Fresh New Jersey produce won’t be available for another month or so, but farmers are getting ready for the season by planting early crops, buying equipment and supplies, and starting summer plants.
A growing number of Garden State farmers are also ringing up sales in advance of the harvest season. They’re selling “shares” of their future bounty through a Community Supported Agriculture arrangement, or CSA for short.
In a typical CSA, consumers pay up-front for a share - also known as a subscription or membership – prior to the growing season. This gives farmers much-needed revenue at a time when they have high expenses but little income. In exchange, shareholders get the promise of a weekly box of fresh-picked produce bursting with flavor and nutrition … and an opportunity to keep local agriculture going strong.
In the Garden State, there are dozens of CSAs, ranging from tiny farms with a few dozen shareholders to large farms with more than 1,000. Some have been around for decades, like Honey Brook Organic Farm in Chesterfield and Pennington, now in its 27th season. Others are brand new to the business.
CSAs offer many benefits. Members know they’re getting locally grown and freshly harvested crops. Farmers can tell customers exactly how their crops are grown and whether fertilizers or pesticides are used. They can also offer tips on how to prepare produce that may be new to shareholders.
Another benefit is that buying produce through a CSA costs less than purchasing the same quantity of produce at supermarkets - or even farm stands and farmers markets.
Like all retail businesses, CSAs compete for consumers and work to keep up with market trends. Here in New Jersey, they’re doing this by extending growing seasons, planting a greater variety of crops, offering more flexibility to customers, and throwing in extras.
CSAs started with the simple philosophy of farmers and customers sharing the risks and rewards of a weather-dependent business. In a good year, there would be plenty of produce to go around; in a bad year, shareholders might end up with a small harvest.
Jim Kinsel, owner of Honey Brook, said that in the early days of CSAs, shareholders would accept limited choices in order to keep local farms in business. Today, he said, they’re “asking more in terms of getting exactly what they want” – and farmers are responding.
When CSAs were new to New Jersey, the typical season might run from Memorial Day to late September. But over the years, farmers have been extending their seasons using greenhouses, low and high tunnels and row covers. Some CSAs now run from late April to Thanksgiving and beyond. In Salem County, the new Sorbello Farms CSA is aiming to go year-round.
In the old days, CSA subscribers were told when and where to pick up their boxes; if they missed a week, they probably couldn’t make it up. These days, many CSA farmers allow customers to choose their pickup days, switch days when needed and pause their pickups for vacations. Some will deliver boxes to homes, businesses, schools or other distribution points. A few even offer installment plans rather than requiring the entire payment up front.
CSAs can differ greatly in the number and variety of vegetables and fruits they offer – and whether or not the produce is organically grown - so potential customers should find out what they can expect in their weekly box. In the early CSA days, boxes were often filled identically. But now, some CSAs allow customers to choose their own produce so they never take home anything they don’t want. There may be some limits, though, on popular crops like strawberries.
It’s pretty common today for CSA farms to offer boxes in a variety of sizes, designed to appeal to every household size from a single person to a couple with a large family. Some CSA farms allow customers to start with a smaller box and “upgrade” if they find they want more.
In the spirit of the original CSA philosophy, most CSAs overfill their boxes during times of bounty … think mountains of tomatoes in August! Many CSA farms offer other extras like potted herbs at the start of the season, pick-your-own flowers throughout the summer, or jars of honey and jam produced on the farm. A few CSA packages even include bakery items and meats.
Now is the time when CSA farms start selling shares to the public for the upcoming season. If you love fresh New Jersey produce – and who doesn’t? – consider joining a CSA to support local farmers, save money and eat better!
To find CSA farms near you, check out the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s “Jersey Fresh” website at http://jerseyfresh.nj.gov/find/communitysupportedag.html and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey’s list at www.nofanj.org/findlocalfood_CSA.htm.
And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s open space, farmland and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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