CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s an increasingly popular way for people to buy their vegetables and other items directly from a farmer, and for farmers to get their products into the hands of customers. Customers pay up front for a season’s worth of farm vegetables. Whenever Nora toyed with the thought of launching a CSA program from the farm, the idea terrified her. She could see the appeal for farmers who couldn’t get in to a farmers market, or were too far out for customers to come to, but Nora’s farm and farm stand are in a fantastic location, right on a main road. The thought of having to fill a share each week made her just too nervous. She was fearful that she wouldn’t have enough vegetables or enough of an assortment.
But she could also see how the CSA model could help at certain times of the year and with certain crops, and could also help with the cash flow issue at the beginning of the year when you need money for seed, planting and labor costs.
She decided to give it a try, and dove in. In 2013 she started her first season of 10 weeks with 13 members, and she admits that it was extremely hard work. Counting items, packing the boxes—it all took more time than she had expected. But she determined she would do it again the following year. Why? Because of the satisfaction she got from knowing something she grew and picked would be going home with a customer that same day.
If Nora picked lettuce, for example, to be sold at the farm stand store, she’d place it in the refrigerator and maybe it would sell by 1:00 that day and she’d regret that she hadn’t picked more, or maybe it would sell two days later. “But I don’t want to sell something two days old. I want somebody to buy it the day it’s been picked and take it home, so it’s fresh.” The CSA model assured that her vegetables went immediately from the field to the customer’s hands within a matter of hours.
Nora speaks with touching emotion as she talks about her customers and how grateful she is for them. She said they have all been so patient and loyal, and she loves the bond that they’ve created. The CSA has allowed her to see her customers each week and get to know them well.
And who are her customers, exactly? Mostly families and young people in their 20s like herself who are interested in the source of their food. She also has some older customers who come in to buy meat from the store and say, “This is what meat tasted like when I was little and I was on my grandparents’ farm.”
Last summer, her third year doing the CSA, she was up to 52 shares and a 12-week season. She had 16 full and 36 medium shares and estimates that she fed about 136 people. Her goal for the upcoming 2016 season is 60 shares (30 full shares and 30 medium), again for 12 weeks.
The perfect pepper
I asked her what it felt like to provide food for so many people, and she answered by telling me about the first ripe, red pepper of the season. She knows most people’s experience of buying peppers is at the grocery store, where perfect peppers await, all neatly lined up looking lovely. The experience of buying a pepper in the grocery is unremarkable. But growing a perfect pepper is hard; when Nora’s first peppers arrive on the vine, they’ll develop spots or begin to rot before they can ripen into a beautiful red, orange, or golden color. So when the first perfectly ripe pepper appears, she gets really excited. She takes it to the stand and takes, like, 100 pictures of it to post on Facebook.
Once when she was ringing up a young couple at the farm stand, she said, “Oh you got my perfect pepper!”
“We know, we’re so excited!” they said. “It’s so beautiful, we can’t eat it tonight.” “You are whom I dream about buying this pepper,” she told them. Nora is practically jumping up and down with excitement as she tells me of their appreciation for what it took to grow that pepper. “That’s what it’s all about,” she says.
She starts speaking even faster than she normally does as she tells me about another CSA member who loved, loved, loved the kale she got all summer from Nora. “I can’t get enough,” she said. “I’ve even gone to the store and bought the same variety you gave us. But it’s not as good.” Out of all the vegetables that Nora provided the CSA, she couldn’t believe that it was the kale that this one particular member was rhapsodizing about. “How amazing is that? But fresh, cut-that-morning kale has changed her life! It’s like my experience with the eggs. You can’t go back to the store now. You have to have the fresh.”
Happy where she is
What does Nora see for the future of her farm? She wants to hold steady at the size she is and maintain her high quality of product, but now she wants to focus on efficiency. She’s in an admirable place in terms of help on the farm. She’s very thankful for the wonderful people “who work really hard to make the farm great.” In the summer she hires additional part-time help, who she says she couldn’t do without.
She says, “I need to do what makes my customers happy, but also myself. I don’t need to grow for the sake of growth. I’m good where I’m at.” Perhaps because of her health issues, but also because she’s such a wise and levelheaded person, she’s very conscious of quality of life issues and mindful of the issue of burning out too early.
It was her illness that brought her back to the farm when her chosen career in horses became impossible, and I wondered if she felt bitter about it, or if she felt she had settled when she chose a life on the farm. She replied that although she wouldn’t wish rheumatoid arthritis on anyone, she’s so happy that she is where she is now. She said she can’t imagine moving anywhere else—it would feel so strange to live off the farm. She loves being a farmer and now wouldn’t want to do anything else. “The land is there and it needs to be alive.”
Through her work at the farm stand for so many years, Nora is in a great position to notice the buying habits of her customers. She’s aware of more people who have become interested in the source of their food, especially younger people, and she feels that maybe her generation, if it becomes a loud enough voice, might just be able to change the culture around food.
We can only hope, and be thankful for Nora and other farmers like her who work so hard to grow good, clean, nutrient dense food.
Coming up next week, we’ll meet a Virginia farmer who offers a different CSA model.