We’re all wanting to be more resilient with our food, especially given the world’s current state of affairs (read: the pandemic). For that resiliency, you want to have local farms growing your food. Not relying on farms in other countries to send you food.
Unfortunately, in Ontario, we’re not doing so well when it comes to new farmers and growing food. But there is a solution: the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. Almost all the new farmers I know are using this model to grow food and sell it. And it’s something that can have a huge impact on this problem of food resiliency.
So how did this CSA model come about? Well, a bunch of people started noticing 20 or 30 years ago that they, as eaters, were losing options for fresh, local food. A lot of farmers were saying, “I’m having a really tough time growing food because I can’t make money from it.” It was too high risk, so they weren’t farming anymore.
Well, they put their heads together and came up with this model called Community Supported Agriculture. Customers commit to buying what the farmer grows for the season (i.e., they pay the farmer before they start growing). Because farmers have to spend all their money at the outset, this gives them the freedom to grow all they can for their CSA members without worrying about whether they’ll end up selling their vegetables.
So that was the basic arrangement that started long ago. Now there’s different versions of the CSA and it’s grown over time.
Is doing a CSA program really worth it for a farmer?
Okay, so that’s all theory. But what happens when you personally experience doing a CSA program as a farmer?
Well, before I did our CSA, I tried to sell my food at farmers markets. It was super difficult – there was a lot of food waste and failed crops. It was just tough farming, and it made me feel like not trying to grow anymore or make it a bigger business. What was the point if it was already so hard to do at a small scale?
But last year, we finally decided to go for it. We did our first season of the Schomberg Vegetable Box, and it felt amazing to not be losing money after doing all the work. Right away, I felt the difference it makes when money actually comes in to pay for all the expenses I had to start the season.
It’s still stressful, because people have already paid you for the food, and you obviously want to grow them great food. But the difference is because I had the money upfront, I was able to put it right back into the farm. We built new greenhouses, and I bought a seeder. These tools and equipment allowed me to do a better job and save a lot of time.
If it wasn’t for that, I’d just be on a treadmill where I’d never make anything, and then never have anything to invest anything back into it. You just keep grinding and grinding. Farming already has enough of that! You don’t need to be stuck in it.
Doing a CSA to sell the food you grow is also great for a farmer because you meet and really get to know your customers, as the same faces come in week after week to pick up their food. As farmers, we want to do good in our community, so it’s super fulfilling to see our beets going to someone we’ve gotten to know over the season. Or to hear them say, “It tasted amazing!” or “It smells so good!” It’s a cool feeling to know I helped create that for them.
“The only way you could get it any fresher is if you picked it from your own garden.”
As a CSA eater, you also win in this relationship with your local farmer. You get tastier, super fresh food. You can’t get any fresher! You also get to eat a bunch of produce you can’t even find at a supermarket. And food that actually looks like it’s alive! It’s not just the same “perfect,” waxy apple every time.
You also really get to know how your food is grown and what goes into it (and in turn, what’s going into you!). In terms of nutrition and quality, you can rest assured that it’s top-notch.
CSA members also get the seasonality of food. I’m basically like your gardener. You can have almost the same thing I do without having to actually garden yourself.
And last but not least, you support a local, family business. If you want local food, there’s got to be local farmers. It’s like how a crop doesn’t just pop up one day from the seed – it takes a bunch of days to grow that crop. Likewise, with farmers, we can’t just ask them to grow things when we need them (read: shit hits the fan). We have to support them over the years, so they can learn how to be great farmers and make a living to support their
community in return.
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies …
We recognize that – let’s be frank here – the CSA is for privileged people. You need to be able to drive out to the farm. You need to have a flexible enough schedule to get out to the farm on pick-up days. The food is sometimes not what people are used to – it takes privilege to have the time and resources to look up recipes and figure out how to cook new things you’re not used to. And of course, you have to have the money upfront to pay for the season.
This is one of the challenges of the CSA model that we want to acknowledge. And different farms have tackled the problem in slightly different ways. For example, some do different pick-up points or group deliveries, so people don’t have to drive out to the farm. Other farms use sliding scale payments, so someone who has a little more can support someone who doesn’t have as much.
Our farm is trying to do a work exchange this year, where we trade our food for people doing work on the farm. Another strategy is that on some farms, if you don’t come to pick up the food, it goes to the local food bank.
It takes years to not only grow the food and do something like a CSA program, but also tackle systemic food issues. It’s not easy work, but something we’re aware of and building on step by step.