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.

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.

“No one really takes count of it, and it changes every year,” she says. “Every farmer doesn’t register; they advertise whenever they have time. One farmer may put an ad in four or five databases.”

‘We’re their vegetables’

If taking an accurate census of community-ag projects is problematic, finding one near you is easy, according to Chris Mayer, program manager of the Richard Alsina Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg , Pa.

There are 1,340 community-supported ag programs currently listed on the database of the Wilson College Robyn Van En Center, named for the woman who pioneered the community-supported agriculture movement in America back in the mid-1980s.

“We have seen about a 13 percent increase in CSAs over the past two years,” Mayer says.

You may be surprised at how local, your local ag program may be. Mayer says the Fulton Center frequently consults with cities large and small as well as corporate campuses, planned developments and even retirement communities interested in exploring community-assisted agriculture.

“We recently had a town in Massachusetts that had a vacant property in town and were wondering about doing a municipal CSA,” she says. “Corporate campuses have a lot of open space. We talked to one company that said they had a ready-made audience right there in their corporate headquarters.”

Wilson College has its own nonprofit community-ag program that operates from May through Thanksgiving Day each year. Some of its 100 subscribers are college faculty and staff, while a nearby retirement community provides ready volunteer farmers.

“I tend to talk about how you put the ‘community’ into ‘community-supported agriculture,'” Mayer says. “When you’re working elbow to elbow, you form great friendships. We do educational events and potluck suppers here on the farm and show a barn movie once a month in the summer.”

“We really try hard to keep this group together. They’re our bread and butter, and we’re their vegetables,” she says.

Blows against the monoculture

Aside from the obvious advantage of fresh over frequent-flier produce, author Michael Pollan, in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” points out that community-supported agriculture programs may be the old “new” solution to the monoculture mentality of agribusiness that increasingly puts our food and environment at risk by growing single crops in large amounts, bolstered by fertilizers and pesticides.

“There are good reasons to think a genuinely local agriculture will tend to be a more sustainable agriculture. For one thing, it is much less likely to rely on monoculture, the original sin from which almost every other problem in our food system flows,” Pollan writes.

“So when Iowans decide to eat locally rather than from the supermarket, their farmers will quickly learn to grow a few other things besides (corn). And when they do, they’ll probably find that they can give up most of their fertilizers and pesticides, since a diversified farm will produce much of its own fertility and its own pest control.”

Because community-ag programs can only serve so many subscribers each year due to labor costs and limited land size, most sell out early in the season and often have waiting lists.

Financially, such programs are unlikely to win over a die-hard supermarket coupon clipper.

“For too long, we’ve been conditioned to look for cheap food. We don’t really know the cost of our food, what with all the ag. subsidies,” says Mayer. “From that standpoint, we don’t ever promote our CSA as a good deal or a cheap solution. We have had members who have compared us with the grocery stores and it sort of depends on the season, but we don’t really advertise it that way.”

But as a source of fresher, healthier food that doesn’t deplete the planet, it’s hard to find a better model than community-assisted farms.

“The public is starting to get it,” Wilson College’s Mayer says. “Although it is nice to have those strawberries from Florida up here in Pennsylvania in February, does it really make sense to ship them all that way? It costs more to get them here than it actually does to produce them. That’s not sustainable, and they don’t taste nearly as good as the strawberries I pick here in June.”

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