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The Growing Popularity of Community Supported Agriculture

A growing number of farmers and consumers in the state have found a new way to mutually benefit one another.

Although the idea of community supported agriculture is not new, the method has, well, taken root in the U.S. as more and more people are concerned about the environment, food safety and are looking for ways to keep small local farms in business.

According to the Census of Agriculture, released in 2009 but using 2007 data, there were 12,500 farmers that reported they had some form of community supported agriculture programs on their farms.

Local Harvest, an Internet database, said the number of CSAs they list has grow from approximately 50 in 1990 to 2,200 today.

Richard Uncles, director of regulatory services for the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, said the state does not keep track of community supported agriculture programs in the state and there are no state regulations for them.

According to the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, there are currently more than 40 community supported agriculture programs in the state.

Moulton Farm in Meredith, a 65-acre produce farm, is one such farm that participates in community supported agriculture, through its farm share program.

“We sell farm shares from November through May,” John Moulton, owner and operator of the farm, said.

Then the customers, who have prepaid for their shares throughout the rest of year, pick up their shares — a predetermined portion of the crops harvested each week — during the harvest season, which runs from July through the end of September.

“Our farm share program is based on the community supported agriculture movement that is growing in the country,” Moulton said. “The idea of the CSA movement was started by small farmers who were looking to raise capital in the off season, so that they could survive and be able to plant their crops in the spring and get them under way.”

This summer and early fall represents the second year the farm has sold farm shares, and, judging from its growth in popularity, Moulton said he’s definitely going to continue the program for the next year.

“Sales have increase many, many times over,” Moulton said.

While most farms call a share an entire season’s worth of food, Moulton farm equates one share to a bushel of food (or a large basket or box of food).

Therefore one share is $25 and a half share is $15.

“The makeup of the share is determined by what is being harvested on the farm that week,” Moulton said.

For example, a recent week’s share or bushel of food included corn, lettuce, summer squash, beets, cucumbers, beans and field tomatoes.

He added that this week, melons crops, which were bountiful this year, are being harvested, so customers can look forward to that.

The downside to community supported agriculture or farm share programs is that if people prepay and then it’s a bad year for farming, they may not get a full return on their investment.

“Their share may not be fully supplied, or the variety of produce during certain weeks might be limited,” Moulton said. “This is where a medium-to-larger size farm, like we are, has an advantage. We have a few more choices and different types of crops. If one does poorly, another may be OK.”

He said there are no refunds for farm shares sold, which is standard for most CSA programs.

“That’s the risk the customer takes along with the farmer,” Moulton said. “They are sharing in the risk along with supporting and sharing in a piece of the farm.”

Moulton said some community supported agriculture programs not only sell shares for money, they offer customers a labor exchange, where, instead of paying money, they can help harvest the crops and they then get a portion of to take home.

He said because they want to guarantee customers get as much variety as possible each year, they limit the number of shares they sell.

He said most people are buying multiple shares or half shares of food, with the most popular packages being eight half shares for $100.

“Last year, we only sold full shares and people kept saying a full share was way more food than they could use,” Moulton said.

He said they decided to start their farm share program after regular customers to their farm stand market — which sells everything from produce to fresh baked goods to meats — asked why they weren’t doing it already.

“Both our local as well are our seasonal customers were asking about it,” Moulton said, adding that the first farm shares he sold was to a couple who live outside of Boston but have a summer home in the Lakes Region.

New Roots Farm in Newmarket, a certified organic farm owned by the Cántara family for the last nine years, is one of the first community supported agriculture programs in the Seacoast area if not the state.

Their program has 80 families or shareholders who prepay for a harvest season’s (June through October) worth of fruits and vegetables, Cántara said.

One full share, which typically feeds a family of four, is $500, and they have several payment and share options.

“People get a seasonal bounty,” Cántara said. “They get a variety of what’s in season that week.”

Shareholders can pick up their food once a week.

As and added bonus, shareholders can pick their own flowers from the Cántara garden to make up part of their share, if they choose.

“People think it’s a positive experience and we think it is, too,” Cántara said.

He said customers are not only helping to support local agriculture, but they are learning more about where food comes from and the true cost of production.

They also learn a lot about what may be grown locally and when.

“It helps people to learn how to eat seasonally,” Cántara said. “People learn to enjoy what they have more when it comes in because it’s a limited treat.”

He said they’ve kept the number of families who may participate around 80 because they don’t want to have to get too large.

“What’s important to us is that we don’t’ get so big that we sacrifice quality,” Cántara said.

In Concord, a group of certified organic farmers based in the Capital Region and throughout south central and western New Hampshire, have banded together to form a cooperative community supported agriculture program called Local Harvest CSA.

Elizabeth Obelenus, of Serenity Garden in Meredith, is a member of the cooperative.

She said the cooperative formed in 2002, when Dave Trumble, of Good Earth Farm in Weare, wanted to find a way to specialize in a few crops rather than produce all of the types of crops that farm shareholders might expect in a community supported agriculture program.

Trumble had been running a CSA for quite a few years when he decided that another way would be to get a group of farmers together who would combine their crops to make up customer’s shares.

“Everyone can share in the responsibility, but no one farm has to produce everything,” Obelenus said.

Obelenus said the program was popular right from the start. The first year they devised a target of 80 shares, but actually sold 120 shares.

“Then it kept increasing from there,” Obelenus said. “Now we sell approximately 330 shares, representing 500 people.”

A single share, which usually feeds two people for the season is $525, and a family share, which is usually four people, is $782.

Obelenus said that while the program was popular right from the start, the community supported agriculture movement seemed to really pick up steam about four years ago. She said she does the marketing for Local Harvest CSA and she said it was around that time that she didn’t have to explain to as many people what a CSA was.

“Suddenly people seemed to know,” Obelenus said. “Now, more and more farms are doing some sort of subscription sales programs, weather it’s a week in advance or a more traditional CSA.”

She said subscription plans are better than farmers markets because food is prepaid and farmers know exactly how much food to pick and package.

At a farmers market, they have to guess what to bring and what will sell. If it doesn’t sell, it becomes waste.

Obelenus agreed that the consumer takes a risk when pre-purchasing their farm food; however, she said with Local Harvest that risk is somewhat minimized.

With eight farms participating, someone usually always has something that can be used to fill a share when a certain crop fails or falls significantly short of expectations.

But this year has been a banner year for farmers.

“This has been the best growing year ever, so we have this tremendous abundance available now,” Obelenus said. “Customers are really excited about the all the food they are getting.”

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