CHICAGO — Bob and Jody Windy buy their produce in a whole new way.
For a $450 annual investment - and a weekend's worth of farm chores - they harvest everything from lettuce and cucumbers to peppers and melons.
It's a win-win for farmer and consumer.
By selling shares in their operations, family farms can offset economic risks. By investing in small-scale agriculture, shareowners reap some of the freshest returns around, plus produce prices comparable to store-bought vegetables.
"It's great to get out of the city, but it's also like getting back to roots," says Mr. Windy of Chicago. "You get a feel for the people. It goes beyond the produce to exchange of ideas, a way to nurture good thoughts."
The movement behind selling shares in farms is called community-supported agriculture (CSA). Started in the 1960s as local collaborations between farmers and nonfarm neighbors, CSA farms now pull in a wider audience.
Urbanites, looking for some rural wholesomeness for their lives and diets, are beginning to invest in small farms. Shares typically cost $300 to $600 a year, depending on the area of the country.
"They appeal to people seeking to connect with where food comes from, urban people wanting to compensate for how their city lives separate them from the rural places where food grows," says Donna Neuwirth, co-owner of Neu Erth Wormfarm in Reedsburg, Wis. The former Chicagoan and her partner, Jay Salinas, serve 45 Chicago shareholders, including the Windys.
In June, the farm parcels out, to each shareholder, about 10 pounds of spring vegetables - a lot of lettuce, spinach, chard, cucumbers, green onions, and a little broccoli. Later in the summer, the bounties will mushroom to heaped-over boxes with all of the above plus tomatoes, peppers, beets, melons, pumpkins, and several varieties of squash.
Many of the farms specialize in organic, pesticide-free produce.
"The strongest CSAs are those formed from the community side," with hungry consumers seeking out farmers, says Wheyland Southon of CSA West in Davis, Calif. The organization links Californians to local CSAs, which have multiplied in the state from two in 1990 to 100 today.
The CSA movement now stretches from coast to coast.
But as urbanites join in, challenges of longer-distance transportation crop up.
Only the largest CSAs can afford to deliver to distant shareholders. Angelic Organics near Rockford, Ill., has served 400 Chicago area families for years. Last year it began delivering to its 18 city-area pickup sites in a refrigerated truck.
But for small farms, delivery exacts too much energy away from farming.
Neu Erth Wormfarm solved the problem by incorporating another common CSA objective: involving shareholders in rural and agricultural life. All Wormfarm shareholders visit the farm once a year.
"They can plant, weed, or harvest as much or as little as they like," Ms. Neuwirth says. Returning to their Chicago area homes on Sunday, the guest families carry a portion of vegetables to one of three pickup sites.
Roxbury Farms in Hudson, N.Y., started serving 35 New York City shareholders in 1991. Today, its delivery truck makes a weekly, two-hour drive to downtown Manhattan to serve 210 shareholders at pick-up points, such as a church courtyard on West 86th Street.
Shareholders, required to work at the site three hours a year, oversee the distribution of food. A core group of nine shareholder volunteers help manage the CSA - from billing and member records to helping set prices. And they orchestrate two annual festivals at the farm.
Most CSAs open their farms to random visits and sponsor at least one seasonal festival a year.
Though shareholders gladly share the risks of crop failure with their farmers, few complain about short crops. The Windys invite friends to co-purchase their share of the farm produce. Even families with two children say a full share provides more vegetables than they can eat.
Besides food, farmers also share their rural lives with shareholders through newsletters. The Wormfarm's "Stalk Market Report" offers tips on how to prepare vegetables people may have never tried.
Like arugula, a lettuce-like leaf.
"You end up trying food you never tasted before," Windy says. "I never tasted arugula until last year. Now I love it."
Dig Deep to Find the Right CSA
When choosing a community-supported-agriculture farm, find out which CSAs serve your area, and then visit one or more to determine which one suits you in terms of crop variety, prices, pay schedules, and farming methods.
These groups can aid the search:
* University of Massachusetts
Extension Web site: www.umass.edu/umext/CSA/us/StateList.html
Provides a state-by-state list of CSAs. It's updated occasionally.
* Most state universities have agricultural extension branches, which may know about CSAs in your area. Contact the university to get a phone number or address.
* Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association
P.O. Box 550
Kimberton, PA 19442
Lists CSAs across the country. It's incomplete, since it relies on farmers reporting to the association. Still, this list can help to start a search for CSAs. You can also order 20-pound mixed-vegetable boxes (the group passes the orders along to eight organic farms across the country). Each box costs $25, plus shipping, which adds $15 to $35 to the bill.
* CSA West
Wheyland Southon, director
P.O. Box 363
Davis, CA 95617
(530)-756-8518 Ext. 27
Web site: www.caff.org
* The Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
W2493 County Road ES
East Troy, WI 53120
Free Upper Midwest Regional Directory lists CSAs in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
* Land Stewardship Project
2200 4th Street
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Provides a free directory of CSA farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
New York City
* Just Food
Coordinates six CSAs serving the city. For information, call and leave your name and address.