Have you ever fantasized about leaving your job, moving out to the country and starting a farm based on the tenets of sustainable agriculture -- maybe with some sheep grazing about? You could grow your own food, start a roadside farm stand and enjoy a fulfilling existence of hard, honest work and sweet, peaceful nights. If reality won't allow you to act upon your rural fantasy anytime soon, joining a Community Supported Agriculture program might be your next best option.
CSA members pay about $400-$700 sometime in midwinter or early spring, and reap the sweet rewards of receiving a local farm's bounty for months to come without ever paying another cent. In most CSAs, members also make a commitment to volunteer -- either on the farm or at the weekly produce distribution.
The farmer, who grows and delivers a share of veggies each week to a central drop-off site like a community center or school (or opens up his farm as a pick-up location once a week), reaps a significant benefit as well: a secure and pre-established income source. For the small farm, figuring out whose plate its gorgeous eggplants and heirloom tomatoes are going to end up on can be stressful. A trip to the farmers market on a gray afternoon can result in half a truck of unsold produce at the end of the day. And heavy rains or drought can ruin crops, costing the farm tens of thousands of dollars. With a CSA, a farmer knows where his produce is headed, and is protected against income loss if his crops fail.
Additionally, because members pay upfront, the farmer receives an influx of cash when it's needed most -- before the first vegetables are harvested. (The money to fix that rusted-out tractor and buy seeds to plant has to come from somewhere.) Anna Stevenson, a farm manager at the Adamah Farm in Falls Village, Conn., explained that a farm can be "completely out of cash by the end season, so members' payments really make a huge difference."
Members say the main benefits of joining a CSA include: regular deliveries of fresh local produce (often picked the same day as delivery), an introduction to vegetables they might have overlooked in the store (kohlrabi, blue potatoes and kale, oh my!), inspiration to cook more often, increased awareness about sustainable agriculture and other food issues, interaction with likeminded people, and a relationship with the person who grows their food. Some members dislike the pressure that comes along with a weekly influx of vegetables, and feel like they're in a constant race to finish everything before the next week. But most members enjoy the convenience as well as the culinary challenge joining a CSA brings to their lives.
Not surprisingly, the CSA movement has grown like a wild bean plant over the last few years. According to an article in The New York Times, there were "fewer than 100 farms running CSA operations in the early 1990s." That number has increased to 1,500, with new farms piloting share systems every year. Farmers are also piloting new types of shares beyond the typical vegetable mix including fruit, eggs, flowers, dairy, meat and even wheat berries that members can grind into flour.
In the last couple seasons, CSAs have grown so popular in some places that farmers are struggling to keep up with demand from new members. Last fall, this very writer (and, in full disclosure, former professional CSA coordinator) almost got shut out of my CSA due to a huge increase in interest -- and maybe partly due to a touch of laziness. A CSA member and personal chef in Berkeley, Calif., Alix Wall, noticed a similar problem. "This [year] is the first time ever our farm has sold out of shares," she said. Another hopeful member in Brooklyn commented, "My roommate and I were so excited to join a CSA this season, and last week he e-mailed a few in the area, but no. All sold out. We had glorious visions of trotting home, arms full of gorgeous, colorful vegetables. Not this year, it seems."
With the interest in community supported agriculture continuing to spread like weeds between bean plants, the need for new, idealistic farmers to fill people's plates with organic greens is high. Perhaps now is the perfect time, after all, for you to give up the desk job and say hello to the farm.
• Learn how to start a CSA of your very own here.