Farms that participate in CSAs are coming into their own, riding a wave of interest in certified organic food, concerns about contamination in the food stream, and the idea that locally grown foods are healthier than foods picked too early and shipped for a week before they hit grocery stores.
The main idea with a CSA is that consumers join the farm in an economic partnership to bring the crop to harvest. Whether customers do that in a very direct way by working the farm, or by paying a few hundred dollars at the beginning of the season for their food, varies from farm to farm.
Local Harvest, a free website for farmers, lists 30 Colorado CSAs. This year, 37 CSA farms paid to be listed in the Colorado Farm Fresh directory, which is available free at local farmer's markets. There are probably more. Data collected in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the next census will be in 2012, with results reported in 2013), shows that 12,549 farms in the United States reported marketing product through a CSA program.
CSAs promise freshness; foodies like that. They promise community; religious groups like that. And they help small farmers get in and stay in the game. Jason Condon, owner/operator with his wife, Natalie, of the Lafayette-based Isabelle farms, said that they rely on their CSA program to make their farm work.
"Our CSA is one-third of our business and the most dependable," Condon said. He and his wife have owned and operated the farm for seven years and started it as a weekend hobby.
"They are the best customers we have because they take the time to understand the farm and what is going on here," he added. "These customers are betting on you and putting down money on that bet. It gives us stability, and farms always need that."
Isabelle Farm boasts approximately 200 CSA members. Two-thirds of their crop goes to restaurants, their farm stand and the Boulder Farmer's Market. Condon has deep roots in Boulder County farming. Condon's father owns Cottonwood Farm at Arapahoe Road and 75th Street, and Condon worked commodity farms in Boulder County when he was young.
According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, the CSA model began as a safe food movement in the 1960s in Switzerland and Japan, where consumers interested in knowing where their food came from and that it was uncontaminated, and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops, joined together in economic partnerships. CSA farm programs come in many forms. Often, crop farmers will create agreements with other farms or ranches to give more choice to their members by providing things they don't produce, such as fruit, meat, or dairy.
No tomatoes in March?
Wyatt Barnes, owner of Red Wagon Organic Farm (7694 N. 63rd St., Longmont), got into the business eight years ago. Armed with a business degree from the University of Colorado, he and his wife, Amy, acquired their farm from a lawyer who had hired Barnes to work on the farm. They learned by doing, hiring part-timers and golf club employees to do things such as pull weeds. Today, they successfully support 300 CSA customers and 15 Boulder restaurants. Their farm stand at 95th Street and Arapahoe Road in Lafayette is open Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.). You'll also find Red Wagon at the Boulder Farmer's market.
It's been an education for them but also for their customers. Barnes said that one of the interesting things about being a local farmer working directly with the customer is letting them know about what is in season in Colorado and when.
"People always expect tomatoes and melons sooner than they are available," he said. "And we don't sell sweet corn because it's hard to get worm free, and it requires a laser-leveled field for watering purposes and we don't have that kid of farm land."
What they do grow is always listed in their newsletter. In late July, Red Wagon's newsletter listed basil, beets, zucchini, green beans, leeks, onions, kale, cherry tomatoes, and garlic for CSA customers.
Red Wagon Farms also sells rainbow-colored beets and carrots, which have proved a popular enough crop to have been copied by other farms, Barnes said.
Who is picking your food? At Isabelle Farms, it's likely to be a man or woman with a bachelor's degree, Condon said. "Due to the economy, it's not hard to find workers," he said. "We have only two people on staff who don't have a bachelor's degree."
CSA's go beyond food
From chatty newsletters containing recipes to profiles on the men and women working the farm, information on families who have joined the CSA, events, and news about weather triumphs and disasters, CSAs offer customers detailed information about how their food got to their plate.
Sometimes, customers come in a block, as is the case with Tuv Ha' artz, Boulder's Jewish community CSA. Red Wagon partners with a group of about 80 members to provide and deliver produce to the Boulder Jewish Community Center and the Congregration Bonai Shalom. Additional fees are charged by Tuv Ha' artz to provide educational programming about agriculture and food preparation for the holidays particular to the Jewish community, said Lisa Bates, organizer.