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CSA: How We Can Support Local Agriculture

On our local farms all may seem quiet and at rest in winter, but inside those farmhouses, folks are busy planning for the next season. You see, farming is a business like any other––and it's a risky business. Many farmers assume massive debts. A local farmer confided in me once that his farm goes into hock to the tune of almost $200,000 each spring! You have to really love what you are doing to put everything you have on the line just to stay in the business of farming one more year.

A CSA–which stands for community-supported agriculture–is a community of individuals who pledge to support a farm operation by purchasing "shares" or "subscriptions" to the coming year's harvest. Members help the farmer pay the up-front costs of seeds, equipment and labor, and in return, the farm provides a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season.

The Community Supported Agriculture concept has been gaining momentum since its introduction to the United States in the mid-1980s. It originated back in the 1960s in Japan, where women interested in safe food for their families, and farmers seeking stable markets for their crops, joined together in economic partnerships. This arrangement, called "Teikei" in Japanese, translates to "putting the farmers face on food." CSA agreements are fluid and take many forms, but all have at their center a shared commitment to building a more secure, local, and equitable agricultural system. The CSA arrangement is an important tool in the effort to prevent our smaller farms from being lost to suburban sprawl or swallowed up by large transnational corporations that have little interest in our local economy or ecology.

You're assured the highest quality produce, often at below retail prices. In return, farmers and growers are guaranteed a reliable market for a diverse selection of crops. Now, this doesn't totally eliminate the risks involved, but it helps to spread the risk around a bit. It also gives us a sense of greater rootedness in our own growing region, its weather, and seasons. Perhaps most importantly, it fosters in all of us a greater sense of personal responsibility for the health of our soils and of our waters.

Every farm pick-up or drop-off day brings an exciting new challenge: Here are your latest ingredients - now what are you going to create with them? The inevitable season's bumper crop (all these zucchinis!) presents the opportunity to brush up on those forgotten skills like canning, pickling, fermenting and freezing—time-tested ways of preserving nature's seasonal bounties for later consumption. What could be more satisfying in bleak February than to crack open the jar of tomatoes that you, yourself, "put up" last August and smell the luscious aroma of last summer's harvest? That's the way it was always done!

And there are other benefits for us, we're able to connect with our community and create relationships with farmers and other folks that are doing their part to support and preserve the bounty of the Chesapeake. CSAs also have a direct, positive environmental impact because the produce does not have to travel as far as it might for a conventional grocery store. In short, CSAs help us to eat well, protect the environment, and rebuild our local food economy, keeping food dollars in our community and supporting local jobs. What a great win-win all around!

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