Talk to anyone involved in a CSA — Community-Supported Agriculture — and it’s clear the venture is about more than just food. It’s about being a part of something larger, but at the most local level.
There are hundreds of CSAs in Central Pennsylvania, providing food to thousands of families. Casey Spacht is the executive director of Lancaster Farm Fresh Coop, a nonprofit organic farmers’ cooperative of more than 100 family farmers in Lancaster County. When asked about the importance of CSAs, Spacht waxed near-poetic.
“We want to see our children growing for your children. We want to see land cared for and communities strengthened,” Spacht says. “We want to see the soil that we were raised on be the soil that connects our community to yours. We want to see the root networks under the soil sprout new life and become viable to create healthy environments that can be had for all.”
Spacht’s passion for local food production and distribution is clear. His promotion of CSAs is convincing.
“When a member purchases a share, they are creating that age-old bond with someone and creating a real connection to the source of their own food,” he says. “The farmer also knows and cherishes that connection because they want to provide their very best products to make sure the customers are happy and healthy eating the best, most nutrient-dense foods that they can grow.”
CSAs, in the most general sense, allow individuals to partner with food growers at the beginning of a season, often helping to cover upfront costs, in exchange for shares of food once it’s harvested. CSA services often include additional farm products such as dairy, eggs, flowers or meat.
Hannah Smith-Brubaker is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) as well as a CSA farmer with Village Acres Farm in Mifflintown. She also touts the bonds that develop out of CSAs.
“It’s a relationship that encourages transparency and trust. When the consumer is willing to pay up front for a season’s worth of produce, it helps the farmer at a time of the year when most all of the costs are incurred,” she says. “For the consumer, a CSA share means they are receiving their portion of the farmer’s harvest, typically on a weekly basis, at the peak of freshness.”
Beets, bok choy and other ‘benefits’
Karen Paulus owns Paulus Orchards in Dillsburg with her husband Dan. This is their third year operating a CSA. She lists the desire for a connection to local farming and the convenience of getting fresh, local produce each week as her customers’ top reasons for joining.
And although most CSAs, including hers, offer a variety of pick-up sites, Paulus says she has been struck by how many come get it on the farm. Like many CSA operators, Paulus offers a discount on other features at their site — in this case, discounts on the pick-your-own fruits and vegetables.
Paulus says the element of surprise can be a real positive aspect of the program if you are willing to embrace it.
“It’s kind of like Christmas. You just don’t know what you’ll get,” she says. And over the course of a CSA season, she says, most people are going to be exposed to something new. “There’s going to be something in there you’ve never ever cooked with.”
The person who has avoided acorn squash or rhubarb because they didn’t know what to do with it may be pleasantly surprised when their CSA provides them with an opportunity to try it. To help make things easier, she often includes a recipe for something that might be new to a lot of people.
Tina and Kevin Cancel live in Boiling Springs with their four young children and are members of Paulus Orchard’s CSA.
“The CSA gave me the opportunity to show my children foods that I don’t normally eat while giving me that good feeling about feeding them locally grown fresh produce,” Kevin says.
“A lot of it is stuff I know what to do with,” says Tina. But there have been items — beets and bok choy — that she probably wouldn’t have picked up at the grocery store. She’s now become fairly adept at integrating these new foods.
“Part of doing this was to get me out of my comfort zone,” Tina says.
The abundance of food has also increased the Cancels’ interest in canning and a desire to plant their own garden this year, although it won’t take the place of their CSA.
“I do have to do meal planning,” Tina said, noting it’s a very good thing. “The way to get the most out of it is to embrace it,” she says. “With the four kids, it takes the stress out of ‘What do I have to buy?’ to ‘What can we do with it?’”
Meats and more
The Cancels also have used a meat CSA through Carwood Farms in Boiling Springs. They experimented with different cuts of meat and learned some things that they preferred, and some new ways to prepare meat. They also would drive by the farm and see the cows.
Corey Carothers of Carwood Farms says a meat CSA offers all the advantages of the local food tie-in, but lets consumers get a smaller amount.
“There is an entire population of people who want to buy their meat from local sources they trust to provide them with healthy food, but don’t want 175 pounds all at once,” Carothers says. “CSA packages offer either six or 12 pounds of meat per month. This meets their consumption habit much better.”
Carothers says a perceived disadvantage to a meat CSA in particular would be that the customer doesn’t control what cuts of meat they get. But as with the unpredictability of all CSAs, he said people usually are ultimately satisfied once they get used to it.
“Not every CSA is a good fit for every person,” says Smith-Brubaker. “We have CSA members who have been with us for all 20 years that we’ve operated one and then we have others who know after the first season that CSA just isn’t for them. That’s OK.”
Simon Huntley is the founder and developer of Small Farm Central, a Pittsburgh-based technology company that serves farmers in a variety of ways, including through CSA support. Huntley says he believes the most important benefit of CSAs is access to healthier, fresher food.
“In general, having that food in your house is going to make you eat healthier,” he says. He says a farmer once described joining a CSA as a choice you make once during the year (at sign-up) that then forces you to make good choices throughout the year. And that’s not a negative thing, Huntley points out.
Huntley says some people think CSAs, or organic food, or local food movements are only for wealthier people. He feels the opposite is true.
“If you’re going to cook at home, it’s way cheaper [to join a CSA] than going through the drive-thru,” he says. Comparing a monthly cable or phone bill to joining a CSA at an average of $100 a month isn’t a bad deal, he says, noting food isn’t even an added expense. People already are spending money on food; this is just a matter of how to allocate it.
On the broader level, Huntley agrees that CSAs are about much more than food.
“This is a way to spend your money…in a way that you can feel good about,” Huntley says. “Here’s a way to create change in the world.”
At a time when so many issues seem overwhelming or insurmountable, Huntley says this is something that is relatively easy, manageable and beneficial for lots of groups.
“Joining a CSA is a concrete action that people can take…Food touches everything.”
Lisa Maddux is a freelance writer who lives in Boiling Springs with her husband and two daughters.