People looking for fresh fruit, vegetables and other farm products have an alternative to gardening, supermarkets and farmers’ markets with the CSA model of food distribution.

CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture, is a system that directly connects the producer to the consumer. The farmer sells a certain number of shares and in return, members get a weekly or bi-weekly share of the produce. CSAs often focus on producing high-quality foods for consumers in their general area. The idea behind the model is to provide a way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from the farmer.

The farm-to-table movement has increased the popularity of the CSA business model, with more consumers interested in buying fresh food from the farm and having a personal relationship with the farmer.

Khalil Hassan, a Madison County farmer and president of local non-profit Rural Madison, suggested the interest in local food may be just one of the many reasons for the growth of the CSA movement.

“I suspect people join a CSA for a variety of reasons, desire to know more about the source of their food, distrust of factory food in big box grocery stores and a desire to support local farmers,” said Hassan. “Some people want fresh food but don’t have time to tend a garden, whether at home or the community garden. Some older people may not be able to keep up with the physical demands of gardening or their soil is poor. Joining a CSA gives those people access to fresh food.

For consumers, the advantage of this system is access to high quality locally produced farm products at a reasonable price, often comparable to the produce at grocery stores, and generally less expensive than farm markets and farm stands. For farmers the model provides working capital and a guaranteed market for their crops, eliminating some of the risk in a high risk profession. The system is beneficial for both the farmer and consumer and barring a disastrous crop, the system allows greater access to fresh produce, especially specialty crops like berries, heirloom vegetables and fruit.

Larger operations have used the model to offset the cost of seed and fertilizer.

Kendall Rider of 5 Riders Farm in Madison said their CSA accounts for about 30 percent of the farm’s business, but helps with early season input costs and provides a way to introduce customers to different types of vegetables.

“The CSA helps us buy seed and fertilizer,” said Rider. “Our CSA members give us important feedback about the crops we grow, this melon tastes better than the other kind or we really liked the tomatoes last week. It helps us decide what crops to grow. It also introduces people to vegetables they might not try otherwise.”

Other local farms have experimented with the model. Liberty Mills Farm in Somerset had a CSA for several seasons as did Brightwood Farm although both were discontinued, citing lack of profitability. Hartland Institute has experimented with the CSA model too, finding it an effective way to market produce not utilized by the school or marketed through the Food Hub.

Both the United States Department of Agriculture and the Piedmont Environmental Council have a database of farms offering CSAs and other options for buying fresh, local food. To access the PEC Buy Fresh Buy Local guide visit www.pecva.org. The USDA site can be accessed at www.nal.usda.gov.

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