Community Supported Agriculture, or co-op farms, are sprouting up across America – even here in Colorado Springs.
Colorado has 214 farms operating as community supported agriculture, and there are more than 2,000 nationwide.
“Less than 1 percent of people in this country are involved in growing their own food,” said Frank Stonaker, assistant professor of agriculture at Colorado State University. “The CSAs are a way to get people involved, so they know where their food comes from.”
It’s a simple plan: consumers pay a set price at the beginning of planting season for a box of produce the farm grows. The price can be discounted – some farms provide free food – if people are willing to put in a little sweat equity.
The amount of produce, and what’s available, varies from farm to farm. Some farms only sell vegetables; others sell fruit, eggs, flowers and organic meats.
Everybody wins, farmers say. Consumers get fresh, local organic produce at prices that are usually lower than the grocery store. And farmers know “exactly what to produce, exactly what price he’s going to get, and he gets the money up front to offset labor and seed costs,” Stonaker said.
The CSU farm sells about 50 to 75 shares a season – on 2 acres of land. The farm also raises enough produce to give 4,000 pounds a year to a local food bank.
Stonaker said there is a little risk in signing up for the CSA.
“You’re taking some of the farmers’ risk,” he said. “If they get hailed out or if it’s a bad year, then you get less produce for your money. In a really good year, you’ll get more.”
Grant Family Farms, the state’s first certified organic farm, has been offering CSA memberships for the past three seasons. The first season, it had 128 members. During 2008, the number grew to 1,700.
“We’re expecting to have more than 2,000 this year,” said Josh Palmer, who oversees the CSA for Grant Farms. “It’s grown so popular – and we have a model where we can just keep taking memberships, because we also have a commercial farm that sells to grocery stores.”
The cost of the memberships varies, and depends both on the size of the farm and what is included in the membership.
Colorado Springs also has a small CSA program at Venetucci Farm.
Unlike its larger colleagues, Venetucci limits CSA membership to 75. It sells out every year, and Susan Gordon said there already is a waiting list for the 2010 growing season.
“We’re careful because we don’t want to wear out the soil,” she said. “We always have to have some space dedicated to cover crops, letting the soil rest. So we can’t expand it too much.”
The farm allows five people to work weekly – doing chores like planting, weeding, harvesting and manning the produce stand. In exchange, their box of produce is free each week.
“We’ve had some mixed luck,” Gordon said. “And when we started offering it, other farmers told me there might be trouble with that. But people respond – they seem to like it.”
Farmers say that a CSA is more than just a “membership” at the farm – it’s actually an investment in the end product.
“CSAs are more than just buying produce,” Stonaker said. “It’s creating a community; it’s giving people a chance to experience fresh, organic food straight from the farm. In today’s world, it’s rare to have that. The growth shows that it’s a model that works.”