Although it may seem like spring will take forever to get here, January is the best time of the year to sign up to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm near you.
“I like to get paid in the winter time when we have nothing to sell,” joked Todd Elliott, explaining one of his favorite benefits of operating a CSA at Hazelfield Farm near Wheatley in Owen County. This is the 12th year he has run a CSA after moving from south-central Kentucky.
Hazelfield’s CSA offer discounts for members who sign up early. Those who subscribe before Feb. 1 can save $74 off the full-share (full basket) price of $700 per growing season and $44 off the $440 regular price for a half share.
For those not familiar with the CSA concept, consumers purchase a share in a farm’s crop, which entitles them to a pick up a weekly basket of produce or other commodities grown or raised on that farm for an entire growing season, spring through fall. Members pay up front to ensure that they get their share of the farm’s bounty, but they also share the risk with the farmer that their basket may not be as full sometimes due to a poor crop.
A good example was last year’s growing season, with a wetter-than-expected spring followed by above-normal temperatures. “We had rain in spring, then an oven turned on after that,” said Travis Wickline of Many Hands Farm’s CSA in the eastern Kentucky town of Stanton.
One Kentucky CSA is unique in that it is not a farm but a retail store that operates as a cooperative of sorts, minimizing the risk to consumers by utilizing multiple farms.
Healing Harvests CSA is an outgrowth of a family’s health foods store in the western Kentucky city of Paducah. It purchases fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, poultry, lamb, eggs, baked goods and flowers from about 10 local farms.
“Our program is successful because we don't limit ourselves,” said Yolanda Heath, a nurse and owner of Heath Health Foods store. “People aren’t getting the same types of vegetables every week from a single farm growing specific crops, where if there’s a crop failure, you're not going to get that crop.
“We partner with multiple farmers, so we can offer different things. I wouldn't want to get the same thing every week over and over again, so there's some variety there.”
Healing Harvests CSA, entering its fifth season, boasts more than 100 member families, but not all of them get weekly baskets of food. For a $50 fee, members can get a basket or enjoy membership discounts while purchasing vegetables a la carte at the health foods store.
“We try to tailor our program to each customer,” Heath said. “Some CSAs are committed to a basket, but there are some empty-nesters out there who want fresh vegetables but not a basket every week.”
The cost of a conventional 21-week subscription of baskets from May to November is $450. Healing Harvests doesn’t offer half-baskets but offers members three other plans --14 weeks of baskets for $325, 10 weeks for $250 and seven weeks for $175.
Heath said her health foods store operates as a “hub for Kentucky Proud products,” selling Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese along with a variety of Kentucky Proud jams, jellies, and syrups.
“We try to educate people why it's important to buy local,” she said. “We’re not farmers; we’re a health foods store. Our desire in starting the CSA was to make sure people had access to healthier food. We’re just a different set-up, but it works.”
Hazelfield Farm’s CSA has more than 40 subscribers, all in the Cincinnati area. Known for its heirloom tomatoes, it also grows potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, blackberries, strawberries, squash, and garlic on 6-7 acres in Owen County. New offerings this year include corn meal, dried flour, and dried beans.
Elliott said he likes the CSA concept because “it’s a guaranteed sale” for him. “They pay me $700 [per share], which is an average of $35 a week at my [farmers’] market stand,” he said. “Very few people spend that much every week at my market stand. And if it rains and we have a terrible sales day, the CSA people still come and pick up their vegetables.”
Wickline likes the CSA concept because it lets him know how much produce to plant in the spring.
“One of the reasons I chose the CSA format is I felt it would be difficult to gauge how much stuff to grow when selling at a farmers’ market,” he said. “Every week, I give out about the same amount per basket.
“Of course, it [CSA] does have its cons. If you take your money early, you’re under the gun, and you have to produce.” Wickline credits his CSA’s page on Facebook for nearly tripling the number of subscriptions in his small operation last year to 19 in its third year of existence.
“Utilizing social networking has made a big difference,” he said. “I got three-quarters of my customers through social networking.”
Many Hands Farm, whose name is derived from the old adage “many hands make light work,” charges $450 per share. Wickline allows his subscribers to pay in three installments, but all of it is due before they can receive their first weekly basket.
Wickline also likes the way CSAs benefit their local economies by keeping local food dollars in the community.
For an alphabetical list of some Kentucky CSAs, including the three featured above, go to the CSA page on the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s website. Another list of Kentucky CSAs is available by going to www.localharvest.org/csa/ and using the searchable map on the right side of the page.