CSA: The Fruit of Our Labor

by Liz Neumark

As the owner of a small organic farm (Katchkie Farm), the CEO of a not-so-small catering/foodservice company (Great Performances) and a board member of Just Food, I sit at an interesting intersection of the food world. I’ve seen interest in local, sustainable food flourish, and over the past 16 years I’ve witnessed the role that Just Food and its unique take on the CSA model has played in fueling this interest.

CSA season 2011 began like most others, with the promise and expectation of bountiful harvests and bags overflowing with produce. Instead, our CSA relationships and those of other local farms were put to the test by atypically wet weather, too few stretches of long sunny hot weeks, and unpredictable and extreme weather.

In the spring, about 2 weeks after the first wave of seedlings were transplanted, we were hit by a freak and powerful hailstorm. The fragile plants were pummeled. While some recovered, many more were lost. We had to push back the start date of all our CSAs by about 2 weeks. Mother Nature had beat us up and we needed time to recover. Our members were supportive and understanding, despite the delay.

As the season progressed, onions thrived, tomatillos struggled and faded, field tomatoes were late and watery, cucumbers were brief but zucchini—as always—were triumphant. We planted corn (successfully) for the first time and our small strawberry patch was pleasing for a short and sweet burst. Our artichoke plants were too confused by the weather to yield results. Our flowers were brilliant. We had a good harvest overall—save what we lost to the freeloading deer that will find a new fence in place before 2011 comes to an end.

August was heartbreaking for the local farm community as tropical storms Irene and Lee left a trail of destruction. Though we were drenched, the damage at Katchkie Farm was light in comparison with farmers who lost entire fields of crops. Our CSA distribution has continued, though the mix of vegetables is not exactly what we had planned. The loss for some farmers has been devastating and the agricultural community, along with CSA supporters and locavores has rallied—and will continue to do so—to provide assistance. 

The 2011 growing season has been challenging for both farmers and for CSA members. For the first time in recent CSA history, several CSAs were abruptly ended. This is the essence of belonging to a CSA, where outcomes are shared: A bumper crop means a heavier bag and a devastating storm can mean the opposite.

Katchkie Farm is one of 29 local vegetable farms that--thanks to support from Just Food--has been able to connect and sustain relationships with over 30,000 New York City consumers. We have participated in CSA for the past 3 years and each year we’ve seen the steady growth of our membership. Though we have several other outlets for our produce, CSA sales now comprise a significant portion of our revenue. Even more helpful is the fact that CSA provides more reliable and timely income than either famers’ markets or wholesale, where prices can be volatile depending on demand and availability.

The CSA model is close to perfect on so many levels. It provides a solid economic foundation for the farmer. It has a built in incentive to provide an excellent ‘guest experience’ so that members re-join year after year. It encompasses the joy of putting great food in front of many appreciative buyers. CSA inspires farmers to provide great produce and explore new possibilities in connecting with consumers. We are encouraged to experiment with planting new crops. The ownership and trust the farmer and community group invests in each other is the foundation of this unique relationship.

Over the past 16 years, the CSA movement has succeeded in building the bonds between farmers and urban consumers. Just Food will continue to provide support to both farmers and consumers to deepen these connections and to expand opportunities for more farmers and consumers to participate in the CSA model.

It is our hope that these deep connections will galvanize New Yorkers to continue to support their farmers by joining CSAs in the 2012 season and beyond.