Friday, July 06, 2007

Community supported agriculture: win-win urban-rural partnerships

When one speaks of agriculture in Massachusetts -- or anywhere in New England for that matter-- they're talking about family farms. The region's topography and mentality are not conducive to agribusiness. These are, of course, difficult times for family farms. The combined effects of globalization, federal agricultural subsidies and Wall Street are doing their best to push small farmers off the land in favor of corporate-owned factory farm operations.

Small farmers find it almost impossible to eke out a living if they primarily depend on conventional marketing strategies to sell their produce. There are simply too many middlemen putting the squeeze on their hard earned dollars for them to turn a reasonable profit.

To survive, small farmers in states like Massachusetts have formed opted to partner with consumers in creating a variety of direct marketing options -- venues wherein the growers sell their fruits, veggies and flowers directly to you and me without the intervention of go-betweens. These include roadside stands, pick-your own operations and farmers markets.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) take the farmer-consumer relationship to a new level by making them partners in the farming enterprise. They share both the risks and the bounties. (GW)

Making agriculture a community effort
By Emily Shartin
Boston Globe
July 5, 2007

Dave Purpura knew he always wanted to be a farmer. But when the time came for him to make good on his dream and begin growing organic produce on five acres in Middleborough, he jumped in without fully understanding the business.

"I hadn't arranged any way of selling what I produced," said Purpura, a former engineer and software developer who calls his farm Plato's Harvest.

By his second season, that had changed. Like many other small farmers, he latched onto the idea of community-supported agriculture, or CSA. It's an arrangement that typically invites customers to pay several hundred dollars to a farm at the beginning of the season, in exchange for a weekly allotment of produce.

Purpura opened Plato's Harvest last year to about 45 members. Not only did he suddenly find himself with a guaranteed stream of customers, he also was generating revenue to cover the costs of seeds and equipment at the time of year he needed it most.

"I thought it was a great idea to have a dedicated channel" for sales, said Purpura, who said he planned to limit the farm to the same number of customers this year, but increase the size of each share.

While few people will say they go into farming to get rich, the CSA model -- along with increased demand for locally grown produce -- is helping many farmers succeed at work they love. The model offers another market to smaller farmers, whose sales often revolve around farm stands or wholesaling.

And in the absence of the subsidies that have long served as a safety net for commodity farmers in the Midwest, the CSA model builds in insurance for the farmer by asking members to accept the risk of a bad season. If the crops don't grow or are wiped out, there's no refund.

As a result, the anxiety of counting on healthy crops and finding regular customers "is completely gone," said Dan Kaplan, a manager at Brookfield Farm in Amherst. Because of his farm's CSA program -- which, at 20 years old, is one of the oldest in the United States -- his staff can focus on farming in a more sustainable, organic manner, he said.

"The whole point of a CSA is to allow farmers to make the choices they want to make," Kaplan said. "You're not going to make it in farming if you can't make it in business."

There is no official tally of CSA programs in Massachusetts, but two national databases put the number at about 65. Across the country, there are thought to be over 1,000 programs, up from just 50 in 1990.

The state Department of Agriculture encourages farms to organize CSA programs and sell at farmers markets, said Kent Lage, the department's assistant commissioner, because selling directly to customers means higher profit margins. "That direct relationship is very efficient," Lage said.

It is also a key draw for consumers, many of whom say they joined CSAs to connect with the land and the people who grow their food.

Marya Place, a member of the Appleton Farms program in Ipswich, said she believes in the environmental reasoning behind eating food that has not been trucked in from miles away.

"I refuse to go to the supermarket and eat zucchini that's been grown somewhere else," Place said. She admits she has little choice but to shop in stores during the winter, but the CSA ends up covering most of her produce needs during the summer months.

Place was one of about 100 inaugural members of the Appleton Farms program, which began six years ago. Today, the program has about 500 members and a waiting list of about 200, said manager Jamie Barrett. Nearly all of the program's income is generated through CSA shares, he said.

Other programs are also seeing a rise in demand. For instance, Land's Sake in Weston expects to grow this year from about 100 to 150 members, said manager Seth McDonough. The farm also sells to restaurant and wholesale accounts.

For a Lowell-based cooperative called World Peas, the CSA model is helping farmers solve practical problems. The cooperative, which trains immigrants from Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa in farming, discovered many had difficulty selling produce at farmers markets because they couldn't speak English.

The CSA, which opened to 15 members last year and hopes to grow to 50 members this year, has helped centralize distribution of its produce, said Suliman Kamara, marketing coordinator for the program.

But even supporters will admit that, compared to a supermarket, CSA programs can be inconvenient. Pick-up times are usually limited, and members often have no choice in what produce they receive. Although some farms make deliveries in urban areas, many city dwellers have limited access to the programs.

And CSA programs don't mean instant success for a farmer.

Chris Kurth, who has been farming for a decade and now owns Siena Farms in Sudbury, believes it takes most farms five to 10 years to build up the equipment, soil fertility, and markets needed to turn a profit. The odds of succeeding are improving, Kurth said, as more consumers seek local produce.

Newer farmers especially, such as Purpura of Plato's Harvest, are banking on that trend to continue.

"In a way, I really lucked out with the timing," he said.


Post a Comment

<< Home