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Community Supported Agriculture

May/June 2009 California Country magazine

'Subscription farming' connects consumers to the land.


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If farming is anything like basketball, then kale and chard would be Yolo County farmer Thaddeus Barsotti's most improved players.

The hardy greens may not be everyone's favorite leafy vegetable initially, but if given the opportunity to try them and cook with them, people grow to love them—and not just because greens are good for them, Barsotti said.

He's hoping to turn more consumers on to his leafy greens, as well as all the many different freshly picked fruits and vegetables that his farm offers through its produce delivery service Farm Fresh to You, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

Sometimes called "subscription farming," Community Supported Agriculture allows consumers to get their produce straight from a farm in their community by paying for a "share" of the farm's harvest in advance.

"This arrangement gives the farmer the cash flow to finance his operation while the crop is still growing," said Shermain Hardesty, program director of the Small Farm Program at the University of California, Davis.

It also provides CSA members, or "shareholders," a way to reconnect to the land, their food and the people who grow it by sharing both the bounty and risks of farming, she added.

Melissa Cammarosano, who lives in Davis, Yolo County, with her husband, Carmine, and 3-year-old daughter, Sophia, has been a CSA member with Farm Fresh to You for more than a year.

A health-conscious person most of her life, Cammarosano says she is more so now than ever before because she has a family to feed. She was first introduced to CSAs years ago when she lived in Mendocino County, where she shared a box with coworkers at her office. After the birth of her daughter, she wanted to be part of a CSA again to start her family on a path of healthy eating and introduce her daughter "to all of the wonderful organic fruits and vegetables that are available seasonally and locally."

"I just really like the idea of supporting smaller farms," she said. "I think it's wonderful to have something that was picked by caring hands. It comes directly to you, not in a plastic bag from the grocery store, so there is a more personal relationship with the food."

There is always a rush of exhilaration and a sense of enchantment that feels like Christmas the day "the box" arrives at her doorstep.

"My child gets very excited," Cammarosano said. "I announce, 'The box is here!' And then my child repeats, 'The box is here!'"

Brimming with anticipation, the mother-and-daughter team hurries to the door to pick it up. Once they get the box inside, the excitement grows as Cammarosano places it on her kitchen counter and cracks open the lid to expose the contents. One by one, she pulls out each item and introduces them by name to her daughter, who looks on with curiosity.

"Oh, look at this wonderful dinosaur kale," she exclaimed. "We can make a blueberry juice with it."

Reaching into the box, she digs out an assortment of other fruits and vegetables: heirloom tomatoes, carrots, baby lettuces, collard greens, onions, red beets and strawberries.

"What I like most about the CSA is that when the box arrives, it's very exciting because I don't know what's in it," she said. "To try and make something, create a meal out of whatever comes in the box that everybody will like has challenged me as a cook."

Cammarosano says she likes that there are still hints of dirt on the vegetables when she gets them because that shows they came straight from the field. She also likes how the apples are not waxed and the carrots are bright orange with the leafy part still attached so she can show her daughter what a real carrot looks like when it comes out of the ground.

"What I find from the farm is produce that might not be perfect-looking or conforming to certain commercial standards but certainly absolutely beautiful in its own right," she said.

Receiving a variety of items that she wouldn't normally buy at the store has also expanded her horizon and culinary creativity, she said. Like many of Farm Fresh to You's customers, Cammarosano said she had never found collard greens particularly appealing until she started cooking with them. Now she thinks they're delicious. She's also doing more stir-fry these days and learning to add things like lacinato kale to soups and other dishes.

The CSA concept, though still fairly new to mainstream consumers in the United States, got its start in Switzerland and Japan in the 1960s and has been gaining in popularity since its introduction to the United States from Europe in the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"CSAs have really been growing," said UC Davis' Hardesty. "The farms that have CSAs have been increasing their number of subscribers, mainly because of people's interest in buying local produce and the fact that more CSAs are offering more diverse product selections."

Farm Fresh to You is an example of such a CSA. Located in Capay Valley, about 85 miles northeast of San Francisco, Farm Fresh to You currently delivers some 3,400 CSA boxes to more than 800 members in the greater Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area, including Santa Cruz and the North Bay and up to Santa Rosa.

