smart spending

Community-supported farms gaining ground

Highlights
  • "We're their vegetables"
  • There are 1,340 community-supported ag programs.
  • Family farms are making a welcome comeback.

In these tough economic times, wouldn't it be great to own a family farm?

Well, now you can, sort of, if you join one of the growing number of community-supported agriculture programs, also know as CSAs, that continue to flourish in the shadows of the mega-supermarkets.

Most of us wrote off farm-fresh fruits and vegetables long ago and resigned ourselves instead to supermarket produce, much of which is days or even weeks old, well-traveled and arrives affixed with labels just like canned goods.

Cheaper? Sure, thanks to billions in federal agriculture subsidies.

Sustainable? Hardly. Just imagine the carbon footprint of that New Zealand apple in your shopping cart.

But family farms are making a welcome comeback under the community-agriculture business model, which delivers fresh organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, eggs, milk, meats and even preserves on a membership basis. Some programs even let you wield a hoe in exchange for your veggies.

Here's how it works: You purchase a subscription at the start of the growing season that is essentially a share in the community-supported farm near you. In exchange, you receive a box of fresh farm goods each week through the subscription period. Typically, your box is available at the farm or a central distribution site. You simply sign your initials on the honor system and drive home with your weekly treasures.

Subscription prices vary widely, but $25 to $35 for a weekly 10-pound box of fresh produce is not uncommon.

Your family eats healthier, your community-supported farm receives a sustainable income and a hedge against crop failures, and a few of those jet-setting apples remain where they belong -- in New Zealand.

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The number of community-agriculture projects nationwide has grown from approximately 50 in 1990 to upward of 2,200 today, according to LocalHarvest, an organization with a Web site with information on such agriculture programs, including a locator to find the farmers' markets and grocery co-ops closest to you. Many projects have their own Web sites and newsletters that list their upcoming crops, along with recipes and tips on how to cook, store and preserve them. 

Becky Thompson, librarian for the Alternative Farming Systems Information Center in Beltsville, Md., one of three sustainable agriculture programs supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the actual number of community-ag programs is only a best guess.

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