CSA  farming:  It’s all about the people and their food

John Oncken

“We like to meet the farmers who raise our food,” Pete Overholt says. “I feel more comfortable eating food raised on a farm that protects the land and water and I don’t want some chemicals on my food that are applied incorrectly,” his wife Gail added.

Gail and Pete Overholt, of Madison, are big supporters of locally grown, organic food, grown by farmers they can talk to. Gail is a personal chef in Madison.

“Most of the farms are so big and so mechanized that I’m not sure they can apply chemicals in the proper way and in the right amounts,” Gail continued. “I just don’t know if they do it right.”

Those are just a couple of reasons the Madison couple were at the annual Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) open house at the Monona Terrace a couple of weeks ago. They planned to sign up with one of the 19 CSA farms with exhibits at the event and buy a weekly box of vegetables from them.  

The Overholts were but two of the perhaps 800 people who visited the open house, to learn about CSA food, talk with the growers and maybe even sign a contract for 20 weeks of vegetable food boxes.

What is it?

Firstly, what is a CSA farm? Each of the 49 farm members of  the Madison-based 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."

This is what a small  box food share looks like. Elizabeth Minch (pictured) and Steven Shoemaker farm 10 acres at Mineral Point at their Kings Hill Farm.

Farmer members range from as far north as Athens in Marathon county (Cattail Organic and Red Door Family Farm), east to West  Bend ( Wellspring Farm), south to Brodhead (Scotch Hill Farm) and west to Potosi (Honey Hill Farm) with the biggest numbers located in a broad band from Vernon county to Dane county.   

Food shares

The food shares range from weekly to every other week in three different size boxes most often dropped off at central locations or picked up at the farm. The cost ranges from about $300 to $600 for the season.

The CSA box contents vary with the season: the first boxes will contain mostly leafy vegetables like lettuce, asparagus, broccoli and radishes. Summer bring beans, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers and later on boxes will have potatoes, squash and pumpkins. Each farm will offer a different and perhaps wide-ranging variety of vegetables. Thus, the open house.

Pay ahead

Oh yes — the vegetables are paid for in advance, that’s one of the basics of the program from the very beginning. 

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. They then raise the crops and get them to their members over a 20 - 25 week period.  

Visitors checking out the Ridgeland Harvest, at Viroqua, farm display. The 25 acre farm is in its 18th growing season.

The CSA model (paying for food in advance) had its beginning in the 1960s in Europe and Japan as a response to food safety concerns and rapid urbanization of farmland. Consumers and farmers got together and formed partnerships to support farms by paying farmers upfront for sound and socially-responsible agriculture.

Since 1988

The CSA program moved to the US in the mid 80’s and came to Wisconsin in 1988 with the Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition beginning in 1992. 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."

Kristen Kordet, (left) shown with assistants Kate and Rachel, owns Blue Moon Community Farm near Stoughton. After working on farms and renting land at Madison, she and her husband bought 10 acres of land at Stoughton in 2008.

The size of participating member farms ranges from the 120 acre Harmony Valley Farm at Viroqua which dates to 1984 to the 1 acre Meadowlark Community Farm at Wonowoc that began operations in 2015. Most seem to fall into the 5 to 20 acre size range. 

“Ninety percent of my food is locally  grown,” Ray of Madison says. “I live alone and had to learn how to cook but I lost 40 pounds by eating more vegetables after joining a CSA farm program."  

Chance to learn

Josh and Lissa Turner and their two young children Reba and J.D. were pondering their choices of a CSA farm. 

“We go to the farmers market a lot and already eat a lot of vegetables and thought we’d try this,” Josh says. “We’re considering joining Vermont Valley Farm at Blue Mounds, they offer many family events which would give us a chance to learn about farming like growing crops and fixing things.”

Friends Ann Dontje and Seep Paliwal are both Madison attorneys and vegetarians who feel they can get more farm fresh vegetables through a CSA farm than anywhere else.   So they were making the rounds of the farm displays in order to select a provider.

Lissa and Josh Turner, and children Reba and J.D., agree that they are big vegetable lovers.

Note — this is the third CSA Open House I’ve attended and interestingly, no one I’ve talked with has yet mentioned price as one of their major selection points in picking a farm from which to buy. 

Lots of benefits

I asked Erika Jones, executive director of the CSA coalition if $600 for a 20-week vegetable supply wasn’t a steep price.  

“Not really,” she says. “It’s $30 a week for the 20 week season, enough to feed a growing family of four. It’s a regular supply of nutritious food."

Several of the people I talked with added that many of the farms have family get togethers, u-pick events and offer a chance for people to work on the farm as partial payment. “It’s a place we can make friends and spend time on a farm." “It’s also joining a new community of people that we would not get to meet elsewhere,” parents of a couple of young children proclaimed.  

Not sure-but

Most certainly buying decisions do center on organic, non-GMO, natural food, raised by friendly, local, small family farms. It’s also true that buyers are not all sure what these terms actually mean but do associate them with better food and health. 

It’s probably true that many traditional dairy farms milking hundreds of cows and crop farmers 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. One CSA farm I talked with regularly sells 150 shares at $600 each plus smaller shares.  

Getting paid upfront

It seems CSA farms do some things that regular farms can only envy, like: Getting paid up front before producing the product is one and the close relationships with their customers via newsletters, farm visits and special events, are others. (Of course dairy breakfasts, open houses and farm tours offer education for so many and are routine farm events.)

Is it possible that we in traditional agriculture have erred in publicizing our big farm equipment, big dairy herds and large farms, automated systems and high volume food production? Perhaps a better direction would be to talk about the farm families doing the farming and how they love what they do.

Just a thought.

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