Getting Started with Community Supported Agriculture

Photo courtesy of 'boboroshi'
"Bull Run Farm Greenhouse"
courtesy of "boboroshi"

Making your own Victory Garden isn’t for everyone. It may be that you live in an apartment or you simply don’t have time to do your own gardening, or perhaps you are a serial killer of plants from the garden center. Regardless, this does not prohibit you from joining the local food revolution. A simple creation by small farmers has spread all over the country and you can now join CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, or farm shares, and get fresh produce every week from a local farmer delivered to you.

A Little History…

This started as a way for farmers to mitigate risk. Back in the pre-dust bowl days, farmers would borrow a large sum of money from the bank to procure their seed for the year with their harvest as collateral. This was before the fractional reserve system, so that cash was tied up in the farm from spring until harvest. Well, in 1930, the harvest didn’t do so well, and a lot of that money disappeared. Banks failed. Farms closed down.

What does this mean for you? Well, a CSA is a way for you to purchase a “share” in the season. It allows for the farmer to mitigate risk. It’s investing in your food, if you want to look at it that way. You pay in to a certain share size, say a two-person share, for $500. Let’s say the farmer sells 400 shares for the year. That is a cash influx at the beginning of the season of $200,000 that allows the farmer to buy seed, fertilizer, tools, potting soil, hoophouses, and other things. You are paid back your investment in product, in this case, vegetables, fruits and eggs. You eat the profits.

The Basics

Photo courtesy of 'boboroshi'
"Bull Run Farm"
courtesy of "boboroshi"

N.B.: I personally have been a member of Bull Run Farm in Haymarket since 2006. I’ve also been a cow-share member of Over The Grass Farm for the last 3 years, so many of the things I discuss in this article will be specific to my experiences or Tom and Tiffany’s experiences (who belong to Great Country Farms in Bluemont).

About this time of year (some farms start in January) you can sign up for a share. Each farm does this differently. Bull Run has three share sizes: A one person ($420), a two-person ($560) and a family of four ($1125). On top of that you can add eggs in half-dozen increments ($50) and fruit ($90). These prices are for the entire season. A season runs from late May/Early June until the Late October. In each week, you’ll get whatever vegetables and herbs are currently ripe from the farm. Quality and quantity will vary depending on a number of factors including weather, rainfall, and pests. You can see what last year’s vegetables at Bull Run were and get a good idea of what will be coming to harvet at given times of the year.

Getting Your Vegetables

Photo courtesy of 'A. Drauglis Furnituremaker'
"CSA Week five"
courtesy of "A. Drauglis Furnituremaker"

Depending on the farm, you will either pickup your vegetables or have them delivered to your door. Many farms have pickups in various locations both downtown and in the suburbs. When I lived at New Jersey & Q, NW I would pickup on Tuesdays at a corner east of Dupont Circle. It would look very much like the photo above. A row of bins, each with a different vegetable, and a board stating how many you could take. On some weeks, there are additional things available, such as honey from the beehives on the farm, or additional apples.

Pros…

Besides the obvious pro of getting fresh and organic fruits and vegetables every week, these are things that I believe are the positives about this system:

  1. You learn to cook with the seasons – Modernity has provided us with some great things, such as bananas in January, Asparagus in November, etc. But that’s now how local food works. You will get things in your share that you will have no idea what to do with in the kitchen, and that is part of the fun of it. If you don’t cook much already, this may be a bit much for you to handle.
  2. Cut down your footprint – Think about what methods of travel an out of season piece of fruit from Argentina or Chile takes to get to your local supermarket. Now think how much fossil fuel was used in that transportation. This helps cut that way down.
  3. Learn about the local region – You quickly find out what grows at what times, the issues that affect farming in this area, and meet some really nice people too. For me, I ended up with a huge amount of 12 different varieties of Virginia apples in the fall and lots (and I do mean lots) of Pok Choi in the spring. I’ve got a few garlic bulbs left to last me through March.
  4. It’s healthier – Local, pesticide/herbicide-free food is better for you and the environment. There’s various articles documenting how local honey can help alleviate allergies by building up slow resistances to local pollens. And it’s nice to get some fresh mountain air every once in a while.

