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Minnesota 2020 Journal: My CSA Journey

September 02, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Life is choice. Last winter, my family decided to jump back into a CSA investment but going it alone rather than splitting a box with our neighbors. Our choice opened new doors while foreclosing others. Stated a bit more baldly, we now eat a lot of fresh produce. We eat better.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s a small grower financing model that functions like a subscription. To offset farming’s tremendous up-front capital investment costs, the CSA farmer sells yield shares during the winter, accumulating the money to put the crop in the ground. In return, the investor receives weekly produce deliveries. Both parties share farming’s growth cycle risk.

The risk-sharing is a significant factor. As a farm boy, I learned that every growing year has its complications. Weather is the big one. Too little rain or too much at the right or wrong moment significantly impacts yield. Bugs, critters and varmints are problems, especially for produce growers. The same goes with temperature. Too much heat and sun can bake certain plants while an early frost radically affects the crop.

I contemplate these factors because I still think like a farmer’s son even as I live an urban life but I suspect that most CSA subscribers don’t know the deep ag details. My grower, Norm, on the other hand, confronts these risks daily. It’s in his face but then so are farming’s rewards.

Norm used to paint houses for a living. After ascending and descending many, many ladders, he began to think long and hard about a career change. He’d grown up on a farm and was interested in getting back to rural life. Six years ago, he and his family made the leap, moving to southeastern Minnesota to grow and sell produce.

Small growers are reestablishing the field-to-table link. Most Minnesota farmers raise corn, soybeans, cattle and hogs, selling them on the commodities market. That term—commodity—is important because it means a good sold without qualitative differentiation. One bushel of field corn is pretty much like any other bushel whether it’s grown in Minnesota or Mozambique.

Corn, in particular, has significant industrial application. Much of it becomes corn syrup, a commercial sweetener.

Norm, on the other hand, puts his vegetable crop on my table. End-product processing is up to me. I can slice his tomatoes, eating them with a little salt and fresh basil. Or, blanch, peel and deseed those same tomatoes, leading to a quick fresh red sauce with pasta. My challenge is eating my way through a weekly 3/4ths of a bushel of fresh produce.

I pay Norm a premium for my weekly produce box. I could purchase the same items for less money at a supermarket but I value our exchange’s less tangible factors. Locally-grown produce represents a tiny but important, conscious investment in Minnesota’s economic future. Norm’s farm spending is, itself, highly local as are his use of his profits.

Norm’s food arrives within a day or two or being harvested, driven from Houston County, Minnesota and not four weeks after green-harvesting in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Norm uses produce varieties bred for flavor rather than transport durability. I can, literally, taste the difference.

I also, in effect, pay for Norm’s regular customer communication. He has a website, a Facebook page, regular email streams and a weekly PDF-formatted newsletter, unnecessary and inconceivable elements to nearly all commodity crop growers. Regular communication builds our grower-purchaser relationship and facilitates Norm’s risk-sharing strategy. He lets me know how the crop is coming along as it’s coming along.

I’m eating fresh vegetables daily, a goal that drove our CSA investment decision. As a family, we’re eating better yet differently. As a practical matter, particularly at the height of produce season, choosing to dine out or order a pizza means choosing to risk wasting fresh produce. And, I dislike wasting food almost as much as I like eating well.

My CSA share works out to about 40 bucks a week. It’s a fair deal. It’s not the cheapest deal, as I’ve noted, but my naked economic self-interest must also accommodate other factors. We eat better. We’re eating food grown closer to home. We’re building a better, stronger Minnesota. But mostly, we’re eating better and, really, that’s what a CSA farmer delivers.

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