Community supported agriculture is a new way to expand the read of organic farms

By Carl Sigmond

Printed in: The English House Gazette, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, January 2, 2011.

In 1998, after applying pesticides to her 37-acre farm in West Brandywine, Pa. for 10 years, Karen Vollmecke wanted to convert to organic growing practices.

“I came to the conclusion that the use of chemicals was a never-ending cycle,” Vollmecke said, “and that wasn’t leading to the health of our land and property.”

Vollmecke, who along with her mother owns Vollmecke Orchards & CSA, publicized her desires to create a healthy product and protect her land. She looked for like-minded consumers in her area. Upon finding a small but committed base, the family decided to create a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and sell “shares” of their harvest ahead of time.

“When we first started, most people didn’t know what it was all about,” she said. For the first few years, the family had difficulty getting enough people to sign up.

Now, Vollmecke says, she and her mother operate a 160-member CSA, and “our waiting list is often as deep as our membership.”

Vollmecke is one of a growing number of farmers across the United States who want to develop a more direct connection with their consumers. Sparked by the popularity of the local foods movement, there is also a growing demand on the part of consumers for the freshness and variety of vegetables that come with being members of a CSA. Community supported agriculture emerged from these desires.

A form of direct marketing, CSA is a system in which consumers pay for a portion of a farm’s harvest up front, before the growing season even starts. The farmer then knows how much to grow and has the resources to plant and cultivate the crops.

During the harvest season, the consumers, or “members,” receive a “share” of the crops each week in return for their prior commitment. The consumers also share the risks with the farmer by agreeing to receive equal parts of that season’s harvest, no matter how big or small the yield.

The Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa. has been monitoring the growth of CSAs for the last 10 years. In 2001, the center took over hosting a national CSA database from the United States Department of Agriculture. According to program manager Christine Mayer, the database contained 600 CSAs in 2001. Now, she said, close to 1,500 CSAs are listed.

“It’s almost tripled in 10 years,” Mayer said. She added that the actual number of CSAs in the U.S. is probably much higher, because the center’s database is voluntary.

The idea grows locally

Mayer said that 18 CSAs in the database service Philadelphia and many more service the greater metropolitan area.

CSAs are an “opportunity for consumers to get very fresh produce and have a bit more control over where their food is coming from,” said Bud Wimer, founder and farm manager of Wimer’s Organics, a 200-member CSA in East Earl, Pa.

After working on Paradise Farm in Paradise, Pa. for five years, Wimer created his CSA in the spring of 2009 to develop a more direct connection with consumers.

“I feel a great deal of responsibility to these folks,” he said in an interview. “If I do a good job, people are very thankful and they share their appreciation with me… That motivates me even more to do a good job for them.”

When Wimer started the CSA 2 years ago, his goal was to have 200 members. At the beginning of his first growing season, he only had 60 members, but that number doubled by the end of the season, he said. He started the 2nd year with 170 members. A few weeks in, he achieved his goal of 200 and proceeded to start a small waiting list.

Wimer’s Organics delivers produce each week during the July to November harvest season to host sites in Philadelphia and in Montgomery, Chester, Lancaster, Berks, and Lebanon Counties, according to its Web site. Members then go to these sites to pick up their shares.

One such member, Tanya Veitch, of the East Falls section of Philadelphia, has hosted a pick-up site for Wimer’s Organics for the 2 years that the CSA has been in operation. When she began hosting the pick-up site, there was little interest. This past year her site had 19 members.

“We love meeting the other CSA members and getting the produce, Veitch wrote in an email. “It has helped us learn to cook what is in season in our area, though we are still learning!”

Veitch and other members of Wimer’s Organics interviewed for this story said that they learned about the CSA from Farm to City’s Web site.

Farm to City is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit whose mission is to connect urban residents with local, small-scale farms. The Web site includes a list of CSAs that service Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Another thriving CSA program that is listed on Farm to City’s Web site is run by Pennypack Farm & Education Center in Horsham, Pa. According to Fred Beddall, the farm manager at Pennypack, consumers in Montgomery County gathered together in 2000, looking for ways to purchase fresh, organic vegetables and to support local agriculture.

Taking the risk

The group did not find a farm that ran a CSA in their area, so they sought out land for themselves, Beddall said. They formed a nonprofit and three years later, leased 27 acres of land in Horsham from the College Settlement Camp of Philadelphia.

“It was difficult in the early years to find people who would take the risk,” Beddall said. At the beginning, people in the new nonprofit would stand outside of grocery stores, handing out leaflets to advertise their new CSA.

“That has really changed,” Beddall said. “Now our CSA sells out almost immediately and we have a large waiting list.” The farm does not even advertise the CSA anymore.

Pennypack Farm’s CSA is somewhat unusual in that all members go to the farm each week to pick up their shares, Beddall said. He added that the shares are not pre-sorted. Members typically get to choose from a variety of items. He said that this is one of the perks that draw people to Pennypack.

“Many of our members are families with small children,” he said, “and they like their children to see a working farm.” Beddall said that Pennypack gives their CSA members the opportunity to pick some of the crops themselves and children are able to see the farm’s chickens.

This is the 8th year that Pennypack has run their CSA. Now, according to Beddall, the farm has about 320 members during their summer season, which runs from mid-May to mid-November.

Beddall said that the farm now operates a smaller winter CSA with 95 members. The winter season runs from mid-November to mid-May, and members go to the farm bi-weekly to pick up their shares.