Things to be aware of

  1. You can’t get vegetables out of season from a CSA – Want a tomato in June? Probably not going to happen unless your CSA does greenhouse growing as well. The same with Asparagus in October.
  2. Vegetables aren’t always pretty – Some people seem to get really bent out of shape over a vegetable that looks like it just came out of the ground. These are not going to be winning a Vegetable Beauty Pageant nor should they care to. They will be fresh and delicious and you will need to wash them.
  3. A bad year = less food from the farm – You are sharing risk with the farmer. If it doesn’t rain, some crops may not work at all. Last spring being so wet affected root crops. Other crops did great. It’s the risk you take.
  4. Change of habits - Most Americans plan a menu and then go out and purchase the food they need. With this system, you get your food supply once a week, and then plan what you can cook with it and make a run to the store for any ingredients you don’t have on hand. This can be daunting at first, but you learn to work with constraints as opposed to fighting the system.

Where’s The Beef (and the Milk)?

Photo courtesy of 'boboroshi'
"Cider making at bull run mountain farm"
courtesy of "boboroshi"

The farms have many events during the year that are outside the standard weekly flow. With Bull Run, they do a cider press and a gleaning (when share holders can walk the fields and pick up whatever is left). Great Country has various events all year (including a Potato dig and Pumpking tossing). You can even get your Christmas Tree from Great Country farms. They hand you a saw and point you to the field.

But what about protein? Unlike Polyface Farms (profiled in Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) most of the local farms don’t do meat on premises. However, with Bull Run, Tom, Tiffany and I just purchased half a cow from the Rudder farm in the Shenandoah, butchered to our specifications by Blue Ridge Meats, and picked up at Bull Run Farm. 250 pounds of fresh, local beef that will last us most of the year.

Other farms do various a la carte options (e.g. Over The Grass Farm) and offer cow-shares for raw milk.

Where Do I Find a Farm?

The best bet is to look at LocalHarvest.org and search for CSAs by your zip code. There are a lot of CSAs in the DC Metro area to choose from. Find one that works for you and happy eating!!

John has lived in DC since attending CUA’s Architecture school starting in 1995. He is a UI/UX/Design guru for LivingSocial and also plays in numerous bands (Juniper Lane, Rotoscope, Boboroshi & Kynz) and loves hyping people on eating local food, sustainable human settlement patterns, gardening, and good old fashioned rock and roll and electronica. He runs the dirt lab (aka mega garden) for WeLoveDC, where he eats most of the proceeds.

11 thoughts on “Getting Started with Community Supported Agriculture

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  2. Greg -

    It’s funny, we rarely get kale at Bull Run. So little, in fact, that I planted it in my own garden this year. I have heard that other people get a kale explosion for a few weeks in the spring and fall. For us it tends to be Pok Choi.

  3. John – Great article! I signed up for the Bull Run Farm CSA for the first time this year thanks to your suggestion. I’m really looking forward to the local, in-season produce!

  4. Not exactly a CSA, but Arganica (arganica.com) is a great way to get produce/meat/etc from a number of different local farms.

  5. I’ve been a member of Bull Run for years. It’s the best part of the warmer months – picking up dirt-covered veggies, taking them home and getting together with friends to figure out what to make, and feasting on delicious things we probably would have never eaten otherwise. My co-workers gaze over at my delicious leftovers in envy and amazement at the things we come up with. YUM.

    Leigh (the owner, pictured in the first photo) is fantastic – invites people to visit his lovely farm all the time, where you’re often greeted with eggs and seedlings to take home. And he’ll point you to amazing hiking trails in the area.

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