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Question: Is $600 for a box of vegetables every week for 20 weeks June - October  A) A good deal; B) Maybe OK or C) Perhaps next year?

Answer: Consumers buying food shares from farmer members of the FairShare Community Supported Agriculture Coalition would probably vote for “A” because they have a long history of doing so and were already talking with the farmers, pondering their choices and perhaps even signing their 2017 contracts.

This was all happening last Sunday at the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Open House held at the Monona Terrace in Madison. That’s where some 30-plus farmers exhibited their organic farm offerings for the viewing by over 1000 eager buyers.

Not only do the buyers — often dad, mom and kids — look at and compare the vegetables and programs of the farmer exhibitors but may also sign contracts to purchase a weekly box of vegetables and perhaps write a check for food that won’t even be planted for a month or two.

Pay in advance

Here’s how it works: Consumers pay in advance — before the cropping season — for future delivery of  vegetables (and/or other food products). The farmers have the money in hand before they do any tilling of planting and they then raise the crops and get them to their members over a 20-25 week period.

Some background: the CSA model (paying for food in advance) had its beginning in the 1960s in Germany, Switzerland and Japan, as a response to food safety concerns and rapid urbanization of farm land. Consumers and farmers got together and formed partnerships to support farms by paying farmers upfront for sound and socially-responsible agriculture.

The first CSA farms in the U.S. started on the east coast in 1986, came to Wisconsin in 1988 and spread nationwide years ago.The Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition had its beginning in 1992 when a small group of people felt the system was a natural fit for progressive-leaning Madison, "a town with thriving natural food co-ops and one of the largest and finest farmers markets in the country."

Know the farmer

From the beginning, CSA has been based on "knowing your farmer and a commitment to family farms whose practices minimize environmental impact ... keeping independent businesses thriving, helping families eat seasonally and building a strong, equitable local food system."

Each of the 54 farm members of Fairshare CSA Coalition offer a different combination of vegetables, prices and conditions but all must “grow or produce most products (85 percent) on their farms; vegetables must be certified organic or transitioning to organic; must practice humane and conscientious animal husbandry; and provide a high level of customer service."

There was a lot of looking going on as consumers went from booth to booth talking with the farmers about crops and delivery possibilities. Most farms deliver to pickup sites in the cities served or food can be picked up at the farms directly.

Feeding four for a week

“A standard share” means enough to feed a family of four available on a weekly basis. Depending on the farm, there may be small shares, extra large shares, seasonal shares (fall and/or spring) and even worker shares where 4 hours of work per week at the farm gets a standard share.

I doubt if my family would ever have eaten a weekly box of vegetables, even when all three children were at home, so I asked a number of  attendees their plans.

Why?

Elena Guzman, Madison, and her husband Evert Allen have one child (who she home schools) and have never participated in a CSA program previously. “I want to support local farmers and eat clean vegetables,” Elena says. “And, I going to learn how to freeze and preserve what we don’t eat for later in the year. I’m going to talk to as many farmers as I can today and try to decide who to buy from.”

Mirana Moon, was also a newcomer to CSA and planned to make the rounds of the exhibits and collect information. “I’m going to take it home, look at it all and make a decision,” she said. (Interestingly, Moon explained that she teaches belly dancing at a studio in Madison.)

Brief conversations with other current or potential CSA members emphasized their criteria for being CSA members centered on organic, non-GMO, natural food, raised by friendly, local, small family farms. They also spoke of the opportunities to visit the farm with their children so they could learn what raising food was all about. None mentioned the price of the food shares as a factor in their decision to commit to a 20-week food share.

1 acre to 120

CSA farmers raise crops on farms from one acre of land (Lovefood, Verona and Meadowlark Community Farm, Wonowoc) to Harmony Valley Farm at Viroqua with 120 acres. Many are part-time, just getting started, wanting to be full-time, family supporting operations and a few others have been in business for decades.

Harmony Valley Farm has been growing organic vegetables since 1973 under the ownership of Richard de Wilde, who “places great value on soil fertility and on an integrated, healthy, natural growing environment.“ The farm supplies over 1500 CSA  families with certified organic seasonal produce from May through December.

Vermont Valley Community Farm at Blue Mounds began operations in 1994 and its 35 acres is now farmed by two generations of the Perkins family.

A different crowd

I’ll admit the annual CSA Open House is a different kind of farm meeting for me, a guy who has attended hundreds of ag gatherings over several decades at locations from Germany to Vermont to Wisconsin to San Diego and many places in between. Most  (probably all) of these meetings have  centered on selling more milk, dairy products, crops or livestock at a higher price.

It’s possible that many traditional dairy farmers milking hundreds of cows and cropping a section or two of land might scoff at a vegetable grower farming a mere three or five acres of land and consider it a hobby farm. Don’t be too sure.

It seems CSA farms do some things that regular farms can only envy: Getting paid up front before you produce the product is one; 1000 food shares at $600 each is a good piece of change; close relationships with their customers via newsletters, farm visits and special events are routine; and bringing outsiders into the business because they want to learn and eventually have their own business seems common.

Strangely enough (to me at least), it seems many (maybe most) of the farmers and consumers were not farm-born or raised. Rather, they come out of social welfare, environmental or teaching backgrounds. But, they all love farmers and food.

Erika Jones, Executive Director of Fairshare CSA says the organization has 54 farmer members providing 14,000 households with food. To learn more, call her at 608-225-0300 or visit csacoalition.org. You will learn much as I have.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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