US farmers warm up to community agriculture model

Written by Reuters | Millis, Mass | Updated: Aug 29 2009, 03:30am hrs
As he finished packing corn, tomatoes and blueberries into shopping bags at a Massachusetts farm, software engineer Alex Lian said his new shopping habits had changed his attitude to food. As a city person, I have never had this much connection to the seasons and eating things as they're picked, the 32-year-old said as he looked out over fields at Tangerini's Spring Street Farm where his produce had been grown.

Tangerini's is one of a growing number of mostly small-scale US farm operations that have turned to community-supported agriculture as a new business model.

The 74-acre (30-hectare) farm sells shares of its crop of vegetable and fruit crop in winter and early spring. Its 230 customers pick up their share of the produce every week at the farm, starting in June and running through the growing season.

Laura Tangerini has been farming for more than 20 years. But in the two years since she's adopted community-supported agriculture, her family's outlook on the farming business has changed dramatically

What I am seeing with the CSA is a future for my farm past me, Tangerini said in an interview at her farm about 20 miles (32 km) southwest of Boston. She no longer has to borrow money to buy seeds and pay other early-season expenses, and her college-aged sons are starting to show an interest in farming.

The CSA model traces its roots to experiments in cooperative farming in Germany and Japan in the 1960s. It arrived in the United States in 1985 when activists in western Massachusetts founded Indian Line Farm, which remains in operation on Thursday.

Recently, the number of US farms using the CSA model has spiked, according to people who study it. People have become more interested in locally-grown produce after reading books like The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. There is a big new growth shoot that has taken place, said Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework Organic Farm in New York state, author of Sharing the Harvest.They finally get itwhy buying from a local, family-scale farm is important, she said.

The US department of agriculture released figures this year showing that 12,549 US farms had sold products through CSAs in 2007. It had not previously tried to count CSAs in its census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years. There are more CSAs in the country than there were five years ago, said Erin Barnett, director of LocalHarvest.org., a Web site that tracks them. The site has added 690 farms to its roster of 2,905 this year.

Several CSA members interviewed said they were attracted by the quality of the produce. Typically CSA farms pick fruits and vegetables the same day they distribute them, either at the farm, some central distribution point in a nearby city or through home delivery.

It's so much fresher than what we get in the grocery store, said Sara Ervin, 28, an interior designer who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It looks just gorgeous. Farmers who run CSAs, which represent less than 1% of the nation's 2.1 million farms, said the model allows them to take a different approach.

While big agriculture farms focus on producing just a few crops in immense qualities or raise one kind of livestock, CSAs need to grow a wide variety to satisfy their customers. It allows us to be extremely diverse. I can grow lots of different things, and if one thing doesn't work out ... there are so many other things that are available, said Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.