The family-owned and -operated business was founded in 1992 by the late Kathleen Barsotti, who, along with her husband, Martin Barnes, also started an organic farming operation in 1976 called Capay Fruits and Vegetables. That business now supplies more than 80 percent of the produce for Farm Fresh to You.

Today, the 240-acre farm grows more than 40 different fruit and vegetable crops and is run by Barsotti's and Barnes' four sons, Ché and Noah Barnes and Thaddeus and Freeman Barsotti.

"What the CSA has done for our farm is, it's given us an outlet for our products, which is a very viable thing when you're in the type of agriculture that we are in," said Thaddeus Barsotti, whose wife, Moyra, has also joined the business.

Unlike the classic CSA, which does not source from other farms and asks members to prepay, often at the beginning of the season, and commit to the service for a certain length of time, Farm Fresh to You allows more flexibility, Barsotti said.

Not only can members customize their boxes by excluding certain items they don't like or adding other things they want more of, but they also can choose the frequency of their deliveries and can cancel or suspend the deliveries anytime. Boxes range from $21.50 to $140.

While the majority of the produce comes from its own farm, Farm Fresh to You does source some items from four other neighboring organic farms. During the winter months, when production is limited in the local region, Farm Fresh to You will also source from the Salinas Valley and elsewhere for certain items such as Washington apples and bananas from Mexico. Barsotti said this is so they can provide customers with a wider selection of produce during times of the year when certain items may not be available or in season locally.

"We make sure that when a consumer goes into the grocery store, they don't feel like they're missing out on anything by getting our box," he said. "One of our big philosophies is, customers shouldn't have to sacrifice selection to support their local economy."

Farm Fresh to You is also one of the few CSAs that delivers straight to the customer's door. Most CSAs have a drop location, like at a school or church, where members pick up their boxes. While direct delivery is more convenient for the customer, Hardesty said it also adds cost to the supplying farmer because they have to make the individual trips.

"And it takes a lot more time," she said.

But Barsotti said it's worth it and why Farm Fresh to You's service is so successful: "It's because we do give customers what they want."

Regardless of the changing structures of CSAs, Barsotti attributes the success of CSAs in general to the growing need of consumers who want fresh food produced close to home.

"It's really one of the only mechanisms that consistently connects the consumer to a specific farm, a specific piece of land," he said. "That connection has been lost in retail stores. With the CSA model, consumers are given an opportunity to develop a relationship with a particular farm. And that connection between the land and the people growing the product and the people ultimately using the product is in high demand."

CSAs catch on in California

Here are a few examples of the many other Community Supported Agriculture programs available. To find a CSA near you, go to www.localharvest.org.

  • Fairview Gardens, Goleta: The Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens produces about 100 different fruits and vegetables throughout the year, plus eggs, preserves and edible flowers. Visit www.fairviewgardens.org or call 805-967-7369.
  • Morning Song Farm, Rainbow: A weekly box from this family farm in San Diego County offers exotic surprises such as macadamia nuts, blood oranges and pomegranates. Visit www.morningsongfarm.com or call 949-310-4870.
  • Little Folks Produce & Meats, Grenada: This four-generation family farm offers a diverse selection ranging from dry beans and fresh flowers to chicken and rabbit. Visit www.midnightowllivestockranch.com or call 530-436-9974.
  • South Central Farmers' Cooperative, Bakersfield: Organic produce is the star of the year-round South Central Farmers' CSA. Visit www.scfcoop.southcentralfarmers.com or call 800-249-5240.
  • Eat Outside the Box, Walnut Creek: Members pack and weigh shares of greens, garlic, fruits, nuts and eggs from several local organic farms. Visit www.froghollow.com or www.knollorganics.com or e-mail gailwads@earthlink.net.
  • HHH Farms & Apiary, Hanford: This small family farm offers naturally grown duck, quail, chicken, turkey and turkey eggs, as well as organic heirloom vegetables, blueberries and bee-related products. Visit www.tripplehfarms.com or call 559-273-7642.
  • Freewheelin' Farm, Santa Cruz: Each week from May through October, this organic farm delivers an assortment of seasonal crops by bicycle. Visit www.freewheelinfarm.com or call 831-426-6515.
  • Morris Grassfed Beef, San Juan Bautista: Not a typical CSA, this ranch offers organic, dry-aged and USDA-inspected beef to its members in large quantities. Visit www.morrisgrassfed.com or call 831-623-2933.

Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@cfbf.com.


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