The month of May, for many people, marks the start of the gardening season. The end of overnight frost and the mild weather finally make the garden a welcoming place for humans and tender plants alike.
On our farm, late May also means the start of perhaps our favourite season: the CSA season.
Community Shared Agriculture—or Community Supported Agriculture—has seen a burst in popularity over the last 10 years. With roots traced to locations as varied as Japan, Germany, and the American South, CSA farms grew in part as a response to feelings that eaters were becoming more and more disconnected from their sources of food.
At its heart, the CSA approach is very simple. Eaters make a commitment to a certain farm by buying a “share” at the start of the season. Then they get part of the food produced each week throughout the growing season. At our farm, that means they get a box of vegetables each week for 22 weeks, though the CSA model has also been used for meat, cheese, bread and other foods.
In buying a share, CSA members accept some of the risk—and the bounty—of running a farm. This means that the produce members receive is seasonal, local, and fresh, and that it varies with the weather. The share boxes in the first few weeks tend to be smaller, and hold mostly early-season crops like lettuce, spinach, spring turnips, green onions, kale and produce from our greenhouse.
Come late June and early July, more crops mature, and the variety grows dramatically; the boxes also hold peas and green beans, cucumbers and zucchini, cherry tomatoes, herbs and beets. By August the boxes are literally overflowing with tomatoes, summer squash, onions, carrots, cucumbers, beans, beets and lettuce.
Finally, as autumn comes on the crops shift to reflect the season: Winter squashes, salad greens, peppers, kale, storage onions, root vegetables.
Because the shares are directly tied to our actual yields, the exact crops in the box can vary a lot from year to year. One year might see a bumper crop of tomatoes and only a fair year for lettuce. The next might be a modest year for tomatoes but an exceptional year for broccoli.
Weather makes a huge difference for farmers. Usually, eaters are isolated from that. The grocery store always appears to have limitless produce from somewhere, but gives shoppers no idea of where specifically the food was grown, by who, or what challenges were involved. But our members want to understand that. They want to be connected to where their food comes from and they want to know about the bigger factors—from summer rainstorms to global warming—that affect their food supply.
One member told us: “From a family perspective, the best part of the CSA is raising our children to understand the importance of locally grown nutritious food and how hard farmers work to provide families with this food.”
The system has a lot of benefits for farmers, too. We know at the beginning of the season that we’ll make a livable income, so we don’t have to gamble on fluctuating grain prices or we don’t have to make ecological compromises like spraying pesticide on our food.
And eaters benefit by knowing they have exceptionally fresh, nutritious, and local food easily accessible each week. They want to support the livelihoods of local people who share their interest in organic food production and they want to have some say in how they farm is run; every fall, for example, we hold a survey to help us decide what crops we should grow more or less of, and what we should do differently.
But the season is about more than distributing vegetables. CSA season, for us, means the community season. Many of our dearest friends are connected to the CSA in some way. Just seeing and visiting with people when they pick up their vegetables is a big motivator for us.
Likewise, community for eaters has been a huge part of the growing popularity of CSAs in Kingston and across North America. With veggie pick-ups, work bees and harvest celebrations, CSAs provide ample opportunities for CSA members to connect with each other and the land.
You can buy food, but you can’t put a price on community.
Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation. For more about the vegetable CSA, visit rootradicalrows.com.