The snow hasn’t all melted, but the spring season feels well underway for many community supported agriculture (CSA) farms. That’s because many farmers who are endorsed by the FairShare CSA Coalition have already sold out of their spring and summer shares of produce (either certified organic or in transition to organic certification).
In the CSA model, purchasing a "share" in advance of the growing seasons helps to cover some of the farm operating costs, so members are directly supporting the farmers who grow their food. Consumers also seem to be eyeing up fall and winter holiday shares already, too. So if you’ve been on the fence about joining a CSA for the first time or selecting a new farm this year, best to snap to it. FairShare, a Madison-based nonprofit that’s been connecting farmers and eaters through CSA for nearly 30 years, updates its online farm search tool as shares sell out so that you can narrow down the best fit for you that’s still available.
In mid-February, the organization held its annual Find Your Farm event for people to virtually meet their prospective farmers and learn more about the CSA experience. FairShare also coordinates the Organic Vegetable Production Conference and holds an annual fundraiser to give people the opportunity to actively tour and get a taste of farm life (previously called Bike the Barns and since the pandemic called Routes to Roots). In addition to providing other resources, such as an interactive grower education program and an e-commerce report to help farmers provide a better online shopping experience for their members, FairShare also has a Partner Shares Program by providing subsidized shares to eligible households who self-determine their level of need.
Executive Director Carrie Sedlak, who has a background in environmental education, urban planning, and public health, said that a career focused in food systems has always resonated with her. She enjoys supporting CSA farmers and being able to connect families with fresh food through her role at FairShare, which endorses approximately 40 farms from predominantly Wisconsin, as well as some that serve other states in the Midwest.
“We believe that CSA is the backbone of a strong, local economy,” she said. “Especially during the pandemic, it’s really resonating with people who want to make sure their bodies are as healthy as possible by consuming fresh produce.”
How the pandemic impacted CSA
Sedlak explained that the number of FairShare farms peaked at about 2015 and began to decline -- in part because some farmers were hit hard by climate change and the market was maturing with not as many new members. When the pandemic hit and shutdowns began last March, CSA farms saw a rise in interest from consumers (many of which preferred not to step foot inside grocery stores as often) at the same time when farmers market and restaurant deals were falling through.
“They pivoted and made it possible to offer more shares than originally intended and sell out, and that boom has sustained many farms,” Sedlak said. “There has been an overwhelming demand for local, sustainable, nutritious food that’s reliable, easy, and no-contact -- all of the tenets that make CSA shine. The model is brilliant, not just in pandemic times.”
In 2020, the total number of shares sold by FairShare-endorsed farms was 13,300, compared to 11,729 in 2019. Additionally, the number of households assisted through the Partner Shares Program in 2020 (a particularly difficult year for those facing food insecurity) was 308 (compared to 176 in 2019), with nearly 70% of those households located in Dane County. FairShare also partners with Crossroads Community Farm, which is working to feed 100 low-income families in the Meadowood Neighborhood this year. Another way to offset the cost of CSA is by signing up for worker shares, where you contribute time working on the farm in exchange for food.
FairShare typically held a fall fundraising event for the Partner Shares program that would draw about a thousand participants. That event, called Bike the Barns, featured multiple bike route stops for farm tours and activities, live music, and local food and drinks in one day. Due to COVID-19, FairShare was forced to shift gears and reimagine the event as Routes to Roots, a set of curated bike, run, walk, and driving tours at farms throughout the state. The safe, socially-distanced event takes place over the course of several months.
“The tours feature the farming landscape, food, and physical and virtual components throughout Dane County, the Driftless/Viroqua area, and potentially even Wausau this year. A podcast-on-the-go feature with audio commentary from farmers and community partners will activate when you enter certain geographic areas,” Sedlak said. Quizzes, scavenger hunts, and prizes are also part of the interactive experience. Registration is expected to open in early June for the June-September event, which people can participate on their own at the time of their choosing.
Things to consider when preparing for your first season
By becoming a member of a CSA, you can choose to 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 or via home-delivery. Some farms also offer large, small, market, or customizable shares, eggs, flowers, meat, coffee, and other add-on products.
“We recommend that if you’re not sure how CSA will fit into your cooking rhythm or if you’re worried about the quantity of the share, start with a small size every other week,” Sedlak said. “If you’re adventurous with new foods and like challenges in the kitchen, we recommend the traditional, farmers-choice share. And if you like to work just with what you know, we recommend trying a customizable share.”
Many farms also include recipes with your share, e-newsletters, and a few in-person events for members (such as strawberry picking, harvest parties, and tomato and pumpkin gleaning) that often include a tour of the farm. For example, Sprouting Acres Farm in Cambridge, of which I was a member last year, converted their live music and wood-fired pizza events to drive-thru pizza nights. FairShare, many of its member CSA farms, and Willy St Co-op also sell the “Asparagus to Zucchini Cookbook” to aid in the cooking process with farm-fresh, seasonal vegetables that may be new to consumers.
“There has also been a renewed sense of competency and joy in the kitchen with people not eating out as much,” Sedlak said.
Some members of our team are also members of local CSAs, including Ann Raschein.
"Steadfast Acres is a sweet farm in Lone Rock, WI that offers a weekly or bi-weekly share of seasonal vegetables and herbs at pick-up spots across Dane County. I love to get the newsletter right before I pick up my share. The newsletter includes stories of the farm, discusses seasonal eating, and provides delicious recipes. I am so grateful to have a variety of produce, support a local farm, and feel more connected to what I am eating!” Ann said.
Ways to support FairShare CSA Coalition
Whether you’re considering becoming a CSA member for the first time or you’re increasing the size and variety of your shares, there are several ways to further your involvement in this fresh food scene.