Nearly every day in summer you can visit a farmers market in the area. But did you know that there is another option for getting fresh, local produce? By becoming a member of a CSA, or community supported agriculture, you can receive a weekly or biweekly box of seasonal produce that is often available for pickup at the nearby farm or distribution sites throughout the county. Purchasing a "share" in advance helps to cover some of the farm operating costs, so members are directly supporting the farmers who grow their food.
CSAs have gained popularity over the last decade, and one of the earliest adopters for this model in Dane County was Vermont Valley Community Farm, LLC. Barb and David Perkins started their family-owned farm on 5 tillable acres in Blue Mounds in 1994, and they now manage over 100 acres, with vegetables growing on 30 acres. They have been certified organic since 1999. Now in their 24th season as a CSA, they have increased their shares from 50 to over 1,000 and offer over 35 pickup sites in the Madison and surrounding area. "When we started our CSA in 1995, CSA was not a very common concept, it was not even close to a household word, and our farm grew very quickly because the market was wide open," Barb said.
She described CSAs as having three components: economic (you are keeping your money local in the community), social (you know the people growing your food and where the food is coming from), and environmental (you are supporting small farmers that are passionate about the land and want to treat the land and food really well).
"It's a concept that goes back to mothers/women/household managers in Japan who wanted to know where their food was coming from and wanted to feed their families healthy food. They approached farmers and said, 'Will you grow food for us?'" Barb said, adding that she had the opportunity to meet one of the first Japanese CSA farmers at a conference years ago.
Also working on the farm are their three grown children Eric, Becky, and Jesse Perkins, daughter-in-law Jonnah Perkins, and neighbor Casey Ryan. They also have seasonal employees who work from April to October, including a crew of Cambodian Americans who settled in Madison in the 1980s after the Vietnam War.
Jonnah, who is the systems administrator and creative manager for the farm, described the relationship between the consumers and farmers in CSAs. "The member is trusting us that we are going to be growing high-quality food, a nice variety of food, and then the relationship is that they are eating what we're harvesting," she said. "It's just a great, cyclical relationship of trust and providing what can grow here in Wisconsin."
Her husband, Jesse, has been working on the farm since it started and enjoys the direct connection the farmer has with the members of the community. "You know where your food is coming from, and we know where our food is going," he said.
CSA Share Choices
Vermont Valley CSA offers several different seasonal shares for its members to choose from. "We know that everybody doesn't like the same thing or want the same frequency, and everyone isn't equally as enamored with greens or root vegetables, so what we do is we break our season up into several parts," Barb said.
The first six weeks of the "spring season" has a lot of fresh greens in May and June. While that share is nearing completion, now is a great time to sign up for the summer season. Its "bounty season" lasts from July 19 to October 18, which includes 14 weekly ($480) or 7 biweekly ($290) deliveries. "That is just loaded with all the summer crops that people know and love, and mostly know what to do with," Barb said.
In each box is a piece of paper called "This Week's Harvest," which lists everything in that share, gives simple uses for the produce, and explains how to store them. Their website also has recipes that highlight those items, especially the least common vegetables. "We know that a happy CSA member is a member that knows what to do with their produce," Barb said. "So we really want to help people by giving them really simple suggestions on how to use their produce."
For the fall and winter seasons, Vermont Valley CSA also has November and December "storage share" options featuring primarily root vegetables, which can last some members through February. They harvest the vegetables before it gets too cold and frosty and store them in climate-controlled coolers until distribution those two months. "That way, people can be eating locally from our farm for a really large portion of the year," Barb said.
Each year they send surveys out to their members, and a common request was for them to grow and sell fruit. While Vermont Valley CSA decided to keep vegetables their focus, they started working with a trusted distributor in the Twin Cities to offer seasonal boxes of certified organic fruit. "We're very clear and transparent to our members" Barb said. "We don't grow the fruit, but we offer it to you because it's really high quality and you can pick it up with your CSA vegetable shares."
Members have the option to do a "worker share," in which they work on the farm for four and a half hours each week in exchange for their vegetable share. At the height of Vermont Valley's share distribution around 2010, the farm was up to 65 worker shares, which was a big source of labor for them. Now that number is closer to 20 because the share count is smaller and they have more hired employees. "Worker shares are the backbone of this farm, and we were up to 500 members before we hired our first employee," Barb said. "They really get to know the farm and have a close relationship with it, and they get their share in return. We have many worker shares who are here for 10-plus years."
