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Rooted in local fresh taste

Members of community supported farms reap the rewards of fresh and tasty produce.

By By Amy Brittain / July 25, 2007

Fresh bounty: Shareholders here at Waltham Fields Community Farm in Waltham, Mass., receive a bag of produce each week throughout the growing season.

Mary Knox Merrill - staff

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Waltham, Mass.

Open the salad bag, add dressing, and eat – it's become a regular routine in the hustle-and-bustle lives of many Americans. The prewashed, pretorn lettuce sealed in plastic bags is common in grocery stores around the world.

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But a modestly growing group of shoppers are forgoing this convenience to shake the dirt from lettuce leaves themselves. As "organically grown" and "produced locally" become appealing consumer labels, more people seem to be satisfying a need to connect with the land by making a financial commitment to area farms. Known as community supported agriculture (CSA), shareholders pay local farm owners up front before each growing season and agree to ride the waves of possible drought and crop shortages. In return, the shareholders arrive at designated pickup spots each week to fill bags with freshly harvested produce.

It's a fixed price that more environmentally conscious consumers are willing to pay, even if it means coming up with creative uses for an abundance of say, bok choy.

Tim Fukawa-Connelly of Waltham, Mass., is in his second year as a Waltham Fields Community Farm shareholder.

"My dad always had a small garden," Mr. Fukawa-Connelly says. "The more I read about food, the more I wanted to get back to knowing where my food came from."

The CSA movement originated in the 1960s in Kobe, Japan, where a group of women desired a closer connection with farmers and the food they were consuming. They called this partnership "teikei," which loosely means "food with the farmer's face on it." The trend spread to Europe and then to the United States in the mid-1980s, when Robyn Van En, a New England farmer, founded the American CSA system in western Massachusetts. The Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., now serves as a hub for CSA research and development in the US.

"I think [CSA farms] are definitely on the rise," says Nikki Nazelrod, the program coordinator at the Robyn Van En Center. "You can't get that [farmer-consumer]relationship in the grocery store."

Today there are about 1,300 CSA farms in the US, a 260 percent increase since 1995, according to statistics from the Robyn Van En Center. Most can be found in the Northeast and all along the West Coast, with Massachusetts and Rhode Island having the highest density of CSA farms.

A typical CSA "share" feeds two adults and two children during the growing season. Prices vary across the country, depending on the location, length of growing season, and variety of crops. At Waltham Fields in Waltham, a summer share costs $500 and runs from June to October. At nearby Drumlin Farms in Lincoln, a summer share is $575 or $525 if shareholders are willing to work eight hours in the fields over the course of the season. Winter shares are cheaper because of the limited crops and shorter growing season.

CSAs also have their drawbacks. If a farmer grows an unusual mix of produce that no one seems to want, customers may not return the following year. And unpredictable growing seasons may seem too great a risk for a long-term investment for some shareholders.