Long Island’s CSAs are growing to include more than just produce
Written By Felicia LaLomia
As the sun rises in the sky on the breezy late spring day, Jennifer Ross pulls the hose along the rows of dark green vegetables that line the back of the barn. She turns on the nozzle, releasing a shower of hydration for the plants. The water sprinkles in little droplets, coating every leaf, before sliding down the surface and landing in the soil.
Ross, co-owner of HeartBeet Farms in Centereach, is preparing her crops for the upcoming CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, season. The Swiss chard, kale and beets are all part of a share program where her customers pay the farm a lump sum upfront at the beginning of the season and in return, they receive a specified amount of produce on a weekly basis, depending on the farm.
“Purchasers receive an appropriate share of the produce as that produce is harvested,” August Ruckdeschel, East End Projects Coordinator for Suffolk County, said. “The farmer, in turn, receives advance working capital, gains financial security, and can earn better crop prices through these direct retail opportunities by cutting out or reducing middlemen and distribution fees.”
But at least nine farms, including Heart Beet, take a slightly non-traditional approach and offer something extra in the CSA such as add-ons or prepared products.
“Many of the people around here are working really long hours,” Ross said. “Although they love to cook, sometimes they just don’t have time. We have a chef who takes a vegetable from our farm that week creates a soup or a sauce. It’s part of our package and then people have an instant meal.”
Farms, like Garden of Eve in Riverhead, offer additional CSA shares for beer, eggs and flowers all produced on-site. Others have partnerships with different businesses to offer add-ons to their shares. Sang Lee Farms in Peconic has a dairy share partnership with dairy farms upstate and on the South Fork, and Sep’s Farm in East Marion, along with a beef share partnership with Acabonac Farms, also allows shareholders to come and select their produce from a punch card.
“People have found that they didn’t actually like what they were getting so sometimes they would throw out more produce than they would like to, it didn’t feel like a good environmental decision” Brenna Leveille, the CSA coordinator at Sep’s Farm, said. “You actually have a menu where you get to choose. I break it down by price budget so we have a lot of things that are like three dollars a bunch.”
The market has grown from just the traditional model of offering the farm’s produce in CSA shares to offering additions and partnerships with other farms, and weekly payments instead of one upfront payment.
“The CSA markets are getting more competitive,” Jennifer Ifft, an agricultural economist and assistant professor at Cornell University, said. “So, people are having to expand their offerings and provide more prepared foods. Adding in eggs, dairy products and meats is also an attraction.”
But some farmers, who have run CSA programs for decades, say this growth of the market can be confusing for the consumer. Scott Chaskey, the director of Quail Hill Farms on the Peconic Land Trust, said their Community Shared Agriculture program is the longest running in the country and he has seen how a large CSA market in California can hurt the farmer.
“We thought Liberal California — CSA would work well,” he said. “But there were so many CSAs that members were shopping around and were saying ‘well I can get a better price here.’ The more mainstream it becomes, the less advantage the farmers have.”
Because “CSA” is not a legal term, companies can use it as they wish, Maggie Wood, owner of Golden Earthworm in Riverhead, said.
“They use it where it should not be used but it’s important. It’s community supported agriculture. It means the community supports that farmer upfront, in full and that’s the true definition of CSA.”
Ultimately, it comes down to the shareholder ensuring they are buying directly from the farmer and not another business posing as such, Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, owner of Garden of Eve farms, said.
“There’s a lot of distributors and middlemen who are calling things CSA and they are not farming anything,” she said. “They are just buying from everybody, putting it in a box and calling it a CSA. So, when we offer those shares that we are producing, we are doing it partially as a service to our members who are supporting our farms by buying vegetables.”
The draw is the ability to pre-sell a product in a market that demands it, Todd Michael Schmit, Associate Professor at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, said.
“[A farmer] wants to match supply with demand and if there are opportunities to sort of forward contract those sales, there’s certainly a benefit to doing so,” he said. “It’s likely those types of consumers that prefer this method of a direct connection to the producer and are willing to upfront a season’s worth of goods, why wouldn’t a producer want to expand into that product offering and say if you wanna do this for fresh fruits and vegetables, why not into other types of commodities or products.”
And that’s exactly what a number of farms are doing. Balsam Farms in Amagansett takes their produce and makes it into a jarred good for the shareholder.
“[It] gives us the opportunity to utilize as much of our food as possible and decrease food waste,” Rachel Webb, farm stand manager at Balsam Farms in Amagansett, said. “It also provides our customers an opportunity to try new items, or to purchase a local version of something they already know and love — tomato Salsa for example.”
And Sang Lee Farms goes a step further by offering a Kitchen share, that includes two soups, a dressing, a dip, a pesto and a fermented item meant to complement the produce of the traditional CSA box.
“We became an organic certified kitchen and that became a bigger part of our business model,” Lucy Senesac, farm manager and CSA coordinator, said. “If that’s what we are, growing vegetables and we have a kitchen, why wouldn’t we do a CSA featuring both.”
At the end of the day, CSA is for a mutual benefit, from shareholder to farmer, Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve Farm said.
“We kind of call it a farmers market in a box so they can kind of get everything they would need and get it at the same time and still be supporting local farmers.”