“For growers, the CSA has tremendous appeal,” Wimer, of Wimer’s Organics, said. He notes that many farmers go into financial debt during their planting season and do not necessarily know if they will turn a profit when they finally sell their yield.

In a CSA model, Wimer says, consumers pay for their shares up front, which in turn allows the farmer to have the resources to put out the crops. Under this model, farmers are assured that their crops are sold and much of the uncertainty of farming is lifted.

Many of the CSA members surveyed for this story commented that the variety of vegetables in their shares was both a delight and a challenge. Wayles Wilson, a Philadelphia member of Wimer’s Organics, said that being a member of the CSA has challenged him to cook in new ways.

“I typically hadn’t bought butternut squash, cabbages, beet greens, collards, or kale,” Wilson wrote in an email. “It was a new adventure each week deciding what to make.”

“I love the veggies – they are always incredibly fresh,” Jessica Stackhouse, who hosts a pick-up site for Wimer’s Organics in Phoenixville, Pa., said in an email. “I feel like I am opening a Christmas gift – it’s all beautiful produce.”

For Jeffrey Rupertus, of Philadelphia, who has hosted a pick-up site for Wimer’s Organics for the past 2 years, being a member of the CSA has helped him change his eating habits.

“I have vegetables with just about every meal now,” Rupertus wrote in an email. He and his wife get the satisfaction of knowing exactly where their food comes from, he wrote.

The couple also values their support of the local economy by “keeping more of our dollars in Eastern Pennsylvania.”

At the start of the first season, Rupertus said that he and his wife had trouble getting people in their neighborhood to sign up for Wimer’s CSA.

“This past year,” Rupertus wrote, “we had neighbors coming to us saying, ‘Hey, we heard you guys have a CSA.’” He said that during the 2009 season, 10 or 12 people came to his house each week to pick up shares, but the following year that number rose to 25.

The success of CSAs in recent years has led to an even newer concept: city supported agriculture. One of these programs is Greensgrow Farms, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that is going into its 3rd season. According to Aviva Asher, a farmer at Greensgrow, the organization only has a small demonstration garden in Philadelphia.

Similar to a CSA, Greensgrow sells memberships to consumers in the spring. The organization then takes the money and purchases crops from small family farms in Lancaster County and southern New Jersey. Members then go to a central pick-up location in Philadelphia each week and select from a wide range of vegetables, as well as meat, dairy, eggs, and even tofu, she said.

“It really is like a grocery shopping trip,” Asher said. “You get one of everything you need.”

According to Asher, Greensgrow just completed its 2nd summer season, which had 400 members. Greensgrow also runs a winter city supported agriculture program with 200 members. Similar to the Pennypack winter CSA, winter members go to Greensgrow’s central location every other week to pick up their shares.

Greensgrow’s model of cooperative, or “subscription,” buying from small family farms, Asher said, helps to support and maintain the long tradition of small-scale agriculture in Lancaster County and southern New Jersey.

In 2006, another cooperative buying organization was formed in Lancaster County. According to Evan Miller, CSA manager at Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative (LFFC), the organization emerged out of desires by CSA farmers to become more profitable.

David Fogarty-Harnish, owner of Scarecrow Hill Organic Farm in Ephrata, Pa., banded together with other farmers in his area to form this cooperative, Miller said.

In the first season in 2006, LFFC had 200 consumer members. Now the cooperative buys from 70 farms and has 2,000 members, Miller said. The organization also operates a large wholesale division.

“People actually think we are a very big co-op, and we do have 70 farms,” Miller said. “But all of our farms are under 20 acres.”

CSA model works well

According to Miller, LFFC has 48 pick-up sites in the greater Philadelphia area and Lancaster County. They also deliver to 1 site in New York City, 5 in Washington, D.C. and 2 in Maryland.

LFFC’s wholesale division is 4 times as large as their CSA sales, but Miller said that the organization is hoping to shift its focus more towards direct sales to consumers.

“CSA means more now than it used to,” Vollmecke, of Vollmecke Orchards & CSA, said. In her view, “People are co-opting the term ‘community supported agriculture’ and using it as it applies to subscription farming.”

For Vollmecke, the values of the CSA model are in the direct relationship between the grower and the consumer. She sees subscription farming deviating from the original concepts of the CSA model and shifting the risks back to the grower.

“I hope that people will continue to see the value in sharing the abundance and the risk,” she said.

Beddall, the farm manager at Pennypack, predicts that as long as CSAs keep getting better at meeting the demands and needs of the public, they will continue to grow.

“Right now everyone thinks it’s cool to be a member of a farm,” Wimer of Wimer’s Organics said.

“It’s the hip thing to do.” Vollmecke said. “People like to get to know who the farmer is.”

Wimer notes that the rise in popularity of grocery stores is mainly due to their convenience. “You can essentially purchase any kind of produce all year round in our local grocery store, which gives us tremendous flexibility.” he said. “We have fully lost contact with the idea of seasonal eating.”

Wimer and others interviewed for this story see the CSA model as a way to help consumers be more in touch with eating local food, but Wimer fears that the convenience of grocery stores will eventually win out.

Miller, of Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, also believes that the rise in grocery stores is due to their convenience. “What is great about CSAs is that they can be more convenient and can also build a sense of community,” she said.

In the 3 days prior to her interview for this story, Miller said she received 3 or 4 emails from people who want to host pick-up sites for LFFC next summer.

“It’s not even me reaching out,” Miller said. “It’s people reaching out to us.”

“A New Way to Farm” originally appeared in the English House Gazette, a news blog for Haverford and Bryn Mawr College students. Used with permission. The original article can be viewed here.