It's about dirt. That's what some people will tell you. "There's something therapeutic about sticking your hand in the freshly turned earth," says one member of Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture, the largest community supported agriculture collective in our area.
It's also about produce picked in the morning and on the table that night. In an era when commercial tomatoes have all the flavor of a bathroom sponge, the experience of biting into a truly fresh vegetable can be a revelation. You'll hear some people say that it's what food tasted like in the old days. Also, before corporate mega-farming transformed American diets, there was an amazing variety of locally grown foods. And frequently, a CSA will grow as many varieties as it can, both for taste and for protection against pests and disease.
Most CSAs allow members to help on the farm and to get organic produce. But the defining principal is shared risk. Members pledge money (and often their time) to guarantee that farmers will make a decent living at their work. And once a week members receive a bag of whatever the farm is producing.
"It's a way for people to really support local farms," says Liz Henderson, one of the farmers who work with GVOCSA. "CSAs are a form of direct marketing, in which nonfarmers agree to share in the risk and the benefits of farming. If the farm has a good year, then the members get more for their money. If it's a bad year, then they get less."
Yes, there is an element of risk for the members. However, the farmers who run CSAs are pretty good at what they do, and they're getting better. In the last few years, local CSAs have been quite successful in sending full bags of food home to their members on a regular basis.
Beside common vegetables, some CSAs provide exotic produce too. Alongside your peas and carrots, you might also find daikon, shallots, kohlrabi, dragon-tongue beans, leeks, and arugula. The Fresh Food Buying Club, which farms inside the city proper, has okra and collard greens. Most CSAs focus on vegetables, but some deal with fruit too. For instance, the Unitarian Universalist CSA in Canandaigua provides members with cherries, apples, raspberries, pears, and peaches.
There's also a significant community aspect to the CSA experience. Working alongside your neighbors, whether picking peas or picking rocks out of the field, washing the spinach or weeding the onions, is something many CSA members value. A group effort, working shoulder to shoulder with others to produce something that gives real pleasure, is a rare experience these days.
And then there's the simple fact that small farms are vanishing quickly from the American landscape. It's likely that in a few years, the only farms not owned by corporate behemoths will be CSAs. So these community supported farms also serve the function of keeping farmland usable, unpoisoned, and locally owned.
There is no typical CSA member. You'll find a wide spectrum of people involved: rural and inner city, suburban and small town, well to do and struggling, octogenarians and kids.
The one common theme however, is a great emphasis on the quality of what's for supper. Liz Henderson says that CSA members are often "people who really care about food. They like to cook, they like to talk about food, they trade recipes, and talk varieties."
And so, a weekly infusion of fresh toxin-free produce is extremely appealing. On any Thursday night or Sunday morning, you'll see dozens of people outside the Abundance Cooperative Market, lined up for their GVOCSA shares. The food distribution is like a small town social event. People trade gossip and small talk, get to know new members, discuss events on the farm, and catch each other up on their kids' activities.
Compare this to the parking lot of supermarket bigger than an airplane hangar. Lone shoppers trudge out with their carts full of Chinese apple juice, California lettuce, and industrial-grade cereals. At CSA distributions, it's more like a celebration. Another week of shared risk and, often, shared success. Members own the CSA, make the CSA happen, and benefit directly from the CSA's strength.
But it's the food that's the focus. And good food makes these people very happy.
All CSAs listed here are actively seeking new members:
Contact: Kathy Rice, 757-6823
Number of members: 250
$300 per share
23 weeks of delivery
Farm location: Elba
Delivery points: Saturday mornings in Henrietta, Pittsford, Rochester, Fairport, Penfield, Irondequoit
Work requirement: none
Contact: Faith Harding, 315-589-9236, firstname.lastname@example.org
Number of members: 40
$300 for a working share, $400 for nonworking share
20 to 22 weeks of delivery
Farm location: Marion
Delivery points: Irondequoit Farmer's Market (Thursday), Fairport farmer's market (Saturday), and at the farm in Marion
Work requirement: working share members must spend 15 hours on the farm
Fresh Produce Buying Club
Contact: Katie Lavin, 704-4508
Number of members: 16
$175 single membership, $300 family
22 weeks of delivery
Farm location: Rochester
Delivery points: The Vineyard (Thursday), Public Market (Saturday)
Work requirement: none
Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua
Contact: David Kavanagh, 394-0553
Number of members: 30
$17.50 per week
Deliveries June through October
Farm location: Phelps
Delivery point: Canandaigua
Work requirement: two shifts of four hours per share
Genesee Valley Organic CSA
Contact: Michele Liguori-Alampi, 241-9680
Number of members: 280
$16 per week for full share, $10 per week for partial share
26 weeks of delivery
Farm location: Arcadia
Delivery point: Abundance Cooperative Market in Rochester, and on farm
Work requirement: full share: 12 hours on farm and five hours at distribution; partial share: eight hours on farm; two and a half hours at distribution.