Thriving Community Farms Bear Benefits for California

A typical CSA box. Photo courtesy Ryan Galt.

Small organic farms cropping up all over California are helping residents get back to their roots — and also their leafy greens and vitamins.

The first two community-supported agriculture ventures began on the East Coast in 1986, and since then, the number of community-supported farms across the country has grown exponentially as word of mouth travels.

“They are definitely still on the rise in California,” said Professor Ryan Galt of the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California, Davis, who studies CSAs, as they are commonly called. A count he performed in 2009 showed 267 CSA farms, and another count this spring showed about 550 farms.

Community-supported agriculture is more than just a food source, though, supporters say. CSAs are an environmentally friendly way for people to have personal relationships with the farmers who fill their refrigerators, said Professor Richard Wallace of California State University, Stanislaus, who conducted a CSA member survey this spring with one of his classes.

The idea of getting fresh, seasonal, local organic food seems to be the main reason people join, he said.

CSAs offer subscribers fresh produce, often picked within 24 hours of distribution — and sometimes add-ons like organic rice, eggs or meat — on a regular schedule. People can sign up for shares in the form of bags or boxes of food according to their own CSA’s schedule, often weekly or biweekly. People can usually opt for full or half-shares depending on their needs and wants.

CSA shares, or subscriptions, range in price depending on where the CSA is and what is in the box. Produce CSAs average between $20 and $30 a week, without add-ons like meats, eggs, rice or honey. There are also meat-based CSAs or “meat clubs,” which offer frozen products and can range in price from $50 a week to $150 and up.

While many CSAs offer monthly subscriptions, many others ask shareholders to pay for a whole year up front. Researching the best option is critical for someone thinking about signing up for a CSA.

The way most CSAs are structured, members do not know what will be in their food boxes from week to week — something that excites many who like the challenges of dealing with new and sometimes exotic ingredients.

“Some people really like that their choices are made for them,” Galt said, “because they get overwhelmed by the options at a supermarket.”

But some who have tried it have left the CSAs for that same reason — they are unfamiliar with too many of the items in their boxes or find they are getting too much food and don’t want to waste it. Or they join thinking they want to eat healthier, but realize they don’t want to cook as much as getting all that fresh produce requires, Wallace said.

But those who stay year after year express a lot of satisfaction with the quality and variety of foods, Wallace’s survey showed.

The farms are also satisfying for the farmers, like David Silveira of Atwater, who owns Rancho Piccolo CSA. He feels he is giving back to the community and the world.

Silveira started Rancho Piccolo eight years ago, at first trying to sell his harvest at area farmers markets. When that didn‘t work, he switched to CSA farming, and over the past couple of years, his membership has grown quickly.

He grew up in a “traditional” farm family, gaining experience on produce and dairy farms before attending CalPoly to earn a degree in crop science.

While at a farming conference, he became a convert to organic growing.

“It’s a different way of looking at your place on the Earth and what your priorities should be,” he said of the farming methods he uses. Silveira does not use any synthetic chemicals for pest control, crop enhancement or fertilization, instead choosing natural insect repellents found in fungi and bacterial cultures that he said are highly effective.

But for him and many others, it’s more than just eschewing synthetics.

It’s a holistic approach to farming that requires a deep understanding of soil’s microbiology and a passion for protecting resources. By rotating and varying the crops, Silveira maximizes soil benefits, and because he allows harvested plants to remain in the soil until they begin to decompose, he’s actually improving soil health by adding back natural nutrients. Large commercial farms often do that with synthetics, he said.

Large commercial farms often grow a single crop, and use synthetic chemicals to enhance those crops for maximum yield. That’s why people can find items like strawberries in supermarkets in the winter, said Erin Barnett, director of Local Harvest, a Santa Cruz-based organization that offers a member-guided grassroots directory of CSA farms across the country.

“People in many parts of the country are so removed from local agriculture, they don’t know what’s seasonal anymore,” she said. “Sure, you can get tomatoes in January, but the truth is, they are terrible. Part of the fun of being a CSA member is eating seasonally – you’re getting everything at its peak.”

Galt said CSA farms bear huge environmental returns, including habitats for pollinator-insects and a variety of wildlife that has been pushed out of urban areas or by large commercial farms.

Organic farming and CSA farming is labor-intensive. David and Michelle Silveira’s 60-acre farm has 400 members, and they prepare about 300 food boxes each week. There are drop-off points around the San Joaquin Valley for Rancho Piccolo customers, and they will also home deliver for an added charge.

The Silveiras face the same challenges as any other small-business owners, having to learn how best to market their products and what customers want.

The Internet has proved effective for CSA farmers, Barnett said. She advocates that anyone considering joining a CSA do their homework and talk to people they know who are members before making a commitment.

Most CSAs have websites where people can sign up and pay — sometimes well ahead of time, like a gym membership.

The sites also let farmers get feedback from subscribers, so they can adapt to their customers’ desires. Some let people choose from among the week’s harvest. Most send out newsletters with recipes and information about the contents of the food boxes and helping people learn how to store and freeze their produce. The Silveiras hired a chef to help their customers learn how to cook such items as lacinato kale and romanesco cauliflower.

According to studies performed over the past several years by Galt and his colleagues, CSAs are typically not huge money-makers for the often first-generation farmers, earning an average of $25,000 a year in California. The farms, which average 20 acres each in California, do usually earn more per acre than traditional farms, though, because they produce diverse crops year-round and often offer higher-value produce.

Money usually isn’t the farmers’ motivation, Galt said.

“Many of them do it because they derive so many other benefits from it,” he said. “They can be their own bosses and spend time outdoors. They love to farm and they produce their own food in addition to producing it for others.”

Across the country, the majority of farm households also have off-farm income, Galt said, but only about 40 percent of CSA farms do.

They are also economic contributors in their communities, keeping farm workers employed year-round, instead of just seasonally the way large farms do, Galt said.

CSAs are underrepresented in the Central Valley, which is known nationally as a huge agricultural base. But most farms in the valley are large-scale, specialty operations that sell to wholesalers or export nationwide.

Galt will learn more about the current geography of CSA farms after launching a new study this summer.

Most CSAs in California are located in or around urban centers or other areas where people have ties to the 1960s counterculture, Galt said, like the San Francisco Bay Area and Grass Valley.

“Environmental ethics resonate with a lot of people,” he said.

That’s one of the main reasons for the Silveiras’ venture. They are raising their two sons to know as much as they do about organic farming and its benefits to the Earth.

“We believe this will prove to be the wisest course,” Silveira said. “I believe we are on the verge of a microbiological revolution.”

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