It might seem too early to be thinking about fresh local vegetables. The growing season around Lake Superior doesn’t generally start until May, but area farmers are already busy planning their crops and ordering seeds. The signup period has begun for most farms offering community supported agriculture subscriptions. The online CSA Signup Day is today, Feb. 24; Duluth’s CSA open house is March 19.
Farm shares offer a direct method for consumers to access fresh food from local growers. Members buy a seasonal “share” from the farm. During harvest time, which is generally mid-June to mid-December, members go to a designated spot each week to pick up a box of mixed seasonal produce.
Each CSA is different. The traditional offering is fresh vegetables, but some have fruit, egg and meat shares. Some even offer specialty items like cheeses or preserves. The Food Farm in Wrenshall offers a picky eaters share. For example, people partial to potatoes but not fond of beets can choose the number of pounds of each vegetable to receive.
Subscription prices vary but many CSAs feature half shares or every-other-week pick-ups. Some offer home delivery rather than pick up.
Friday, Feb. 24 is CSA Signup Day. Stefanie Jaeger, Lake Superior CSA’s manager, says the event was started a few years ago by Small Farm Central, a software company that works with farms as a way of generating buzz about CSAs around the country. It’s a national day with a goal of raising awareness and encouraging people to subscribe to these local deliveries of produce.
Lake Superior CSA serves about 300 customers per year. Rather than being made up of one individual farm, it’s a cooperative that pools the resources of more than 20 different producers in the Ashland and Bayfield areas. Jaeger says this means more variety. Customers can choose add-on shares for bread or fresh-cut flowers, for example.
“CSAs are great for the economy, they put money directly back into the community and help local farmers. They also offer great health benefits. With CSAs people also know where their food comes from. It’s not shipped in from somewhere else, it’s all local,” says Jaeger.
On March 19, the CSA Guild will host a local CSA open house at Clyde Iron Works. The family-friendly event gives people a chance to meet farmers from eight different local farms, learn about the CSA model and sign up for subscriptions. By talking to farmers, people can choose the subscription that fits them best, based on factors like cost, products and pick up location. Some farms encourage subscribers to volunteer labor as well. The idea is to build a bridge between local people and their farmers, a general goal of the CSA movement.
The CSA Guild is a collaborative group of small farms from northeastern Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. Karola Dalen is a guild member — she and her husband own Northern Harvest Farm. She says the Guild started as a way for small farmers to cooperatively market their products.
Dalen says one of the primary functions of the CSA model is to take some of the burden off small farmers by having consumers share the risk. “Farming on a small scale is a very risky business,” she says. “When a customer prepays with a CSA it allows a farmer to become financially sustainable.”
In bumper crop years it works to the consumer’s benefit, but severe flooding in 2012 had a definite negative effect on area farms. Dalen says Northern Harvest’s customers still got plenty of food that year; there just wasn’t as much variety because the first round of crops didn’t survive. She says the farm CSA lost customers that year, but the ones who stayed are “amazing” and “truly committed to the idea of shared risk.”
The guild open house has been successful in the past. After last year’s event, all the farmers sold out for the season. Dalen points out there’s room for CSAs to grow. “Everyone eats food but only a small fraction of people are getting food from CSAs.”
The CSA Guild’s website features a listing of local CSAs. It also has some general definitions and tips on how to choose a CSA for newbies.
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