By Laurel Blomquist | Last week, Linda and I attended the 3rd Midwest CSA Conference, put on by Wisconsin Farmers Union in Baraboo, WI. It is a joke among farmers in the Midwest that winter is “Conference Season” since growing is very difficult, if not impossible, during these cold winter months. This was the first of several conferences that we are planning to attend this winter. It’s always good to meet with your fellow farmers and chat about your shared problems and opportunities, as well as just catch up with old friends and meet new ones.
This year’s conference theme was“Building Community, Building Resilience.” The focus of the 2-day gathering was getting to the heart of what CSA farming is all about. In case you have never heard of it, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The basic model is one of partnership between farm and member. The farm agrees to provide a share of whatever it is they grow, be it vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, flowers, eggs, and so on. The member families agree to buy that share for the entire growing season for a set price. Originally, members paid the farmer up front at the beginning of the season, so that the farmer could purchase seed and other necessary items at a time of year when they had no other income. Increasingly, members can pay the farmer in installments.
This arrangement benefits the farmer because it cuts out the middleman. Many people are unaware of how many pennies the farmer gets for every dollar spent at the grocery store. According to this article by the National Farmers Union, on average farmers receive 17.4 cents on the dollar for every dollar spent. What’s the Farmer’s Share? Paying the farmer directly means that more money is going directly back into the farm, in the form of farm improvements, expansion, or merely providing a living wage to the hard-working employees and farmers.
Selling CSA shares in the beginning of the year means that the farmer can spend more time farming, and less time marketing what they’ve got to sell. Built into the CSA model is also a culture of shared risk: the farmers do everything they can to grow product successfully, but if something happens that is out of their control, they don’t carry all of the burden themselves. Members agree to share both in the bounty and in the potential losses of the farm from year to year.
CSA benefits member families in multiple ways too. Members know their farmer, so they are aware of the methods that their farmer practices. Vegetable shares are usually quite diverse, so members don’t have to buy much during the growing season to supplement their meals: almost all their food can come from the farm. In addition, many farms offer benefits beyond a box of vegetables: valuable content such as a recipe database, or on-farm events.
The CSA Conference was about re-establishing the connection between farmer and consumer. Some CSAs have gotten so big that members don’t have a real connection to their farmer anymore. Here at Gwenyn Hill Farm, we are working hard to establish that connection from the beginning, by inviting members to come to the farm to pick up their shares and meet the farmers each and every week. We are also building in some valuable content for our members to cement that relationship even further.
I always return from conferences energized to continue doing the important work that is organic farming. After a long, tiring growing season, conferences are just what I need to be reinvigorated to start all over again. This year, I’m more excited than ever to start this amazing project that is Gwenyn Hill Farm. I’m looking forward to meeting my CSA members for the first time and forming a real community here in Waukesha. Will you be among them?