Spring and then, yes, even summer are coming, or so e-mail communications from my community-supported agriculture (CSA for short) farm assure me, promising my first pick-up in early June.
This is also the time of year when many people decide whether to re-up their CSA membership, look for another one that they think might better meet their needs, or decide that they prefer to get their locally grown produce and other foods through other channels.
We’ve belonged to the same CSA for more than a dozen years, heading down the Intervale in Burlington’s Old North End once a week from June through early October to pick up (and also sometimes, pick) our share of the weekly harvest. In the early years, our two sons came with me, reveling in the sandbox and later the old tire swing before “helping mommy” by grabbing fistfuls of sun-warm cherry tomatoes or hunting for raspberries and eating more than ended up in the basket. Now they’re busy teenagers and I can only occasionally convince them to tag along, but they do still appreciate those cherry tomatoes and raspberries— and even the Brussels sprouts.
The Intervale Community Farm was founded in 1990, making it one of the oldest CSAs in Vermont. It is different from many in that a co-op board governs the farm but it is run by hired farm managers; in other ways it’s pretty traditional. Generally, a CSA signs up paying members before each season to share the farm’s bounty, along with some of the upfront investment and risk. (It also saves the farmers having to market and sell their produce during the height of the busy growing season, although many still attend farmers’ markets and do some retail sales.) Members go to the farm for pick-up and, while there is some choice, generally they are allotted a specific quantity from among a number of options each week.
When everything goes well, members reap the rewards of a bountiful harvest, almost always paying less than they would at regular retail prices for equivalent products. Occasionally things don’t go so well, like in 2011 which, in the case of the Intervale, was waterlogged through late spring and came to a hard stop at the end of August with Tropical Storm Irene flooding. But that is part of the pact you make when you agree to support a particular farmer and it is a fairly rare occurrence.
Over the last 20 years, the number and variety of CSA’s have grown exponentially in Vermont and around the country. There are many who deliver their shares to local workplaces and other centralized locations. There are a number that also include products from different farms and regional food producers. Some provide free choice of produce and others offer discounts for paying ahead that can be applied to purchase whatever customers want in a given week. (Some of these are not technically CSA’s but they are all community-supported agriculture in some form or another.) Many, including ICF, now go almost year-round offering storage crops as well as hardy winter greens and even peak summer produce frozen, dried or canned.
While I’ve dabbled in other forms of CSA during the winter, my summers would just not be the same without my weekly pilgrimage down to the verdant Intervale to catch up with friends (including the farmers) around the piles of broccoli and sweet corn. Even when my desk is piled high with work, I have learned to welcome the forced break of leaving my computer to crouch among the green beans and listen to children giggling as they run through the raspberry patch. It’s a chance each week to connect directly with the source of my food and with a community that truly values local food and farmers.
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If you’re looking for a CSA in Vermont, you can start with the lists at here and here. There is also a new service in development, available for Chittenden County only at this point, that allows you to search based on certain criteria for a CSA.