When it comes to delicious, local food from the farm and sea, the Puget Sound leads in abundance and diversity. Seattle and surrounding cities boast some of the most exciting farmers markets, co-ops and specialty food destinations in the country. In the last twenty years, nearby farmers have developed creative ways to earn income and connect the food they grow to the mouths of our fair city. One successful model is Community Supported Agriculture, farms lovingly referred to as CSAs. The CSA model is a mutually beneficial arrangement between a farmer and food consumer, or co-producer. Those who purchase a membership or farm "share" invest during the pre-season and receive a weekly box (or bag) of produce, flowers, and other special treats throughout the growing season (about twenty weeks more or less). At the beginning of each season, a farmer determines how many "shares" the farm can make available to the public, typically during the months of June through October. Some CSAs offer year-round shares.
CSAs have grown increasingly popular in the last few years. According to Mark McIntyre of Cascade Harvest Coalition, between 2007 and 2008, the number of CSAs in the Seattle and surrounding area increased from 53 to 71. This rise may be attributed to the personal nature of the CSA farmer-member relationship. Farmers are now diversifying and tailoring their offerings specifically to what they produce and what member's desire. CSAs have emerged for almost every taste and interest but vegetable and fruit shares are still most common. CSAs also specialize in livestock products like meat, poultry, eggs and cheese while others offer only fresh cut flowers or honey.
The direct communication line between farmer and the CSA member fosters a sense of community and builds a trusting bond. Some farms print up newsletters or maintain Websites or blogs to update members about goings on at the farm. Larger farms host seasonal parties or farm visits exclusively to members. Weekly recipe exchanges are also popular. This outlet is especially helpful when unfamiliar items suddenly appear: kohlrabi anyone? If a farm has operated a CSA before, they know what products are favorites with customers year after year. Longstanding CSA members know they can offer feedback to "their farmer" about what they like and don't like. The member, in turn, makes requests and shares or exchanges less desirable items with other members. Some farmers consult with their members before choosing which seeds varieties to plant before the season begins. They are usually flexible and willing to try a new crop as long as members show enough interest.
Seth Caswell, Chef/Owner of emmer & rye and President of Seattle Chefs Collaborative explains further how the CSA model is a great benefit to both the farmer and the consumer: "A member may make a lump payment of $400-600 which gives the farmer the capitol needed to purchase seeds, buy or repair equipment or hire early season staff. Since families choose to subscribe at different times in the pre-growing season, the farms can earn some income in the leaner months."
CSAs are most beneficial to homes and families, but certainly not a bad thing for businesses or individuals. To determine if a CSA membership is right for you, there are some excellent local resources to help newcomers assess level of participation according to budget, household members and individual tastes, drop-off location convenience and more. In these tough economic times, locals may find the CSA a good value in terms of convenience, quality and price. Of course, there is an upfront investment but it can be great feeling to collect a box of gorgeous local produce all summer without handing over another dime. Plus, knowing that your investment helped support and sustain a local farm is just, good business.
Lucy Norris co-chair of Slow Food Seattle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about joining a local CSA, please visit the following Web sites: