pick up the share. So while tools like farmshares.info can help, you really need to review each farm’s website, talk to current and past members and mesh what the farm/ranch offers with your needs.
Lilly: What has been the biggest change you have noticed since you first became a CSA member in 2007?
Dan: Two big changes: 1) the widening of the CSA market, both in number of farms and products offered. It’s amazing to see new farms and new products be available in the CSA risk sharing model. 2) the turnover of CSA farms. I think the skills needed to be a successful CSA farmer include all the skills of a regular farmer, plus marketing and sales skills (plus management once the farm is a certain size). I see a lot of CSAs start up and run for 4-5 years and then shut down, either because the farmer is moving off the land or because they are focusing on other markets (farmer’s market, direct sales of a product, wholesale markets).
Dan: I started out with a list of farms on which I had done research, and quickly realized that it would be helpful to others. A friend also joined a CSA in Denver about the same time and shared her list. After combining the two, I had a simple web page that received some traffic, indicating there was interest. After about two years of updating that page and fielding questions about CSAs in Colorado, I decided to build ColoradoCSAs.info in 2010. In 2015, my wife and I decided that the existing national directories were not as useful as they should be, and spent some time and money re-working and re-launching ColoradoCSAs.info as FarmShares.info, as well as pursuing affiliates and sponsorships.
The driving motivation for the redesign is that CSA membership, for me, was a fundamental shift in how I viewed food and the food system. I wanted to share that with people beyond Colorado.
Lilly: What is the advantage of using a tool such as farmshares.info versus just jumping on the Google?
Dan: Farmshares.info gathers data from farms, standardizes it, and makes it very easy to compare farms that meet your needs. I always advocate contacting the farmer directly once you have narrowed your choices to two or three, since CSA information can change from day to day (for example, shares can sell out).
When you start at Google, you find farms that are best at showing up in Google, as opposed to the farm that might be closest to you, or have the type of share you want.
Dan: The transition from coloradocsas.info to farmshares.info has been smooth–the launch affected our traffic slightly, but it has bounced back as we head into the prime signup season for the mountain west (Jan-May).
In the future, you can expect more features, greater coverage of the mountain west and eventually the entire USA, and more partnerships with companies that support local food.
Lilly: Most of us now think of CSAs in terms of produce, but ‘community supported’ has evolved in recent years to include other products. What are some of those changes?
Dan: I’ve seen two main changes in the offerings from CSA farms over the years. The first is a far wider selection of farm-to-consumer products available. These range from soap to meat to fish to bread to coffee–at least 40 different types of food are available via CSA. This is fantastic because it lets consumers support local farmers and ranchers even if they can’t commit to a season of vegetables.
The second is the rise, especially in farms selling produce, of the market share. Instead of the farmer picking out vegetables and boxing them up for you, you pre-pay for credit at farm stands and farmer’s markets. It’s a way to support a farm and share the risk of poor crops without losing choice. (The customer still shares the risk because if the farm has a poor season, or doesn’t produce much of a popular crop like tomatoes, the customer is still committed to purchase from that farm.)
Lilly: Can you forecast any predictions for the future of CSA’s in the US?
Dan: I think that CSAs will rise and fall as interest in home cooking rises and falls. CSAs just don’t make sense if you aren’t eating at home. The recent trend of people re-learning how to cook (see Michael Pollan’s books) makes me optimistic about the long term future of CSAs.