You can also purchase a "food-to-share" ($100) to help fund a portion of a share for lower-income families. Some years Vermont Valley CSA has up to 50 subsidized members as part of its farm. "Most come from the FairShare CSA Coalition (Partner Shares Program), but we also do fundraising from our CSA members, and we raise thousands of dollars every year," Barb said.
And if you're unsure about being able to use a full weekly or biweekly share, some people choose to split them with another household.
"By belonging to a CSA, and maybe just wanting to supplement your farmers market habit or your gardening, you will get a lot of vegetables that you may not have tried before, and it may just be a way to have a lot of fun eating locally," Barb said.
Drawn to the Madison Area
Barb and David made a huge career switch to get to where they are today. They had been working in downtown Madison -- she as a director at a nonprofit child care organization, and he as a legislative fiscal analyst -- before joining a CSA and becoming "totally enamored by it."
David was no stranger to farming, having grown up on a farm and getting his undergraduate degree in agronomy. And even though Barb grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, she enjoyed working with people during her previous decade in nonprofit management. The couple also lived on a farm in Jefferson County in the early 1980s before they left for graduate school in Madison, and "just completely fell in love with the lifestyle," Barb said.
"Once we joined a CSA in 1993, the pieces just started falling together really quickly," Barb said. "We realized this is something we could do and hoped we could make a good living for our family. And we could do something that we felt was really important work. So, we did it. It was a huge leap of faith -- it was a big risk we were taking. We left our city jobs and bought our farm and the rest is history."
Barb and Dave looked in every direction from Madison for years, but the good soil and close proximity to Madison eventually led them to Blue Mounds. The landscape is incredibly beautiful, too.
With the rolling hills of the Driftless Area around them, on their hundred or so acres of land they have about 30 acres in production each year. "The rest of the land is used for rotations of cover crop, which build fertility and build organic matter so when we plant back into them three years later we have maintained a healthy soil structure and a healthy organic base," Barb said. They also grow food in unheated, covered greenhouses called hoop houses in which they can plant directly into the ground. That process allows them to start their season fairly early in spring, typically in March to start delivering by May, and after that everything comes from outside.
Since Vermont Valley Community Farm, LLC is just west of Madison, it markets within a close proximity to the farm. However, it also delivers in the Madison area, such as Blue Mounds, Black Earth, Middleton, Cross Plains, Mount Horeb, Verona, Fitchburg, and Monona.
From past experiences with the CSA they used to belong to, the Perkins family realized the importance of being able to involve and engage members. That's why all members are also invited to the farm for its festivals, including a corn boil in August, pesto fest and pumpkin pick in September, and four other dates to pick-your-own tomatoes, hot peppers, tomatillos, and basil.
"We don't charge anything for any of these events, and they're all only open to members," Barb said. "We feel that if we keep the membership within a reasonable distance of the farm, a lot of the members are going to be able to come out to the farm and participate in events and festivals."
Their shares peaked around 2010, and membership has been slowly decreasing for them and all CSAs across the country. Barb said that's likely because CSAs have increased over the last couple decades, there's a bounty of farmers markets, and there's a lot more availability of organic produce in regular grocery stores. There has also been a trend toward "box schemes," or organizations that buy produce from different farms and put it together in a box, take online orders, and deliver it to your door. "That's a very creative distribution method, but it's not a CSA," Barb said. "There's nothing wrong with that as long as they are being very transparent."
If everyone spent even 50 percent of their food dollar locally, it could change the food system in this country, Barb said. "In this world, where there's so much going on, people can feel so small and helpless and think, 'What can one person, one little me, do to make a difference?' And my response is always, 'You can make a huge difference,'" she said.
Jonnah said that her favorite part of working with a CSA farm is the connection she feels while producing the food our community is eating. "Here in Wisconsin, we can grow so much of our own food, and we don't need to be bringing it in from across the country," she said. "So it feels so immediate, and it feels so great to know that our community is eating the vegetables that we're growing and they're being harvested the week that we're delivering them."