Buying into nature's bounty

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Margaret Plevak | June 15, 2014

ELKHORN — Beth Schmitt, a stay-at-home mom of three, remembers when the extent of her family meals was “throwing some processed (food) on a baking sheet and cooking it.”

Since June 2009, however, she's been a subscriber to a community supported agricultural program through an Elkhorn farm dubbed “Living off the fat of the land” — Lotfotl for short — run by farmers Tim Huth and April Yuds. The weekly boxes of organic produce Schmitt gets—items like butterhead lettuce, garlic scapes, melons and fingerling potatoes—end up on her table in a variety of dinner dishes.

“Actually we had never heard of CSA before, she said. “We were the poster child for what is the easiest, quickest, cheapest thing we can get on the table. This food has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of eating and cooking.” 

Schmitt is just one of a number of people, in both rural and urban neighborhoods, who want to get more of their food as the program's name implies: by communally supporting the agriculture of smaller local farmers.

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In a CSA, members or subscribers pay a set fee to the farmer upfront, generally in late winter or early spring. The farmer uses the money for seeds, equipment and other costs of raising a variety of vegetables.  In return, subscribers receive weekly boxes of fresh-from-the-fields produce harvested throughout the growing season, from the first spring spears of asparagus to fall's fat pumpkins.

Most subscribers get an average of 20 weeks of produce. Thanks to greenhouses and root cellars, some farmers offer extra, extended-season shares as early as May or as late as November. Subscribers get their boxes at the farm or a nearby pick-up site, such as a store or member's home.

Laura Pulda at Nature's Niche CSA in Burlington provides subscribers with not only vegetables, but eggs, honey, maple syrup and meat in the form of half a pig, a turkey and a dozen chickens. Other CSA farms, like Lotfotl or Turtle Creek Gardens in Delavan, supplement their own produce with area growers' goods through an online or on-site “farm store” that offers everything from Wisconsin peaches to old-school cured salami. Tipi Produce in Evansville recently added a bread share through a local bakery. Subscribers to Lovelight Flowers, an East Troy-based CSA run by Andrea Clemens, receive eco-friendly bouquets of fresh-cut heirloom flowers.

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The exact number of CSAs in the state isn't easy to determine, but Claire Strader of the Madison-based FairShare CSA Coalition, an educational resource and network for both farmers and consumers, said a large pocket of CSAs can be found in southern Wisconsin. Strader, a small scale and organic produce educator, said FairShare membership has grown from a handful of CSA farmers in 1993 to about 50 today.

“When we started in 1994, I couldn't talk to anybody without having to explain what a CSA is,” said Dela Ends, who runs Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead along with her husband, Tony, for about 100 subscribers. “It's out there now, even on TV, so people have heard of it, have an idea of what it is.”

Kyle Thom, who runs Roots Down Community Farm in Milton, started with six families in his CSA in 2007. Now he has 90. He estimated about 60 percent of the vegetables grown on his three acres goes to subscribers, and 40 percent to markets and wholesaling, including Basics Co-op in Janesville and farmers markets in Madison and Fitchburg. Today more restaurant chefs plan menus that highlight what's in season, and even grocery stores tout locally-grown fruits and vegetables, he said.

A real partnership

Subscribers say they like putting a face on the farmer who supplies what's on their plates.

“I enjoy knowing that my food was grown, harvested, and delivered to me by the people that I know and trust. Purchasing vegetables from Scotch Hill means that I will be receiving ethically, sustainably gown foods,” said Megan Adams of Madison.

Many also like the idea of eating locally to save on transportation costs and to get their food fresh from area growers, instead of being trucked in from across the country.

“CSA is always farm to family and family to farm. There's no middleman,” Thom said.
Growers like the CSA program because they have guaranteed customers.

“People commit for a season, the product is sold for a season, and they pay you at least part of the money up front. That's very helpful, especially for small-scale farmers,” Ends said. 

Smaller farmers rely on themselves or only few employees to plant, weed, harvest, wash and pack the vegetables. Many of the farms are organic, using no chemicals or pesticides on the crops, so the work is more labor-intensive.

