STANDISH – For those willing to put their money where their mouths are, Community Supported Agriculture is a growing trend in the effort to eat local – and often at an affordable price, too.

In the Lakes Region, there are more CSA programs than ever, with new ones, such as the Pearson’s Town Farm at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, popping up each season.

Rather than attending a farmers market, which is the usual source for locally produced vegetables and fruits, shoppers involved with CSAs go straight to the source by buying their produce from local farmers. For those who want to know where their food comes from, CSAs are a boon and even allow the consumer to communicate directly with those growing the food.

While there are many varieties of CSAs available, most include some kind of upfront purchase of a share, similar to stocks, in which users share the risk and reward associated with farming. In a good harvesting season, for example, an initial investment may yield much produce, while in a drought year or a summer such as 2009, during which it seemed the sun barely shined, the return on investment may be small.

With the demise of the Lakes Region Farmers Market, CSAs are becoming even more prevalent in the area. For Pearson’s Town Farm, which was a regular anchor of the market held Saturday mornings in North Windham for the past five years, the CSA program offers a chance to earn money from customers without the expenses associated with preparing for, staffing and traveling to a traditional farmer’s market.

“A lot of farms have picked up on the CSA program because it definitely helps the farmers and gives the general public an opportunity to be a little more acquainted with where their food’s coming from, how it’s grown,” said farm manager Mike Russell. “In kind of a weird way, it allows you to know your food before you eat it.”

Karen Harter, former director of the Lakes Region market and a professional landscaper, sees a definite trend toward CSAs.

“CSAs are more convenient for the farmer in the sense they don’t have to spend four hours at a farmers market and you don’t have any produce that goes to waste,” the Baldwin resident said. “They can spend more of their time farming rather than at the market. I’ve even heard of some farmers pulling out of markets to focus on CSAs.”

At Saint Joseph’s College, the newly established CSA is offering 15 shares at $500 each to college community members and area residents. The program was created by the senior seminar class of business majors, who built the program “from the ground up,” Russell said. For $500, shareholders can get a box full of vegetables weekly for 20 weeks starting in May.

“We’re all senior business majors at St. Joe’s, and as our final senior project we were hired, if you will, to come up with a business plan for Pearson’s Town Farm,” said one of the students, Chelsea Laverrierre, a business marketing major.

The class split into four sections each focused on a different area of formulating policy and procedure for the new CSA. Seminar facilitator Beth Richardson, an associate business professor at the college, is pleased with what the students created.

“They researched what other farms were doing and researched pricing and the different models of CSAs. They took it right from scratch through to implementation. It was a great opportunity for them and it really worked out well,” Richardson said.

CSA varietals

John Harker, director of market development for the Maine Department of Agriculture, sees a trend toward CSAs, as well.

“With all the food safety scares, people are wanting to know where their food comes from. And with the health-conscious consumer, they want better, fresher food and quality food,” Harker said.

Harker explained the several types of CSAs: The most common form, similar to the program at Saint Joseph’s, is when the shopper pays money up front and the farmer provides a box of vegetables every week during a certain period of time.

Another variety is the option to buy an upfront share and then go to the farm weekly to pick out exactly the kinds of vegetables the consumer desires. Instead of taking whatever the farmer has grown that week, consumers get more of a choice.

Another CSA model allows users to put money into a debit account early in the season and then go to the farm whenever they want to buy produce and eventually recoup what they’ve deposited up front. But, Harker said, because the users paid in early, they get a discount.

Rippling Waters Organic Farm in Standish runs such a program, in which users pay up front and get a 10-percent discount. The users can pick exactly what kinds of produce they want and the rate at which they buy them.

“What we found over the years is that the traditional CSA shares don’t work for a lot of people because of specific food preferences. Or they go away for three or four weeks during the summer. So we have a debit line, basically, so they enjoy the same benefits traditional CSA benefit holders would,” said the farm’s executive director, Richard Rudolph.

Other CSA models, Harker said, include farms that act as a one-stop shopping destination with cooperative agreements with other farmers for items they don’t produce. And another trend is the online farmers market, where a farmer would list all offerings on a website and shoppers can preorder and then pick up their order at the farm.

Downsides

With every risk, as is the case with the stock market, comes some perils. The main risk with CSAs, Harker says, is the weather.

“If there is a crop loss, how do you deal with that? Or what if something happens and the farmer gets injured? Most of the time the farmer deals with that by telling the consumer up front what the risks are. And then figuring out how to mitigate those risks if they can and sometimes it’s through reimbursement or the families will absorb the loss,” Harker said.

So, if budgets are tight, CSAs might not be the best option, especially since local food grown by farmers, who must pay all the associated costs of running a small-scale farm cannot, compete price-wise with large producers who sell to supermarkets, Haker added.

“It’s not for everybody. It’s for those people who truly want to support local farms and understand what a CSA is all about,” Harker said.

But for the farmer, the shareholders’ upfront payment is a cushion and helps no matter the quality of the harvest, hence the title – community supported agriculture. With that in mind, Cindy Cassidy, owner of the Penny Farthing Farm on William Knight Road in Windham, is readying her several acres this year for a CSA to begin next season.

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Cassidy, who runs the farm with friends Susan Fortier and Linda Simonton, both of Windham and former longtime anchors of the Lakes Region Farmers Market. “CSAs are good because the consumer is the investor and it helps the farmer for the upfront costs for the year. They know they’ve sold their harvest, but the consumer is in the risk as well as the farmer.”

Like most things, there are no guarantees, and no one knows that better than Mike Russell at Pearson’s Town Farm.

“Ultimately, Mother Nature gets the say in how things go. If we have a banner year, the shares tend to be a little more full, the variety is a little more broad. If it’s a hard year, like 2009, that’ll impact what will grow, what won’t grow. But the last few years we’ve had really good runs so we’re optimistic this will work well,” he said.

Jessica Conway, left, a Saint Joseph’s College nursing major from Amesbury, Mass., and Nicole Gagnon, an elementary education major from Meredith, N.H., help plant some of the 50,000 seeds that will eventually be harvested for the college’s newly instituted Community Supported Agriculture program.

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