CSA is a popular way for a small family farm to market produce and other farm-produced items. In this unique relationship, consumers become shareholders in a farm for a season. Such members share with the farmer both the rewards and risks of environmentally sound agriculture, receive a weekly share in the harvest, and have a farm to visit and participate on. One clear benefit for the farmer is an upfront payment and the knowledge of a guaranteed market for the farmer’s crops.
The Silver Creek Farm’s CSA began in 1993 with 45 shareholders. The number of shareholders steadily increased that first year to about 100, and has remained stable at that number ever since. Prior to 1993, sixty percent of the produce grown on 20 certified organic acres was marketed through various wholesale and restaurant accounts. The CSA concept was a way to focus on a more direct customer sales program and also allowed the farm to address its more long term educational goals.
After two CSA seasons (each with end of the year surveys), the farmer(s) and board of advisors was confronted with some problems. Some of the CSAers expressed an interest in becoming more involved in the day to day farm activities and better connected with their fellow members. We addressed this problem by developing a level of membership entitled “Working Core”. These shareholders (ca. 1.3 of the CSA) come to the farm weekly to assist with production, harvest and distribution. This proved to be an effective solution to our problem. It both solved the CSAer’s dilemma and also provided a cure for the chronic labor shortage. The CSA and the farmer(s) recognized that there was a need to foster a sense of community amongst themselves and from this need grew the idea of an on-farm canning project. Such a project would offer the following benefits:
– The gathering of like minded individuals
– The production of a useful end product
– The opportunity for beneficial discussion
The challenge of the Canning Project was to stimulate the CSAer’s interest to learn and appreciate these time honored basic skills. Grocery stores are filled with jars of tomatoes and cans of beans so why bother to undertake such a time consuming act of self sufficiency? From the surveys, there is information indicating that a high percentage of Silver Creek Farm CSAers have full time professional jobs, lack of free time, and joined the first year in order to obtain a local source of certified organic food. By the second year, the surveys showed that the main reason for joining the CSA had changed and the primary focus now was to support a local farm. Taking these issues into account, the canning project was a natural solution to providing members who have little free time an opportunity to participate in an activity that will not only result in an end product but also provide them with much needed contact with the farm community.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The CSA calendar for canning project was laid out in early March of 1996 for the upcoming season. The CSA letter of introduction informed new and old CSAers alike about the SARE funded project. Dates were set aside and everything was in place, except for the unforeseen wet spring and cold June. These conditions did not allow us to begin until mid-July.
In the summer of 1995, a 20×40 open sided shed was constructed with the purpose of it to be a “home” for the canning project. CSAers donated time and labor to the project. The necessary equipment was purchased which included propane burners, propane tanks, a sink, assorted cook pots, hand culinary tools, jars, lids, etc.
Four separate canning projects were planned between July and October in 1996. The first was herbal vinegar, the second dilly beans, the third was tomatoes, and the last was apple butter. The first three focused on using produce totally from the farm. The apples however were purchased from a neighboring farm that had been a CSA supplier. Another “preservation” project also occurred that summer of 1996, beer brewing. Although unplanned at the time of the grant writing, some CSAers were yearning to try their hand at it. The opportunity to socialize with fellow farm friends during the evening made it an excellent project resulting in three varieties of beer being produced.
The participants at the canning projects were CSAers of all ages. Nobody was discouraged from participating, as there were many jobs to be done. These sessions provided CSAers with the opportunity to develop a real community. Impromptu discussions between like minded members ranged from health concerns and child rearing to sharing previously held misconceptions about canning procedures.
The project was a success! This success was measured in a number of ways, such as the end of the year survey questions regarding specifically the canning projects, the percent of CSAers that rejoined the following season, and the number of Preserver Shares that were purchased at sign-up time. Out of 73 returned surveys (105 sent), eighty four percent said they also wanted a How-To-Do manual, and five percent reported they were interested in purchasing farm raised and canned produce, though not willing to commit time to it. There was a higher than usual return rate in the CSA in 1997, eighty-one percent. Fourteen preserves shares (one bushel of corn, tomatoes, basil and beans to each) was purchased along with CSA signup, and nine mire shares were sold later in the season (the canning shed was used in 1997 by CSAers with Preservers Shares). The new found sense of community encouraged CSAers to become active participants in their local food system, ultimately care for their farm, the farmers, and each other.