Support Your Local Farmers

Members of CSAs (community supported agriculture) reap the benefits of what their neighborhood farmers sow—food that doesn’t get any fresher.

Late summer brings a wide range of vegetables for members of the Work Song Farm CSA in Hopkinton. Tender summer squash, eggplant, garlic, greens and root crops are just a sampling of the crops grown on the four-acre farm.

Long before spring has sprung, seeds and gardening have been in the forefront of farmers’ minds. But what they’re planning requires capital—something that’s often in short supply after the long winter of fields covered in snow.  

To help bridge the gap and sustain a treasured—and needed—occupation, many farmers in New Hampshire and across America are inviting their neighbors to join with community supported agriculture (CSA). Community members join a local farm’s CSA by purchasing a share of the harvest upfront for a flat fee. This gives the farmer badly needed cash early in the year to buy supplies for the coming season while giving the members fresh, locally grown food.

“It literally provides ‘seed money’ early in the spring when expenses are high and other farm income is low,” explains Larry Pletcher of Kearsarge Mountain CSA and the Vegetable Ranch in Warner. “But our main motivating factor in choosing CSA marketing was a desire to connect more closely with the local community.”

Abigail Dixon of Work Song Farm in Hopkinton agrees. “We started with CSA marketing because we believe strongly in the community aspect, being able to establish a relationship with our weekly customers, many of whom are close neighbors,” Dixon says. “It also gives us some stability to plan ahead. With members committing early in the year, we can better prepare for the upcoming season.”

In exchange for your membership in a CSA, you get a weekly share of the produce ready to be harvested each week. What you receive changes with the seasons: in spring, be prepared to eat lots of greens along with peas, garlic scapes (the top, edible part of the bulb), radishes, parsnips, beets, asparagus and scallions. A summer basket overflows with beans, tomatoes, summer squash, peppers, cukes and all the other good things available at the height of the growing season. A fall share brings cabbages, carrots, beets, winter squash, potatoes, garlic and more greens as the season winds down. The vegetables cannot be any fresher—most are picked the same day they are distributed—and many CSA farms offer more than just produce, providing shares that include meat, eggs, bread, jam, cheese and maple syrup. Some CSA farms, such as Pletcher’s Vegetable Ranch in Warner, even have winter shares to keep you supplied with storage vegetables, such as carrots, potatoes and onions, as well as fresh greenhouse-grown greens. Not only are you eating the freshest produce under the sun, but you are also becoming connected to the seasons.

Not sure you can eat that much food? All CSA farms offer at least two levels of membership: a single share, which can easily feed two people or one hungry vegetarian, and a family share, which is a good size for a family of four.

How CSAs work

CSA farms vary in how they are run. Some require prepayment while others let you pay in installments through the season. Some give a discount if you help on the farm with work such as weeding, watering, harvesting, packing share baskets and distributing them. Tracie’s Community Farm in Fitzwilliam has a Working Share program where members work a certain number of hours in exchange for a free share.

Most CSAs have central pickup locations (in addition to the farm itself) and some even have home delivery. Tracie’s Community Farm delivers baskets directly to the homes of about half of its members. One of them, Jessica Densmore, is a midwife and a mother of two young children. “I knew that my life is so busy and my schedule so irregular that I could never make it to a location to consistently pick up my share. The delivery option makes all the difference,” she says.

If you find you are getting some vegetables in your weekly share that your family doesn’t eat, many CSAs have a swap table. However, CSA members may enjoy being exposed to new foods and learning about eating with the seasons. Tracie Smith of Tracie’s Community Farm says her members
often tell her that once they become part of the farm, they eat more vegetables in a much greater diversity. One of them, Susan Terzakis says, “Our family enjoys the bounty of locally grown and seasonally appropriate food. Who knew what celeriac was, never mind that it was soooo good too!”

Many CSA farms offer recipes for lesser-known vegetables to help expand food horizons. Tracie’s Community Farm posts recipes on its website and sends them via a weekly newsletter. Densmore found one there for grilled bok choy that has become a family favorite. “Now, it is the first item that gets devoured at dinner the night it arrives,” Densmore says. “One of my favorite parts is getting produce I do not normally buy and trying to figure out what to do with it.”

Customizing your CSA share

If you are not that adventurous and would rather choose what produce you receive each week, try a CSA farm that offers a flexible plan. This new idea in CSA marketing allows members to “think outside the box (or basket),” as Rick Barry of Random Hill Farm in Weare says. He has done away with the weekly share basket altogether, giving the members discounted debit cards instead. “Ours works more like a gift card,” Barry says. “The customer simply comes to our market and picks what they want and the amount gets debited to their share. They don’t have to come every week.”

Heather Stickney of Trombly Gardens in Milford has also found the debit card program to be popular. “We don’t have to expend the extra labor putting bundles of food together and having families not be thrilled with what is in the bundle,” Stickney says. Depending on how early in the season you purchase your debit card, discounts can run up to 15 percent.

Hungry Bear Farm in Wilton has come up with an even simpler plan. “We have the Hungry Bear Membershare Club,” explains Gene Jonas. “Members can join at any time for $50, and for one year from that date, anything they buy is discounted 25 percent. I want to reward and retain those who shop frequently with us as well as bring new members on board.” 

One of his loyal customers, Liz Fletcher, says of the plan, “We really like it because then we can eat what we prefer and avoid stuff we don’t normally eat. Gene grows such a great variety that there’s no shortage of foods to choose from. I would tell a friend to join Hungry Bear, but I wouldn’t be so sure about CSAs where you have to take whatever the crop is that week.”

Work Song Farm runs a market-style CSA. “We dictate some pieces of their share and the members choose between others,” Dixon says. “We try to offer some pick-your-own crops for members who want to take part in a bit of farming themselves without having to commit to hours of work.”

Supporting local farmers

There is a certain amount of risk involved in joining a CSA—what if the corn gets eaten by raccoons, or all the tomatoes suffer from early blight and die? In this case, you share the loss just as you share in any bounty. If you are unwilling to take that gamble, there are multifarm CSAs you can choose to join, with the idea of lowering your risk exposure. Local Harvest CSA in Concord has eight farms providing the produce needed each week to fill the baskets for 250 families. If a crop loss occurs at one farm, the others can fill that gap.

CSA farms benefit not only the farmers and the members, but the community at large. Valuable farmland is kept open and productive, and food dollars enrich the local economy. Wayne Barton of Jaffrey used to grow a big garden of his own, but he says he joined a CSA as much to support the land use as for the vegetables. “I think CSA farming is great for the land, the community and the environment. The vegetables are just a bonus on top of that,” Barton says.

Supporting a local farmer is important to many CSA members. “I love knowing that we are supporting Tracie and her employees, who are responsibly and sustainably working their beautiful farm,” says Tracie’s Community Farm member Victoria McIlrath. “I love knowing that the farm is in my neighborhood, and it is a wonderful and active part of our community.”

Categories: Gardening & Landscape