If the "Locally Grown" farm products guide that recently showed up in your local paper of choice feels a bit heftier than it did in the past, it’s not your imagination.
After all, there/s a lot more to fit into the pages of the guide, which includes exhaustive listings of Valley farms, farmers’ markets and businesses that support local agriculture. For starters: over the past five years, the number of Valley farms that sell shares of their harvest has tripled, from 19 in 2007 to 58 this growing season, according to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA, the South Deerfield non-profit that publishes the guide.
Those farms will sell a combined 10,000 shares this year, feeding an estimated 40,000 people, said Phil Korman, CISA’s executive director. “That’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” he said—but perhaps not surprising, as the Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, movement began in New England in the 1980s, with Amherst’s Brookfield Farm one of the first farms in the country to offer farm shares, in 1986.
The explosion of CSA farms in the region isn’t the only trend CISA is tracking; while the large majority of farms that sell shares focuses on produce, there’s been a rise in niche CSAs that sell specific products, such as dairy, eggs, even fiber. In addition, many farms that grow and sell produce expand their offerings by carrying products from other farms, making it easier for members to get a good chunk of their weekly grocery shopping done on farm-share pick-up day. And some farms have added multiple pick-up spots, to reach as many consumers as possible.
“In today’s world, a farmer has to become a really good business person,” says Korman. “You’re competing against global, industrial agriculture,” which can keep the cost to consumers low by exploiting the environment or third-world laborers.
Does the proliferation of CSA farms—and the corresponding explosion in the number of farmers’ markets, which has grown by 133 percent since 2007—create so much competition that it will hurt some farmers?
“This is what I see as CISA’s job, to be honest,” Korman said. “We encourage farmers to have more direct connections to the community, and then we encourage residents to buy from our local farmers.” That includes urging people to try out a farm share (even with the season about the start, some farms still have shares available, Korman noted) and to frequent farm stands and markets.
“I don’t see CSA farms and farmers’ markets in competition. I think everyone finds the best way to shop for local food for their family, and the more you buy local, the more you buy local,” he said.
“There is a little competition and I think that’s generally not a bad thing,” Korman added. “When one farm is advertising about CSA farm shares, everyone is thinking, ‘Oh, I can buy a farm share.’”
Find the sheer number of local CSA farms and markets overwhelming? Fear not; CISA’s farm-product guide lists farms and farmers’ markets by community (it also lists landscapers, restaurants and other businesses that are part of its “Local Hero” program, plus a calendar of farm festivals in the Valley). CISA also offers an excellent online version of the farm guide at www.farmfresh.org; type in a zip code and you’ll get a list of nearby farm stands and markets, farms, pick-your-own sites, and Local Hero businesses, as well as a list of that day’s farmers’ markets and a directory that lets you search for specific products.