Growers also market themselves, using everything from brochures passed out at farmers markets to social media sites like Facebook and websites complete with photos, blogs and links.

Subscriptions average $500 per season, but range from $1,100 for shares that include extras like meat and eggs, to about $300 for a bi-weekly share of produce. Subscribers can often pay in two installments, or pay for part of their shares by working on the farm. A few health insurers, including Physicians Plus and Unity Health, offer rebates on subscriptions for their members. FairShare CSA Coalition even has financial assistance plans for eligible low-income families.

“The overall cost may be $500 to $600, but you're really only paying $20 to $30 a week. When you put it that way, it's a lot easier to picture,” Thom said. “We have kids at home, too, and we spend a lot at the grocery store, especially in winter. Spending $20 to $30 a week for fresh, organic produce is pretty good.” 

Many CSA subscribers believe in supporting small, local farmers who are often undercut by bigger, sometimes federally subsidize, corporations.

“The green pepper you buy at the Super Walmart that's grown in Chile and flown across the world is cheaper than what's grown by small farmers in your own community. That's messed up,” said Milwaukeean Rhonda Van Pembrook, a Scotch Hill CSA subscriber.

Janet Gamble, owner of Turtle Creek Gardens, said consumers voice their opinions by opting for a CSA.

“How would people like to see the landscape in the future? Does that matter? Do they want to see a resurgence of small farms? Or do they want to see acres of corn and soybeans and the commodity crops of industrial agriculture?” she said. “If we do our part as smaller growers to take care of the land a little better, then I think it's good for the future of the environment, our health and the local economy.” 

CSAs are partnerships. Subscribers share the risks farmers do: drought, hot summers and heavy rains. Growers do their best to keep members happy, from newsletters, on-the-farm dinners, convenient pick-up sites, size options of their boxes, even the types of vegetables they raise.

“We send out a survey every year to get some sense of what people are eating and what they're not, which foods are popular at restaurants or in seed catalogs, what was successful for us, what we can do without,” Huth said.

“We always plan for what CSA people really want to eat, basic vegetables like tomatoes and peppers and carrots and lettuce,” said Beth Kazmar of Tipi Produce in Evansville, which packs some 500 boxes a week to subscribers from Evansville to Madison and Milwaukee. “Then we balance that with things like kohlrabi.”

Growers include a newsletter, often with recipes, to help subscribers. Some even work with chefs or meal-planning services that provide menus using the items included in each week's box. Both growers and subscribers say it's important to know how to store and prepare the produce.

“You cannot go wrong with Google,” Schmitt said of finding online recipes and tips. When she first became a subscriber, she said, she discovered plenty of vegetables she wasn't familiar with, and some she'd heard of, but never tried, like the crisp, almost sweet hakuri turnip.

A different perspective on produce

“A CSA is different than a grocery store. You don't get to pick. You get what's in season,” Ends said. “You have to like to cook and be creative, and if you're not comfortable cooking, you get frustrated. Some customers say it takes a few years to get settled.

“Everything isn't picture perfect. Heirlooms may be kind of ugly sometimes, and there might be bug holes, but that's an assurance to you that there weren't any chemicals on it. For us, education has always been an important part of what we do. People need to know where their food comes from and how it's grown.”

Gamble said her biggest challenge is maintaining a steady subscriber base. “I call it a niche farm because we're going after a niche market,” she said “People are used to getting what they want whenever they want it. (CSAs) are benevolent dictators. I think that's really counter-culture in America, to eat seasonally, to buy into the philosophical premise of a CSA.”

Because of that, she said, the programs are evolving.

“What you're seeing is the packaging of CSAs a little differently to meet consumer expectations. A lot of CSAs are turning to either selling their shares—if they go to farmers markets, people can pick what they want off the table, or (growers) are designing boxes on order so that their website is set up where people can pick and choose what they want for the week.”

But Ends said changes need to be balanced with mission. “I like our heirloom varieties, and I think it's important to preserve those seeds, rather than just go to (the grocery store) for tomatoes,” she said. “If we compromise ourselves to just growing hybrid tomatoes, it's not what we're about. It might be right for other growers, but I'm not going to do that.”

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