Even though it snowed as recently as Thursday, farmers want you to be thinking about summer.
Fox Valley farms are in CSA sign-up mode now, mostly through April or early May, selling shares of their upcoming harvests.
CSA is short for “community sponsored agriculture.” It’s essentially a vegetable membership program offered by individual farms.
How it works: consumers pay upfront for a “share” of the farm for the season, and then get a box of fresh produce from the farm every week through the growing season. They get whatever was harvested that week, and pick up their produce at a pre-determined drop-off point.
“I tell people, ‘you're getting a personal farmer for the season,’” said Tracy Vinz, a farmer and co-owner of Olden Organics in the town of Rosendale.
“I like to think of it like a gym membership," said Sara Huber, co-owner of the Shared Seasons Community Farm in Fredonia. "You’ve made a commitment of what you’re going to put in your body and who you’re going to support. It forces you to eat more vegetables because they come into your home.”
Vinz said CSA programs make a huge financial difference in a farm's operation. She and her husband Richard have a 100-acre farm now starting its 12th CSA season. Their 200-member program makes up 40 percent of their income, or nearly $100,000 in business each year.
“When you’re a big, conventional grower, you get a line of credit from a bank. Smaller farms and CSA farms can’t get a line of credit,” Vinz said. “We see our CSA members as our line of credit. We use the money to pay our employees, make seed purchases and do equipment repairs. It’s a little something in the bank as we start the season. Instead of having to pay interest on a line of credit, we just have to grow food for people.”
Vinz said she counted 37 farms that offered CSA programs in the Fox Valley. There are about 300 CSA farms in Wisconsin and more than 4,000 in the entire country, she said.
First-timers can start at localharvest.org, she said. Put in a zip code and find a farm with a convenient delivery location. If possible, visit the farm and ask how many CSA members it has, she said.
Noelle McGinnis of Neenah has been a CSA member for three summers, and she’s about to sign up for a share for this summer from the Produce with Purpose Farm out of Fond du Lac.
She’s also manager of Timshel Café in Neenah, which is a wholesale customer of the farm.
McGinnis was a member of the farm's winter “build a box” program, which is similar to a CSA.
She opened her latest box at the café, and she and her co-workers oohed and aahed over the purple Japanese radish.
“It’s so exciting," she said. “It feels like Christmas. I like the variety. Sometimes I get vegetables I’ve never cooked before and I have fun Googling recipes.”
Besides the Japanese radish, the box contained a week’s supply of sweet potatoes, different colored fingerling potatoes, red beets, rainbow carrots, dill, parsley, cilantro, arugula, onion, turnips and Brussels sprouts.
An entire summer CSA share from the farm will be $500.
“It might seem like a lot of money at first, but it’s local, so it’s going to last longer. It’s been picked that day or the day before. It’s not getting shipped across the country,” McGinnis said. “I found I save money with a CSA versus a grocery store because it lasts longer and I don’t throw anything out.”
Vinz said some people should consider buying produce at a farm market rather than signing up for a CSA share if they’re not avid cooks with vegetable lovers to feed at home.
“I find myself talking people out of it at first,” Vinz said. “It’s a commitment. You don’t get to choose necessarily what produce you’re getting each week. You have to be flexible and willing to try new things. If you get a whole head of cabbage, you have to figure out on the fly what to do with a whole head of cabbage. It’s not necessarily right for everybody.”
A better option for some, she said, is buying a “market share,” which is a punch card to use at her farmers market booth over the summer.
CSA programs vary widely, with no way to compare apples to apples.
Number of weeks, prices, sizes of shares, produce selection and pick-up points are all different. Some offer add-ons, like eggs, honey or fruit.
A look at Riverview Gardens' CSA, for example, shows a range of choices from the Appleton urban farm’s fields and hydroponic greenhouse.
Its full $775 share runs a long 26 weeks, from May through November. Prices are lower for peak shares and every-other-week shares. A six-week late-season share is $150.
Riverview's shares will be mostly basic vegetables, from tomatoes and mixed greens to cucumbers and peas.
“We like to stick to things that our previous customers have really enjoyed,” said farm manager Eshalon Mayer. “Nothing too fancy. We don’t like to weird anybody out. It’s standard household produce, as well as a few flares or exciting things."
Mayer said when something different is added, they'll offer recipes. "What do I do with a summer squash? Here are three recipes. We want to help them out. We don't want them composting their CSA every week."
Riverview will launch an app when the season starts, and also has printed newsletters and recipes.
The reason to buy a CSA share, rather than just go to a weekly farm market or grocery store, might be a personal healthy eating choice or commitment to local agriculture.
In Neenah, CSA member McGinnis considers herself a locavore, a person who likes to eat locally grown food. She also loves knowing who grew her food.
“The farmer is right there and we know him and why he likes to do it. It’s surprising and refreshing to be able to discuss the growing of food with someone.”
The downside of a CSA is that growing seasons aren’t perfect.
“We ask members to sign an agreement with us that you’re willing to share in the fruits of the labor as well as the loss,” said Vinz of Olden Organics.
However, her farm, and others, often have backup plans to keep produce flowing to members when Mother Nature is uncooperative.
“In 2011, we had late blight in our tomatoes and we only harvested two bushels,” she said. “We purchased tomatoes from other farmers that we knew.”
“A lot of farms have connections in case things don’t go right,” said Shared Seasons Community Farm's Huber. “That’s the beautiful thing about this area. There are so many great farms and a culture of helping each other out.”