From farm to plate is an oft-spouted and great concept, but is shortening the distance between where our food comes from and our dinner tables realistic? It’s becoming easier to do just that by buying the farm—or, rather, purchasing shares in a farm’s harvest through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) venture.
A CSA is a partnership between a producer—usually a farm, but possibly a fishery or a dairy—and a group of consumers who each pay a set fee in advance of the harvest. Generally, the producer allows a certain number of people to buy shares in the business. In return, the shareholders receive a portion of the bounty. The shareholders’ money provides working capital and a secure market for the producer, while shareholders enjoy produce, flour, milk, fish, or even wine. There’s also a shared risk between producer and shareholder in case a crop is meagre or is damaged by weather or pests.
In a phone interview with the Straight, FarmFolk/CityFolk’s Bonita Magee estimated that CSAs have been around locally for about 15 years, while some sources say they’ve been around for decades in some parts of the world. But she said that they’re particularly popular right now due to the proliferation of farmers markets, public concern about food safety, and the increasing interest in eating locally. (For a list of CSAs in B.C., see www.ffcf.bc.ca/resources/kp/csa.html.)
One of the newest CSAs is Urban Grains, a FarmFolk/CityFolk initiative that produced its first crop of wheat in 2009. (FarmFolk/CityFolk is a Vancouver-based organization that promotes local, sustainable food systems.) This is one CSA where the level of risk is higher because there’s only one crop and because after many decades of absence, it’s being reintroduced to the Fraser Valley. Shares in Urban Grains are $90 ($10 goes to equipment purchase). Last year’s shareholders received 20 kilograms each of milled flour.
The Straight spoke with Urban Grains’ Chris Hergesheimer in February at the WISE Hall Winter Farmers Market. He was stoked about his CSA’s enormous success in its first season. “We’re increasing the number of shares [in 2010] to 300 from last year’s 200,” he said. “Our shareholders are soccer moms, old folks, university students—people who want to co-create sustainable [food] solutions.”
He’s also proud of the quality of his product. “It actually tastes like something,” he said, comparing it to wheat flour found in a grocery store.
Bishop’s restaurant bought into Urban Grains last year and received 260 kilograms of flour, which executive chef Andrea Carlson uses in breads, pasta, and desserts.
At the same farmers market, the Straight spoke to Annamarie Klippenstein, owner of Klipper’s Organic Acres in the Similkameen Valley. She and her husband, Kevin, started their fruit, vegetable, and herb CSA last summer with 40 members. Based on that season’s success, they offered 30 shares in a winter CSA, which had sold out by September.
For a $500 investment in Klipper’s, shareholders receive a weekly box of produce during the 20-week summer program. In the winter, 10 biweekly boxes are available for a $400 investment.
“We balance the basics—salad mix, tomatoes, and fruit—with different vegetables to expand taste profiles,” Klippenstein said, adding that they often include extras like jams and juices.
There’s even a “CSF” for salmon. Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery, run by the Strobel family, is heading into its second season.
“We had 47 shareholders in our first season,” said Otto’s daughter-in-law Sonia Strobel by phone. “We can support 100 with our boat, and there are other boats that would love to join in.” Shares in Skipper Otto’s cost $250. In the summer season, shareholders get a total of 35 pounds of whole sockeye salmon. Or, they can opt for an equivalent value in pink or chum salmon, salmon fillets, or other fish products.
Dairy farms like Chilliwack’s Home on the Range Raw Milk Dairy offer ways to buy into the herd. Farmer Alice Jongerden’s CSA has a herd of 21 cows, about 350 cow share members, and a waiting list of 40 people who want to buy in. Shares give participants part ownership of the herd. Each person pays weekly maintenance fees and gets weekly milk “dividends”. “The most important thing about a herd-share program is that people deal directly with the farmer,” Jongerden said by phone. “They know how the animals are being cared for and what they’re fed.”
Shareholder Karen Kamon told the Straight by phone that her young sons love drinking the milk that Home on the Range produces. “The taste is like drinking ice cream,” she said, on the line from her Vancouver home. “It’s awesome and the kids have beautiful, vibrant, rich yellow milk mustaches, not nuclear white ones.”
Vancouverite Allison Bennett has shares in five CSAs. “It’s about the freshness of the food—you know where it comes from and trust what you’re eating,” she said by phone. “I know that my food dollars are going to support farmers, and the environment, too.”
Bennett’s biggest challenges are figuring out what to do with unfamiliar produce and avoiding waste. (She hits the Internet for recipes and shares excess produce with friends.)
Explore a bit, and if you find a CSA that fits, don’t hesitate—some are already full for 2010.
Get involved. The more Vancouverites buy into CSAs, the smaller the distance between growers and our plates.