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The benefits of community supported agriculture

The buzz around buying local is fairly widespread and luckily our community has many options for access to locally grown and produced food.  Local food can be purchased in many retail grocery stores and from May to October there are a number of Farmer’s Markets available.  How can we take the idea of supporting our local food system one step farther? The answer is Community Supported Agriculture.  You may have heard of Community Supported Agriculture also known as CSAs or CSA shares or a CSA box or maybe even food shares. But really…what is it? A CSA is a direct agreement between a grower or a group of growers and someone who enjoys eating and therefore purchasing local food (like you and me).

It works like this:

Ted is a local grower of a variety of produce. Karen wants to purchase local produce. Prior to harvest season, Ted offers to sell his produce via a CSA share in the amount of $350 delivered over the course of 20 weeks.  Ted’s produce will be picked a day or two prior to delivery.  Karen pays Ted the share price of $350 before Ted begins harvesting his earliest crops.  When June finally rolls around and Ted has harvested spinach, green garlic, kale, bok choy, radishes and lettuce, he delivers to a pre-determined location where Karen meets up with Ted and receives her fresh produce. This repeats through out the growing season.

So why are CSA programs so effective in supporting local agriculture? The answer is shared risk. When Karen purchased Ted’s CSA share before he started harvesting, she agreed to share the risk of crop failure along with the benefits of a strong local food system. In conventional farming, all risks are on the grower.

When we talk about a strong local food system as beneficial, what do we mean?  Economically, the direct link from grower to consumer allows our grocery dollars to remain local.  Considering the high percentage of our incomes used for the purchase of food, this is significant. Many of our local CSA programs are able to accept SNAP Benefits creating access to members of our community with lower incomes.

A strong local food system also is good for the environment. Area growers involved with CSA programs are typically certified organic or are involved with the Montana Sustainable Growers’ Union which means that there is emphasis on soil quality, conservation of water and the enrichment of habitat without use of chemicals.  Let’s use Ted as an example again, instead of chemical fertilizers, Ted builds his soil by composting, using cover crops and crop rotation.

There is also a food safety issue that isn’t always talked about as a benefit of a strong local food system.  E coli laced spinach has turned up again recently and the source is a large corporate organic farm. Montana was on the list of states where this deadly spinach was shipped.  Knowing your farmer by purchasing directly via a CSA allows for transparency of practices that is a difficult relationship to have with a corporate farm. Often, our local growers share their farming practices via a Web site or Facebook page and are accessible via email or phone.  Karen could call up Ted to ask him about his practices with soil amendments and share her concerns over the use of manure as fertilizer for spinach crops. Ted can put Karen’s mind at ease by explaining to her that he does not use raw manure for fertilizing his spinach crop and has found a very effective means of building soil safely, as described earlier, creating the wholesome Bloomsdale spinach included with her CSA.

Community building is another benefit of a strong local food system . It is common for growers to communicate directly with CSA members via email updates, newsletters and social networking where members can comment and share recipes.

What’s next for CSA programs to further strengthen the local food system? The next steps are twofold. The expansion of warehousing is needed to accommodate storage vegetable crops for winter distribution. Also important is coalition building with community organizations to identify areas where access to local food is challenging for reasons related to income and location. Collaboratively, we can strive to make CSA shares more economically and physically available so that everyone living in our Western Montana communities can enjoy the benefits of a strong local food system.

In Missoula, MT, I’m Terri Roberts for the Western Montana Growers Coop and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at”

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